Out of Office: ‘The West Wing’ says goodbye

@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.”

‘Didn’t you used to be Grace Slick?’

@2007 Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers

On TV a few days ago, there was Grace Slick, on one of those insufferable I Love the ’80s shows, singing “We Built This City” in a 20–year–old video. This was the nadir of an illustrious career that began with Jefferson Airplane, one of the most groundbreaking of the 1960s rock bands. Slick was the world’s very first female rock ‘n’ roll star, and by the time of “We Built This City” — which has recently been voted the lamest song of all time by Rolling Stone magazine — she was in her late 40s, posing and pandering to a young audience.

I mentioned this to Slick, who was calling from her home in Los Angeles.

“The ’80s were stupid, we all dressed stupid, and the songs kept getting worse and worse,” she said with a throaty laugh. “But I had stopped drinking and was trying my best to be good.”

It wasn’t long after the debacle of “We Built This City” — which, of course, was a Number One record — that Slick quit the music business altogether.

Part of it, she admitted, was her well–known fondness for alcohol. Mostly, however, she was feeling her age, and she felt like a hypocrite singing “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” when she no longer felt them, or believed them, or thought the audience would rather hear stuff like “We Built This City.”

These days Slick, who’ll turn 68 Tuesday, concentrates on her artwork. She works in pastels, pen and ink and scratchboard, and concentrates mostly on iconic ’60s images — Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the like. She has also painted herself and the other founding members of the Airplane.

She is happy with who she is. One of her favorite phrases is “age–appropriate.”

“I don’t dye my hair, and I’m not busy doing Pilates and trying to look 35 years old,” she said. “Even though I live in L.A. and that’s what everybody else is doing. I don’t care.

“I’m an old lady, that’s the way I look, that’s what I am and I do what’s pretty much appropriate for my age.”


So are you officially retired?

Sure, call it whatever you want. I thought I was retired when I was 50. Apparently not! People say interesting stuff to me because I’m old and fat and have white hair — they say “Didn’t you used to be Grace Slick?” And they’re right. I used to be a persona that’s Grace Slick.

I don’t like old people on a rock stage. I think they look silly. You can do jazz till you’re 150, you can do opera, blues, country-western … rap and rock ‘n’ roll seem, to me, to be a young person’s medium. For them to scream and yell and get all that anger out.

When you’re in your teens and 20s, you discover that adults don’t know what they’re doing. And it pisses you up so you start yelling about it. Good thing to do! Instead of taking a gun to school and killing a bunch of people, write some angry songs and make them good, and get some money for them.

Others from your old band are still out there performing. I saw Paul Kantner and Marty Balin recently, and the show, honestly, was pretty terrible.

The thing is, I can hang it up. They can’t. Paul is notoriously terrible with money. The money’s in publishing — Paul always had more songs on the albums, so he should be the richest guy. And he’s not. Marty has to work to pay medical bills. Paul has to work because he fritters money away.

So they have to do it, because what else are they gonna do? They’re not trained for anything else. And unfortunately it’s not very good.

Some of ’em have to do it to pay the bills, and some of ’em just need that applause.

Now, the Rolling Stones are still pretty good. But you’re listening to somebody singing “I can’t get no satisfaction” who’s got lines all over his face, and the wattles under the chin are wagging back and forth. As soon as your chin doesn’t go with your face, when you turn it real fast, it’s time to get out of rock ‘n’ roll.

You feel like a jerk singing songs that have absolutely no relevance to either the time or your age. I hate to be appropriate at anything, but there’s a thing called age–appropriate.

You weren’t there when the Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Why?

I have a medical thing where I can’t move standing up for more than about 10 minutes. And they were going to play. It’s very rare — whenever my feet get about 64 degrees it feels like somebody poured boiling water on ’em. And they don’t know how to cure it, because there’s so few people with it that the drug companies wouldn’t make any money off the medication even if they could figure it out.

You don’t do rock ‘n’ roll standing in a box of ice. If you’re 67 or 68, get off the stage. That’s what happens when you get old — you’re basically falling apart. Getting on a rock ‘n’ roll stage is just not a cool thing to do, I don’t think.

