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'The West Wing' pilot 'didn't do great,' says Aaron Sorkin at ATX Festival

Plus other highlights from the show’s producers and cast about the award-winning NBC series

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It’s been 10 years since Aaron Sorkin’s seminal political drama The West Wing aired its final episode. Throughout its 7 seasons on NBC, the beloved series amassed two Golden Globes, 26 Emmy Awards, and landed on a number of “Best Shows of All Time” lists. With a full decade behind us since the fictional Bartlet presidency, the cast and crew reconvened at this year’s ATX Festival to reminisce and reveal some behind-the-scenes secrets about the beloved series.

Sadly, stars Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, Rob Lowe, and Stockard Channing couldn’t attend “The West Wing Administration” event, but the packed auditorium got more than enough nostalgic fun and scoop from creator Aaron Sorkin, EPs Thomas Schlamme and Lawrence O’Donnell (who moderated), and stars Bradley Whitford, Dulé Hill, Janel Moloney, Joshua Malina, Richard Schiff, and Melissa Fitzgerald. Below are some of the best quotes and tidbits to come from the panel.

Aaron Sorkin loves to look back on the show

“I don’t write things that are meant to be read, I write things that are meant to be performed… We did a show that we loved, it was successful, and 10 years later we all love it very much and we all still love remembering those 7 years on stage playing for you at Warner Brothers.”

Aaron Sorking on the difficulty of having a great cast

“We managed to cast eight actors, all of whom could be carrying their own show. And now I was faced with a very glamorous problem, which is, I have eight mouths to feed. How do you not give every scene to Dulé Hill? Listen, I was always after every episode left slightly unsatisfied because that’s what you’re supposed to be — if you feel perfectly satisfied with every episode, you’re not trying hard enough.”

Janel Moloney on quitting acting before being cast as Donna 

“I had been working really hard for 10 years, and had some success but never really enough to make a living and to feel as experienced or appreciated or talented as I felt like I wanted to feel, and I wanted to do something with my life, I didn’t just want to be a disappointed hostess in a restaurant. So I thought, ‘I’m going to do something else, and will the universe please direct me someplace because this is really all I wanted to do, but I need to give it up.’ And I just kind of hung on a little bit longer, and I really did give it up. I decided that I wasn’t going to do it anymore, and then I auditioned for Donna, but I had already known Tommy and Aaron because I was on Sports Night. It just felt like it had taken too long and I was working too hard and suffering too much, and I didn’t want to do it anymore, but then I was just so very lucky that I decided to wait a little bit longer.”

Bradley Whitford has the same political views as his character 

“There is absolutely no distinction between my political point of view and Josh Lyman’s point of view. Aaron would pick up on personal dynamics on things about actors — I use the word exploit in the best way. He’s got to feed the beast and he’s looking at what kind of clay he’s got… We realized pretty soon that this would be the first line in our obituaries, and I think that’s the way people in the White House feel, so there was a lot that you didn’t have to act.”

Richard Schiff doesn’t watch the show, and recalls the first episode he saw

“I notoriously don’t like to watch anything that I’m in. It took me quite a while to watch the pilot; I watched it again recently for the sake of Josh Molina’s podcast. I watched ‘In Excelsis Deo,’ which by the way was the first episode I saw, because Aaron said, ‘I know you don’t like to watch, but I insist that you watch this one.’ But anyway I went back to watch the pilot recently, and was shocked at how wonderfully everything fit together.”

Melissa Fitzgerald actually works in D.C. now 

“This is the most talented group of artists I’ve ever known. They are also the kindest most wonderful human beings that I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with and be with, and part of the proof of that is they’ve all come on board to support the work that I’m doing now, which is Senior Director of Justice for vets, and I’ve actually moved to D.C. I’m trying to live up to the characters Aaron created.”

Joshua Malina pokes fun at Bradley Whitford 

“Brad’s just jealous because I’m on a hit show that’s set in D.C., and for him it’s been a while.”

Joshua Malina on what instrument he would be if The West Wing were a symphony 

“Clearly the triangle. Overlooked, little-used, but an important part nonetheless.”

