Just before ''The West Wing'' ends its seven-year run, series creator Aaron Sorkin tells Lynette Rice about how it started
Credit: Aaron Sorkin: Marissa Roth / Retna

Before it airs the final episode of The West Wing this Sunday, NBC will celebrate the drama’s seven-year run by first airing the pilot episode introducing the men and women who made up the Bartlet Administration. (A few fun facts from that inaugural hour: Martin Sheen’s Jed Bartlet wasn’t introduced until the last few minutes of the episode, and Janel Moloney’s Donna Moss was never meant to be more than just a small, recurring character.) In preparation for this Sunday’s two-hour event, we asked Wing creator Aaron Sorkin to reflect on the show’s humble beginnings.

”The idea for The West Wing happened very much by accident. It never occurred to me to try to write a TV show. I had nothing against it — I just didn’t know anything about it. I watched as much TV as anybody else, but I just didn’t know anything about the world of making TV shows. My agent nonetheless wanted me to meet with John Wells, which I was happy to do because John was an important producer who had done ER and China Beach.

”The night before this meeting with John, some friends came to my house for dinner, including Akiva Goldsmith, who won an Oscar for directing A Beautiful Mind. I happened to mention I was having the meeting the next day with Wells, but said we were just having lunch to talk; I wasn’t thinking about TV. At some point Akiva and I wandered into a little office I had, and the poster for The American President [which Sorkin wrote] was up on the wall. And he said, ‘You know what would make an interesting TV series? That. Forget about the romance between the president and the lobbyist, and just sort of write it about the senior staffers.’ I said, ‘Akiva, that’s a good idea, but I’m not doing a TV show. I’m just having this lunch with John.’

”So I showed up to the lunch the next day and I clearly misunderstood what the lunch was supposed to be about, because I walked into the restaurant and saw that it was John, three guys from CAA, and people from Warner Bros. who were expecting me to pitch an idea. Rather than say, ‘Um, you know, I think there has been a misunderstanding’ and say I didn’t have any ideas to pitch, I said, ‘I want to do a TV show about senior staffers at the White House.’

”There weren’t a lot of questions because I was kind of spitballing, making it up as I went along. I didn’t have a pitch prepared. What I did have was some tiny moments and little shards of stories I had to cut from the screenplay of The American President, or little stories I heard at the White House while researching the movie. Warner Bros. didn’t ask for much in terms of ‘Will it be this or that’ — they just let me go away and write, which is always a really nice thing to do. Most of my time spent writing something is spent walking around the room not writing. Once I have an idea to start, it will start going very fast. The typing of the script I probably did in about five days, but there were a couple of months of not writing it, and just being scared of it. I beat Akiva up. I couldn’t believe what he got me into.

The West Wing
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