During The West Wing’s seventh and final season, which ran during the 2005-2006 TV season, tragedy struck the show when Emmy-winning actor John Spencer died of a heart attack. Ahead of the HBO Max reunion special to benefit When We All Vote, here’s what you need to know about what happened to Spencer’s character Leo McGarry on the show and who is playing him in the reunion.
Spencer’s Death Was Incorporated Into the Show
In an eerie coincidence, McGarry suffered a massive heart attack on the show in season six, but the writers had him recover from that and he went on to be chosen as Matt Santos’ (Jimmy Smits) running mate in his presidential bid to succeed President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) as the president of the United States.
When Spencer died in real life, however, the show was midway through the final season and the Santos/McGarry ticket looked poised to make a solid run at winning the presidency. So it wasn’t like the show could simply have McGarry retire or something. At the time of his death, Spencer had filmed two episodes that were already in post-production, “Running Mates” and “The Cold.” The show went ahead and aired those as planned, with Sheen making a special announcement ahead of “Running Mates” to talk about Spencer’s death and the loss that was felt among the cast and crew.
After those two episodes aired, McGarry was not seen on screen again. He was mentioned a few times until they got to the two-part election night episode, “Election Day Part I,” his assistant, Annabeth Schott (Kristin Chenoweth), found McGarry collapsed on his bathroom floor and he later died at the hospital of a heart attack. In part II of the episode, everyone is informed about his death and in the following episode, “Requiem,” everyone came together for McGarry’s funeral. In fact, several cast members who hadn’t been on the show in years, including Mary-Louise Parker, Emily Proctor, and Allison Smith, made cameos in the episode to honor Spencer.
After Spencers real funeral, Chenoweth performed the song “For Good” from Wicked.
Leo’s Death Changed the Course of the Final Season
In the final season, Santos was running for president against Republican Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) and originally, Vinick was going to win. But the writers decided that it would be too much to have Santos lose the race and McGarry.
Executive producer Lawrence O’Connell told the New York Times that the writers decided that would be too sad of an ending, so executive producer John Wells rewrote the final few episodes. In fact, it was so sad off-screen for the cast that they had a hard time continuing on at all.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune at the time of Spencer’s death, Wells said, “John was so central to how we did the show, he sort of was the glue who held it all together,” Wells said. “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. There were moments during the Christmas holiday when we thought about calling it a day, but we decided to finish it up.”
The West Wing reunion episode is out now on HBO Max. It is a theatrical staging of the season three episode “Hartsfield’s Landing.” The role of McGarry is played by Emmy-winning This Is Us star Sterling K. Brown.