@2006 Scripps Newspapers

Talk about life imitating art imitating life. On Sunday’s episode of The West Wing, President Josiah Bartlet leaves office after two successful terms, turning over the keys to the Oval Office to the new guy, President–elect Matt Santos.

It’s also the end of the lease for The West Wing itself, winner of 34 Emmys, and one of the most critically lauded TV dramas of the past 25 years.

Cast and crew shot Sunday’s final scene March 30 on the West Wing set in Los Angeles. After seven seasons locked inside America’s most famous address, it was time to throw open the doors.

“We stayed up all night for the last shot, which was extraordinary,” says Allison Janney, four–time Emmy winner for her portrayal of press secretary C.J. Cregg (the character was promoted to Chief of Staff in 2005), in a phone interview. “Around midnight, the lobby of the West Wing area was just packed with tons of actors and people. We were all there as the president says goodbye to his staff for the last time. We stood there and clapped for half an hour.”

Veteran actor Martin Sheen, as Bartlet, had become a father figure to his castmates — much as the president had been to the White House staff. For Bradley Whitford, an Emmy winner as Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman, “It was tremendously disorienting and sad. It’s like leaving a cult — an unprecedented volume of intimacy and camaraderie.”

West Wing creator and writer Aaron Sorkin and producer Thomas Schlamme, who’d left the series after the fourth season, returned for the group hug and ensuing wrap party. “I think the show ended at the right time,” adds Whitford, interviewed separately.

“It was such a special experience for all of us who worked on it, and you don’t want to pull the taffy too thin on these things. You get into years eight and nine and you’re feeding the beast, and people could start to not care as much as they should.”

Pressure cooker

Sorkin’s rapid–fire dialogue sometimes made The West Wing seem more like a reality show than a scripted drama. Politically savvy and smart, the series leavened the stentorian scenarios with healthy doses of humor.

Once you got to know the characters, you understood that the humor was the way they blew off steam during their profoundly difficult days inside the pressure cooker of American government.

“Aaron never set out to feed everybody their civic vegetables,” Whitford says. “We didn’t do this so we could teach America what was right and what was wrong.”

Whitford, whose character left the White House to manage Santos’ presidential campaign in the sixth season, says that “Aaron assumes the audience is as smart and funny as he is. He’s trying to entertain himself.”

It was a tightrope, Janney says, that could be hard to walk. “Aaron writes in this incredible rhythm,” she explains. “Every word, every punctuation mark was put there for a reason. “So if we added an extra ‘uh,’ we had to go back and re–shoot because it wrecked the rhythm of it. That drove people crazy sometimes. But it was worth it when we got it.”

Moving forward

Janney and Whitford are immeasurably proud to have The West Wing on their resumes. “The greatest thing was that the passion for doing this show never dipped,” Whitford says. “For seven years, we got to do a show that was not humiliating and not about a semen–splattered corpse.”

Janney says she still feels as if the show is on hiatus. The idea of no more C.J. Cregg, she says, is “mind–boggling. I feel very spoiled, too, like ‘Is it ever going to be as good as this again?’ “What am I possibly going to do that’s going to fulfill me and satisfy me and challenge me as much as The West Wing did?”

Dear John

Life at The West Wing was rocked in December with the death of actor John Spencer, whose Leo McGarry had been a keystone since the very first episode (as Chief of Staff for six seasons, followed by his resignation to run for vice president alongside Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits).

“Everything was kind of put into perspective when we lost John, and that makes the end of a TV show feel pretty puny,” says Whitford.

Spencer, a longtime stage actor, also won an Emmy for The West Wing.

“The weight and gravitas that John had about being an actor was the same that he gave to Leo, and that’s what was so great about him,” Janney offers.

“He had an unbelievable respect for the craft of acting and how you go about it. “You wouldn’t find him on the gag reel much — he was very hard on himself, and worked so hard, and would know his lines better than anybody. He’d be so happy if he did a great take, and would always be so appreciative of other people’s acting.”

Spencer, Janney says, shared her disinterest in political matters; they were simply actors reading lines of written dialogue. “I felt like John got me, and I got him,” she laughs. “Brad and Richard (Schiff, as director of communications Toby Ziegler) are so incredibly bright and politically minded, and can talk for hours about politics.

“John and I would just look at each other … with our eyes going around in circles. And we’d talk about some actor we’d seen on Broadway that we loved.”