Are you still drinking?

I haven’t had any alcohol for 10 or 11 years. Mainly because it’s not a good enough drug. I don’t have anything against drugs. Man has always taken drugs. So do animals, as a matter of fact. “Just Say No” just cracked me up. Like that’s gonna be happening.

Being an alcoholic, if I have the amount that I like, then the next morning is just too godawful. And I’m too old for that. The older you get, the less your body is able to recover from things.

However, if they were to start making Quaaludes again, I’d be buying ’em. Those are my favorite all–time drugs. I liked those better than alcohol, but they stopped making them about 30 years ago.

Here’s the thing: Now Valium is popular. Do you know how long it takes to get off Valium? Six months! The worst drugs to come down off of are Valium and Methadone. Not heroin!

I’m not saying don’t take drugs. I think drugs are fabulous, including some prescribed by doctors. But you’ve got to know going in, with either the street drugs or the doctors’ drugs, it might kill you. Same thing as being Evel Knievel — you jump over 15 barrels on a motorcycle, that might kill you.

All Valium does to me is make me stupid and tired. If I want to go to sleep, I’ll go to sleep. I don’t need to be stupid AND tired. I can be stupid all by myself.

Do you consider yourself a survivor?

Apparently I scraped by without knowing it. It’s not ’cause I’m smart or anything, it’s just that I missed that negative chemical reaction that happened with some other people. For whatever reason.

It’s not that I’m so marvelous, I just missed that boat that goes to Death. A bunch of times. We’re all just a bunch of meat and chemicals, if you get right down to it. The chemicals have all re–organized themselves for me. And I’m grateful, but I don’t know how that works.

Levels of hell: Chuck Sereika and 9/11

@2006 Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers

VERO BEACH, Fla. — It wasn’t bravery that compelled Chuck Sereika to walk into the smoldering ruin of the World Trade Center the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

It was fear.

His sister Joy had a left a message on his answering machine. Just checking on you, she’d said. I guess you’re down there helping out.

Sereika had already heard the commotion in the street, seen the disaster unfolding in downtown New York City – about 60 blocks from his midtown apartment – on TV.

“And I still had no intention of going down there,” he remembered. “I don’t think like that. I hadn’t worked as a paramedic in a few years.”

In fact, he’d let his license expire months before, while he’d been at a treatment facility out west. Drinking, drugs and depression had become Sereika’s support system; the black sheep of an already dysfunctional family, he was used to disappointing Joy. Lately, however, their relationship had been improving.

So her call that morning stirred him to action.

“Maybe it’s in my character to help people, because I’ve done it for so long,” Sereika said. “But it wasn’t even a thought. The only reason I ended up there was because I didn’t want to let my sister down. The rest was just God.”

Sereika, 37, moved to Vero two years ago, after discovering the Treasure Coast during a stint at a Delray Beach rehab center. With his new bride Tracy, he runs Clean As a Whistle, a house–cleaning service.

Like many of those who braved the hell of Ground Zero to rescue others, Sereika’s story is told in Oliver Stone’s movie World Trade Center.

Or at least one version of his story.

“It was a very long, very tiring rescue, and nothing like you see in the film,” said Sereika, who sat uneasily through a recent advance screening of the movie. “Paramount Pictures can make any kind of movie they want, but certain people know the truth. And the truth stands by itself.”

He thought the script, and actor Frank Whaley, made him look like an unprofessional “geek” who had a very small role in the rescue. They bungled many facts, he felt, and he’s considering a defamation of character lawsuit.

In the real world, meanwhile, the nightmares have finally ended. For years, Sereika jumped at loud sounds, at violence on television, at low-flying airplanes. He was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – like a soldier who’s come out of particularly violent combat – but it seems to have “worked itself out,” he said, through therapy.

But when he wants to, he can still close his eyes and go back to The Hole.

He’d thrown on one of his blue paramedic sweatshirts, walked to a nearby hospital and talked his way onto an emergency vehicle going to the site.