Aaron Sorkin on waiting to produce the show, and talks with the network

“The first time around, I literally typed ‘fade out’ on the pilot, and a few minutes later, just a few minutes later, Monica Lewinsky happened. So we were okay sitting on it — we simply can’t do this right now, we’ve got to wait a little bit. We did wait a little bit, and we made the pilot — there was also a change of management at NBC. The first people, Monica notwithstanding, were kind of interested in it, they brought me up to the chairman’s office and had some notes… I don’t do any network bashing, I get this stuff, but they wanted things like… They wanted Josh to literally go out in a boat and help those Cuban refugees.”

Aaron Sorkin on getting the poorly performing pilot a season order

“The pilot did not test through the roof. It didn’t do great and NBC was on the fence about putting it on the schedule, so Warner Brothers very smartly, in order to sell NBC on the show, they decided to invent four brand new demographics that had never been used in television before: Households earning more than $75,000 a year; households with at least one college graduate; households that subscribe to the New York Times; and finally — this is 1999, this is the most important one — households with Internet access… Because we were right in the middle of the dotcom boom, and those dotcoms wanted someplace to advertise. That’s what got us on the air.”

Aaron Sorkin praises Lawrence O’Donnell 

“Lawrence ran season 5 through 7, but more importantly from my point of view, I can assure you that if there’s a moment from The West Wing that you love and really remember, I can assure you that Lawrence O’Donnell played a starring role in that moment happening on TV.”

Bradley Whitford says nothing like the show will ever happen again 

“No human being will ever again write 22 one-hour episodes for 4 years. Beautifully written, complicated verbally, complicated personally, funny, about something — that’s 11 feature films a year. It is extraordinary. It will never, ever happen again.”

Aaron Sorkin says he’s not very political 

“I’m not a politically sophisticated person. My college degree is in musical theater, and oftentimes the way an episode would get started would be me knocking on Lawrence’s office door and saying, ‘Lawrence, what are you thinking about?’ and he’d say, ‘The census is interesting.’ And I’d say, ‘Are you absolutely sure?’ And he’d say, ‘Yes, and listen why.'”

Lawrence O’Donnell, Aaron Sorkin on the death penalty episode 

“I’m going to tell a quick story about how this dynamic worked, and it’s a season 1 story of an episode I remember. And just one preface I will give to it, is that I am a lifelong proponent to the death penalty in all it’s forms, and so I pitched to Aaron, because I know there are these federal death penalty cases that are ripening to the point where they might actually have a federal execution, which would put the president in the position that governors are in with that one-minute-to-midnight clock… So I laid it out to Aaron, and my last line of my pitch, Aaron says, I think word for word, ‘Okay, but we gotta kill the guy.'” 

“You’re absolutely right about everything you said, including me saying the guy has to die, but here is the difference between how your mind works and mine,” Sorkin added. “Lawrence brought his political mind to it, but it wasn’t until someone said something interesting: ‘Did you know that we don’t execute people on the Sabbath, both Sabbaths. Friday sundown to Sunday sundown we don’t execute people.’ And suddenly, this will be great, the episode will take place in these 48 hours.”

Janel Moloney on Donna’s romance with Josh

“A lot of people said, ‘There’s this thing going on with you and your boss’ and I was so focused on being asked back the next season that I was really trying to make every moment as rich and free and great as I possibly could. But the whole basis of my character, before I even started day one, was Donna was drop-dead, one hundred percent, head-over-heels, would die for him, would die for Josh. Every file I signed and every policy I asked about, the subtext was, ‘I just love you so much.'”

Janel Moloney remembers when Bradley Whitford stuck up for her 

“I was a little dissatisfied and thought I could do better, and I knew I didn’t have any power on the show. They were friendly and kind to me, but you know, I was a guest of a guest star on the show — I wasn’t even a guest star. And Brad looked at me and it was just this moment that I’ll never forget. They were moving on to the next scene, and he looked at me and he said, ‘Do you want another?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I really want another take.’ And he said, ‘I need another one!'”

—Reporting by Nick Maslow