Prime Time Player: As a writer and producer of edgy new shows like 'Sports Night' and 'West Wing,' former playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is remaking formula TV.

Cover Story

August 22, 1999|By David Zurawik | By David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

LOS ANGELES -- Aaron Sorkin is sitting in a dark bungalow office on the back lot of Warner Bros. studios on a brilliant, white-hot, late-summer afternoon, smoking Merit cigarettes and worrying. He's worrying about how Rob Lowe should play a scene for the much-anticipated White House drama debuting next month on NBC, "The West Wing."

He's worrying about some of the harsher things he said about ABC president Jamie Tarses last year when his groundbreaking sitcom "Sports Night" was struggling to find an audience. And he's worrying about the scripts that are due in a few days for episodes of both series -- scripts he has yet to start writing.

But, most of all, he's worrying about his assistant getting the pizza run right. "Excuse me for just a second," he says as he almost finishes his thought on "the redemptive power of sports" in answer to a question about "Sports Night."

Jumping up from his chair, he crosses the office to his desk, picks up the phone and says: "Erin, will you please call Lauren back and tell her onions, too. Yes, onions on the pizza for me. Thanks."

"Sorry," he says, returning to the interview chair, "we usually do more important things behind the scenes around here than worry about what's on the pizza. So, where were we again?"

Where we are is backstage in the world of Aaron Sorkin. And where better to meet the 38-year-old writer-producer who came to television last year after a Broadway triumph and a couple of hit feature films and immediately helped reinvent the sitcom? Backstage is his beat. No one in the last decade has taken us behind the scenes of different cultures the way he has.

He took us backstage at a military trial in his 1989 Broadway play and 1991 film version of "A Few Good Men." His screenplay, the first Sorkin ever wrote, earned him an Oscar nomination and included the resonant exchange between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson that has become a catch phrase of the 1990s: "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth."

Then it was behind the scenes in a hospital operating room in the 1993 feature film "Malice," with Alec Baldwin and Nicole Kidman, followed in 1995 by backstage at the White House for the hit film "The American President," with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening.

Sorkin came to television last year as a creator-writer-producer with "Sports Night," a sitcom set in the backstage world of a live television sports show similar to ESPN's "SportsCenter." Last month, it won the Television Critics Association award for Outstanding Achievement in Comedy, beating out "Ally McBeal" and "Friends," among other nominees. It also earned three Emmy nominations, including one for writing by Sorkin.

And, if there is one new series worth seeing this fall, it is his latest creation, "The West Wing," which takes us to the inner realm of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. for an ensemble drama about the administration of President Josiah Bartlett (Martin Sheen) that looks and feels as smart as "The American President."

"I am really attracted to a behind-the-scenes quality in any kind of storytelling, whether it's behind the scenes of a live television show or the White House," Sorkin says. "There's an adrenalin, an energy, an edge in those worlds, and part of what you have to do as a writer is let the audience feel some of that juice."

In person, as in his work, there is no shortage of energy or edge with Sorkin. In sweat shirt, and rimless glasses, he looks like a young political science professor. He has a machine-gun style of speaking, with verbal pauses reminiscent of the late John F. Kennedy: "So, in the end, in one way, `Sports Night' is really about the, ah, ah, about the, ah, redemptive power of, ah, sports."

The energy level is important, because Sorkin himself wrote most of the scripts last season for "Sports Night." This year, he is expected to write most of the scripts for both "Sports Night" and "The West Wing" -- making comparisons inevitable to the only other such writer-producer in Hollywood: David E. Kelley, who writes virtually every episode of "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice," in addition to serving as executive producer on two other shows he created.

"Aaron Sorkin is a young David Kelley without the experience. He's that good, and he could be that prolific and important a voice," says Jeff Sagansky, the former president of CBS and Sony Pictures, who was one of the first network executives to try to hire both writers.

Sagansky says he wanted to bring some version of "A Few Good Men" to CBS, but it went to Broadway first in an unprecedented deal in which Sorkin sold the film and stage rights simultaneously. The military drama "JAG," which debuted in 1995, is what the network had to settle for instead.

"Aaron Sorkin is a rare and unusual writer -- especially for a sitcom," says Robert Guillaume, who stars in "Sports Night." "He doesn't write jokes. He writes life. He is as good as I have seen in my time, whether you are talking a Norman Lear or a David Kelley."

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