The HBO Max West Wing reunion, which is a theatrical production of the season three episode “Hartsfield’s Landing” in an effort to raise money for the When We All Vote organization, is the first time in 17 years that the original cast is reunited with creator Aaron Sorkin and executive producer/director Thomas Schlamme. But you’ll notice that the role of Leo McGarry is played by Sterling K. Brown. Here’s why.
John Spencer Died During the Final Season of the Show
In December 2005, actor John Spencer, who won an Emmy in 2002 for playing Chief of Staff Leo McGarry on The West Wing, died of a heart attack at the age of 58. The show was not sure what to do, with executive producer John Wells telling the Chicago Tribune at the time that “John was so central to how we did the show, he sort of was the glue who held it all together.”
“It was very difficult to continue without him, but at the same time, I think he would have been angry with us if we hadn’t,” said Wells. “There were moments during the Christmas holiday when we thought about calling it a day, but we decided to finish it up.”
The show ended up having McGarry also die of a heart attack, which was not something that came out of nowhere. The character had previously suffered a massive heart attack on the show in season six.
McGarry was running for vice president at the time as Matt Santos’ (Jimmy Smits) running mate. They won the election, something that was not originally planned for the show. Originally, Republican Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) was going to win, but executive producer Lawrence O’Donnell told the New York Times that they felt that ending was just too sad — to lose both McGarry and the election.
So McGarry died on the night of the election and Santos later appointed Pennsylvania Governor Eric Baker (Ed O’Neill) to the vice presidency. In the episode “Requiem,” McGarry’s funeral was held at the National Cathedral, and several cast members who had not been on the show in years made appearances, including Allison Smith, who played McGarry’s daughter, Mallory.
Sterling K. Brown Took Over the Role for the Reunion and the Cast Says He Was a Great Comfort To Them
The cast recently sat down with The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to talk about the reunion and they spent a great deal of the interview reminiscing about Spencer.
“I adored him and I still miss him, frankly, and it was hard to get through this recent performance without him because his presence was so powerful,” said Sheen of the HBO Max reunion.
Creator Sorkin said they knew they had to get somebody that Spencer would have admired and so they tapped Sterling K. Brown.
“He did it beautifully. He rose to the challenge and was just brilliant,” said Allison Janney. “It was my first time working with him and I adore him. I think he was a great — I think John would’ve been proud of what Sterling did.”
Bradley Whitford, whose character Josh Lyman always had a lot of scenes with McGarry, said that he and Brown did a Zoom rehearsal for the episode and he couldn’t get through it without crying.
“I just… I couldn’t get through it. I started to cry because it was Leo and it was an actor who lived up to the stature of John, so it was great to work with Sterling,” said Whitford.