He arrived at 11 a.m., not long after the twin towers had collapsed like stacks of kindling. He figured he’d splint a few legs, apply an oxygen mask or two, feel good about himself and head back home to call Joy.

“It looked like a huge snowstorm in September,” he recalled. “Everything was just covered in this white ash. Everybody was standing around. I saw no civilians at all; it was a sea of uniforms. There was nobody to treat. There was nothing there.”

Sereika spent several hours carefully stepping through rubble with members of the New York police and fire departments.

At dusk, the site – pockmarked with fires and the jagged architecture of disaster – was deemed too dangerous, and rescuers were called back.

On his own, he began to climb the smoking rubble heap. “It’s just out of my character to have done what I did,” Sereika said. “I felt like we were on hallowed ground. I put it into my head that it was a woman and a child that were trapped.”

It was God, he believed, that put the trapped mother-and-child image in his mind.

“I actually figured that their lives were probably worth more than mine. I also figured that I wasn’t going to live through this. I thought ‘There’s no way I’m coming back.’

“Because I had to crawl, from the outside, on my hands and knees. There was big spaces in the rubble, and some went down what looked like 90 feet.”

He came upon Staff Sgt. Dave Karnes, a retired Marine who’d driven in from Connecticut to volunteer.

“So I see one marine in a uniform, standing there by this opening, all by himself. And I thought ‘I’m really going to die now.’

“He’s looking at me for help, going ‘Thank God! The rescue team is here!'”

But Sereika, balancing on a broken slab of what once been Building 7, was all alone.

Karnes pointed his flashlight down into what remained of an elevator shaft, where officer Will Jimeno lay, almost completely covered by chunks of concrete and splintered rebar. At first, all Sereika could see was Jimeno’s frantically waving hand.

Karnes helped Sereika shimmy himself into the crawlspace that would lead to the trapped officer. “I reached for my cell phone – at least, I thought, I can call my sister before I die,” Sereika said. “It fell out of my hand, down one of the holes. It was gone – and that was it.”

Karnes radioed for assistance.

In The Hole, the smoke choked Sereiko, and the heat was nearly unbearable. Still, he clawed his way down, until he found the body of Dominick Pezzulo, a cop who’d been crushed by falling debris. And then he saw Jimeno.

“I was right next to him,” Sereika said. “He was pinned from the neck down. I started digging him out on my own, because I didn’t think any help was coming. I wasn’t going to leave him. He was scared.”

The frantic young officer, who’d been buried for 10 hours, talked about his daughter, and his pregnant wife. He cried. “He was begging me to cut his legs off,” Sereiko said. “Like I could cut his legs off! He was trapped pretty good.”

Sereika pulled debris away for about 30 minutes, and once others arrived, he gave Jimeno oxygen and an intravenous drip. A pair of emergency medical technicians backed into the tight space to assist.

“I had to reach for every rock I took off Jimeno,” Sereiko said. “The smallest rock, I would hand to Scott Strauss, he would hand it to Paddy McGee. And he threw it in the elevator shaft. That went on for three hours.”

Once Jimeno was freed, loaded into a stretcher and ferried out by a bucket brigade of responders, Sereika – bruised, exhausted, his lungs scorched by the burning subterranean air – was helped out of the hole. He could barely stand.

“When I came out, there was a chief by the entrance. He goes ‘Good job, son,’ and he patted me on the back.

“And he gets on his radio and says ‘We need another paramedic.’ Which made me feel pretty good.”

He was, despite his screwups, self–doubts and family recriminations, a paramedic after all.

Jimeno – and Sgt. John McLoughlin, who was freed around dawn – were the last people pulled from Ground Zero alive.

Around 11 that night, Chuck Sereika walked the 20 blocks to his cousin Jennifer’s apartment in Greenwich Village. He was dazed and shivering, and had the cold sweats.

Eventually, he told his family about his part in Jimeno’s rescue. “And my sister said ‘Well, the TV said it was the fire department that rescued him.’ They didn’t believe me.

“So I let it go, because it’s pretty typical for my family not to believe a word I say.”

It was only after the New York Times wrote about his act of heroism that Sereika’s family understood, and praised him.

