John Spencer of `The West Wing' dies at 58

The star and his character, Leo McGarry, were workaholics and recovering alcoholics who had heart attacks

December 17, 2005|By LYNN ELBER

LOS ANGELES -- John Spencer, who played a tough and dedicated politico on The West Wing who survived a serious illness to run for vice president, died of a heart attack yesterday. He was 58.

Mr. Spencer died at a Los Angeles hospital, said his publicist, Ron Hofmann. He would have been 59 next week.

Mr. Spencer played Leo McGarry, the savvy and powerful chief of staff to President Jeb Bartlet (Martin Sheen), on the NBC series. In a sad parallel to life, Mr. Spencer's character suffered a heart attack that forced him to give up his White House job.

McGarry recovered and was picked as a running mate for Democratic presidential contender Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits; the campaign against Republican Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) has been a central theme for the drama this season.

"We're shocked and deeply saddened by the sudden death of our friend and colleague," Aaron Sorkin, who created the series, and Tommy Schlamme, one of the original executive producers, said in a joint statement.

"John was an uncommonly good man, an exceptional role model and a brilliant actor. We feel privileged to have known him and worked with him. He'll be missed and remembered every day by his many, many friends," they said.

Series executive producer John Wells remembered Mr. Spencer not only for his acting but as "a generous and gracious friend."

NBC and producer Warner Bros. Television issued a statement mourning Mr. Spencer's death and calling him a "remarkable man with enormous talent." The companies did not address how his loss would affect the Emmy Award-winning series, in production on its seventh season.

Mr. Spencer, who also starred on NBC's L.A. Law as attorney Tommy Mullaney, received a supporting actor Emmy Award for his performance on The West Wing in 2002, and was nominated four other times for the series.

The actor, whose world-weary countenance was perfect for the role of McGarry, mirrored his character in several ways: Both were recovering alcoholics and both, Mr. Spencer once said, were driven.

"Like Leo, I've always been a workaholic, too," he said in a 2000 interview. "Through good times and bad, acting has been my escape, my joy, my nourishment. The drug for me, even better than alcohol, was acting."

Spencer grew up in Paterson, N.J., the son of blue-collar parents. With his enrollment at the Professional Children's School in Manhattan at age 16, he was sharing classes with the likes of Liza Minnelli and budding violinist Pinchas Zukerman.

As a teenager, he landed a recurring role on The Patty Duke Show as the boyfriend of English twin Cathy. Stage and film work followed. Then his big break: playing Harrison Ford's detective sidekick in the 1990 courtroom thriller Presumed Innocent. That led to his role in the final four years of L.A. Law.

Mr. Spencer played a streetwise lawyer on the David E. Kelley drama that was in sharp contrast to the show's otherwise glamorous cast and setting.

After attending the Manhattan performing arts school, Mr. Spencer studied at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He then began working on stage in New York and in regional theaters, in plays including David Mamet's Lakeboat and Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie.

Mr. Spencer won an Obie Award for the 1981 off-Broadway production of Still Life, about a Vietnam veteran, and received a Drama Desk nomination for The Day Room.

His made his feature film debut with a small role in War Games, which was followed by roles in Sea of Love and Black Rain. Spencer said his work in Presumed Innocent represented a "watershed role."

In recent years, he worked on both studio and independent films, including The Rock, The Negotiator, Albino Alligator, Lesser Prophets and Cold Heart.

Service and funeral arrangements were pending, Mr. Hofmann said.

Lynn Elber reports for the Associated Press. AP reporter Jeremiah Marquez contributed to this report.

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