Days after 9/11, Sereika read about United 93, the hijacked plane that had crashed in a field on Sept. 11. A lightbulb went on in his mind – God had told him about the woman and child, and both Jimeno and Karnes had spoken of “seeing Jesus” amidst the chaos.

“The last thing heard on the cockpit recorder was ‘Allah is Great,'” he said. “So why would it be so strange that, whether it’s the same god or not, that He sent us to try to make right something that was wrong?

“The only thing left was two officers. Everything else was done. I don’t have any big questions about it; I believe it was divine intervention.”

– Bill DeYoung

Rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest photobomb

@2004 Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers

You want to talk about being in the right place at the right time?

Paul Cole, a retired salesman on Florida’s Treasure Coast, is in one of the most beloved, most reproduced and most iconic photographs of the past 35 years.

Get out your copy of Abbey Road, the final Beatles album, and still the best-selling record of their illustrious career. You’ll see the four Beatles walking single-file on the crosswalk in front of their recording studio, which just happened to be on Abbey Road in north London.

In the background, just behind John Lennon, is Paul Cole.

The picture was taken on the morning of Aug. 8, 1969. Photographer Iain McMillan brought the four Beatles outside, had them walk back and forth a few times, shot for 15 minutes and called it a day.

The picture everybody liked found the Beatles stepping symmetrically.

At that very moment, Cole – on vacation from Deerfield Beach – had opted out of entering a museum on Abbey Road with his wife.

“I told her ‘I’ve seen enough museums. You go on in, take your time and look around and so on, and I’ll just stay out here and see what’s going on outside,'” says the 93–year-old Cole, who was in his 50s at the time.

Parked just outside was a black police vehicle.

“I like to just start talking with people,” Cole says. “I walked out, and that cop was sitting there in that police car. I just started carrying on a conversation with him. I was asking him about all kinds of things, about the city of London and the traffic control, things like that. Passing the time of day.

“I don’t know why he was sitting there for so long; maybe he knew that was coming, I don’t know. But he showed no evidence of it at all.”

Cole and the police van are visible in several of McMillan’s available alternate shots, all taken from the same spot (atop a stepladder in the middle of the street).

“I just happened to look up, and I saw those guys walking across the street like a line of ducks,” he recalls. “A bunch of kooks, I called them, because they were rather radical-looking at that time. You didn’t walk around in London barefoot.”

About a year later, Cole first noticed the Abbey Road album on top of the family record player (with Paul McCartney sans shoes). He did a double-take when he eyeballed McMillan’s photo.

“I had a new sportcoat on, and I had just gotten new shell–rimmed glasses before I left,” he says. “I had to convince the kids that that was me for a while. I told them ‘Get the magnifying glass out, kids, and you’ll see it’s me.

“And they saw it, and they went ‘Oh, boy!’ We had a laugh about it.”




Peter Tork: Don’t step on my Shoe Suede Blues

Don’t hold your breath waiting for another Monkees reunion. Although the prefab four toured to great success in the ’80s and ’90s, Peter Tork says things are a bit dicier these days.

“I don’t think about doing it again much,” Tork offers by phone from his home in California. “If the occasion arose, I would have to look at the offer.”

Tork and his band Shoe Suede Blues will perform Sunday at the Stuart ArtsFest.

All four original Monkees — Tork, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones and even longtime holdout Michael Nesmith — played together on a 1997 tour of England.

“When Michael did do the shows with us, it was exciting,” says the 62-year-old Tork. “It was great to work on the road with those guys – particularly as time wore on, they got to be funnier and funnier, and easier to work with.”

Nesmith had previously refused to indulge in Monkees nostalgia – he’d always been the Monkee most offended by their “manufactured” past and the attendant rock-media scorn – and the other three had worked without him for years.

The British tour was a commercial and critical smash. However, when promoters started clamoring for a U.S. jaunt, Nesmith balked.

“I don’t know how he came to be this way,” Tork says, “but the poor boy basically can’t work with anybody else. He has learned over the years to allow other people into his orbit, which only means that he is now in control of a larger crew than he ever had before.

“He didn’t want to work with the Monkees anymore. The reason he didn’t come back to America with us was that when he joined the operation, he made sure it was his way or the highway. But even that wasn’t enough for him. I don’t think he had enough control.”

The Monkees’ legacy is a spotty one. Hired in 1966 to portray four “American Beatles” in an NBC sitcom, the four had never met before; their music was an afterthought and performed by studio musicians. For their early hits — the chart-topping “Last Train to Clarksville” and “I’m a Believer” among them — they didn’t play any music, just mimed to their pre-recorded vocals on the TV show.

Musicians both, Nesmith and Tork bristled at the heavy-handed “music supervision” of Don Kirshner, who chose the songs they’d record, and when it came out in the press that the Monkees weren’t a “real” band, they got mad.

When the records started to sell in the millions, and the power was theirs, they had Kirshner fired.

Hindsight reveals that many Monkees recordings rank with some of the greatest ’60s pop music. The Beach Boys, after all, used studio pros on “Pet Sounds,” and nobody came after Brian Wilson with an ax to grind.

From “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You” to the landmark albums Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd. (both recorded by the Monkees themselves, augmented by studio players) there are some great records in the canon.

“I would have liked to see (the music) produced a bit more heavily,” Tork says, “but part of the TV producers’ brief was ‘Don’t scare the parents.’ They tried to walk a very fine line, and I think they did a pretty good job of it. I’d like to have seen the whole thing go on a little longer, but them’s the breaks.”

Indeed, Tork was the first to break camp, in 1968, after the cancellation of the TV show and the Monkees’ disastrously received movie Head.

“You know the expression ‘received wisdom’?” he says. “The received wisdom on it (the band) was that it was a lower-value effort because it was structured and cast as characters in a TV show.

“It was highly structured as a project — and the received wisdom was that that was a lower value than what seemed to be spontaneous projects, which meant the Beatles. They were spontaneous; we were structured.

“I didn’t know then what I know now — that all great careers have a really nasty lull in the middle. I wish I had, then I might have stuck with it longer, and it might have come back.”

Tork, whose new band plays a lot of heavy blues, along with rock ‘n’ roll classics and a smattering of Monkees hits, has very definite thoughts on the Monkees’ catalogue.

“The best Monkees music ever generated was ‘Riu Chiu,’ an a capella song in medieval Spanish that we did on the Christmas episode,” he says. “It shows up on a couple of the Missing Links CDs.

“It’s an astounding piece of music. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just amazing. We sang it live to camera.

“I love ‘Goin’ Down,’ which we did spontaneously in the studio. I think ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’ is the best single we put out. And I thought ‘Words’ was a very, very good piece of pop music. And we did it justice.”

(For the record, Tork – who didn’t do a lot of lead singing in the group – plays piano on “Daydream Believer” and banjo on “You Told Me,” among many other great songs, and took the co-lead vocal on “Shades of Grey” and “Words.”)

A recurring role in the ’90s sitcom Boy Meets World (as Topanga’s hippie dad) almost led to a rekindling of his acting career, but Tork says he thought better of it.

“The truth is that I got off as an actor maybe once or twice in acting class,” he says. “I get off as a musician every time I’m up there.

“When the rewards are greater and the price is way lower . . . let’s see, a lot of trouble and a few rewards, or not as much trouble and a lot of rewards . . . let me think here . . . gosh. I can’t figure it out.”


Davy Jones, 58, owns a home in Indiantown where he trains thoroughbred horses. Jones won’t be able to join Peter Tork onstage this weekend: He’s in England, on tour. April 16-19, he’ll perform at the International Flower and Garden Fest at Epcot Center. See Davy Jones.net.

Micky Dolenz, 59, is appearing on Broadway as Zoser in the Elton John/Tim Rice musical “Aida.” See Micky Dolenz.com.

Michael Nesmith, 63, maintains a cult following for his quirky recordings and concert performances. A pioneer in music videos, he is credited with inventing the concept that led to MTV. See Video Ranch.com.


@2004 Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers