Sports Night: Looking back at Aaron Sorkin's gone-too-soon series
Back in 2014, EW brought the cast of Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night together to talk the series’ beginnings, its end, and everything in between. In light of star Robert Guillaume’s death this week at age 89, revisit that story — which includes Guillaume himself discussing the stroke he endured on set in 1999 — below.
Back in 1998, when TV viewers turned to Friends and Frasier for punchlines and ER and NYPD Blue for drama, one series boldly attempted to be a one-stop shop: ABC’s Sports Night. Set in the high-stakes world of a live sports news program, the Aaron Sorkin-scribed dramedy followed the behind-the-scenes exploits of fictional Sports Night co-anchors Casey (Peter Krause) and Dan (Josh Charles), their brilliant producer Dana (Felicity Huffman), harried associate producer Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd), gruff executive Isaac (Robert Guillaume), and whip-smart researcher Jeremy (Josh Malina).
Sports Night was adored by the media — including EW, which called it “the most consistently funny, intelligent, and emotional of any new-season series.” But the show never became a hit, struggling with low ratings and unsympathetic network execs who insisted on an awkward laugh track for the first season and then canceled the series in 2000.
Yet a funny thing has happened in the nearly 15 years since the lights went out at the fictional Continental Sports Channel. Thanks to DVDs and online streaming — and a ripple effect from Sorkin’s hits in TV (The West Wing) and film (The Social Network) — Sports Night found fans beyond its all-too-brief two-season run. “‘Ahead of its time’ is overused,” says Malina. “But it actually is appropriate to Aaron and Sports Night.”
That time began in 1995. Bill Clinton was in the White House. TLC were on the radio. And Aaron Sorkin was living out of L.A.’s Four Seasons hotel, watching too much ESPN.
AARON SORKIN (Creator): I had a very vague idea for a movie, sort of Broadcast News at an ESPN-type network. Any time a story would occur to me, it would be a short story. I eventually mentioned that to my agent, who said, “It sounds like you’re talking about a TV series.” So within about 24 hours, I was marched into the office of Jamie Tarses, who was the head of ABC at the time. I said, “I can’t really tell you anything about the show except that it’s going to take place at a cable sports network. If you’re interested, you’re just going to have to let me go away and write the pilot.” And they did.
FELICITY HUFFMAN (Dana Whitaker): When there are great scripts for pilot season, the drumbeat goes out. Everybody knows about it — and everyone was talking about Sports Night.
JOSH CHARLES (Dan Rydell): I wasn’t looking to do a TV show at the time, so my agents passed on it for me. I had worked with [Thomas Schlamme], who was directing the pilot. He reached out to me and said, “Your agents passed on this for you, but I just wanted to make sure you had read it.”
JOSH MALINA (Jeremy Goodwin): I immediately fixated on what would ultimately become Josh Charles’ role of Dan. I thought it was perfect for me.
SORKIN: Josh Malina came in for Dan Rydell, but Josh Charles got the part, and I really wanted Josh in the show. I’d worked with him before [on A Few Good Men], and I knew what he could do.
MALINA: Aaron called, and he was like, “Hey, do you remember the role of Jeremy in the pilot?” As it was originally written, he was 21. And I was 30 at the time. He’s like, “I know he’s young, but what if I took another pass at it?” And he started describing what he might do, and I just interrupted him and said, “Are you trying to convince me? Yes! I would play anything in this!”
SORKIN: I wrote the scene in the pilot where Jeremy interviews with Dana to get the job. Josh came in the next day and read that scene for the network.
MALINA: It felt like it went great. This great writer had created the part for me. They told me to wait in the hall, and then Aaron came bounding out and picked me up, held me aloft, and I remember saying to him, “If this is your way of telling me I didn’t get the role, I’m going to be very upset.”
PETER KRAUSE (Casey McCall): The first time I read it, I read with Aaron. I’d rehearsed it really thoroughly, so I was going to do it pretty quickly. I said something to Aaron, like, “Think you can keep up?” He laughed and said, “I think I can manage.” I blistered through it, and it went very well. It was really my job to lose.
CHARLES: I remember reading with a couple different Caseys but feeling pretty strongly that Peter was great. There was a connection there.
SABRINA LLOYD (Natalie Hurley): I was waiting to go in to audition for Aaron. He saw me, and he did a double-take because he said he “saw Natalie.” He was looking at me, and he tripped. And he laughed, and I laughed, and that was the moment I knew I was going to get that job.
ROBERT GUILLAUME (Isaac Jaffe): I ran into Felicity Huffman [at the audition], and she was very upbeat about it, as was I.
HUFFMAN: I thought, “I might at least have a shot at getting an audition,” because Dana Whitaker wasn’t the lead. You had Josh Charles and Peter Krause and Robert Guillaume, and I thought, “Maybe I can slip in as number five or six.” I walked in, and there was Robert. He was so sweet, and I was so nervous. He said, “You go in there and get that part!”
When the cast started filming in the summer of 1998, ABC insisted on a live audience and a laugh track. Sorkin and Schlamme disagreed but couldn’t overrule the network.
SORKIN: We were engaged in a back-and-forth with the network because we didn’t want to do it in front of a live audience for two reasons: Once you do it in front of a live audience, you have to use a laugh track, because you’re going to be mixing different takes, and the laughs are going to be different in sizes and sounds, so you have to use a laugh track to smooth that over. The other reason we didn’t want a live audience was that we didn’t have a traditional multi-camera set. There were a lot of parts of the set that the audience couldn’t see. The audience wasn’t able to see the studio or the control room. The audience wasn’t able to see Isaac’s office or Dan and Casey’s office. Well, that’s most of the show.
LLOYD: There was a lot we couldn’t film in front of an audience, so we just sat there and read the rest of the script to them. It was its own comedy in trying to say, “Oh, we’re going to pretend we’re really doing this for you!”
MALINA: To me, it’s kind of a split thing: “Am I playing to the 50 people over there? Or am I trying to give a performance for the millions of people out there?”
HUFFMAN: I loved doing it in front of an audience, but I hated the laugh track. It cheapened it.
SORKIN: The network was looking for any touchstones that would make it feel like more of a traditional half hour, and one of them was the laugh track. By the second season, they said, “You don’t have to use it anymore.” On those occasions when I go back and watch an old episode, that laugh track sounds so terrible.
MALINA: Would The Office have worked with a laugh track? No. At the time, studio executives were going, “You don’t want to have a laugh track? But how are people going to know that it’s funny?”
NEXT: Ratings struggles — and Guillaume’s on-set stroke
The show averaged just over 10 million viewers in its first season. That might be an impressive number in today’s fragmented TV landscape — but in 1998 it was just enough to scrape by.
SORKIN: In those days, there’s a phone number you’d dial to get the ratings, and there were times that I thought the voice on the other end was just going to read me a list of names. “There was Eddie in St. Paul, he was watching it, he had some friends over. And Sharon in Fort Worth, she watched some of it, then got distracted.”
MALINA: Nowadays, you can check on Twitter at 6:30 in the morning. But at the time, it was some phone line, and it would be a person reading the overnight results, and you’d have to wait till they got to your network and your time slot. It was never very good. It was always like, “Are we even going to be on next week?” It turned quickly into a weekly source of anxiety for me, just because I didn’t want to let go of this thing.
HUFFMAN: It was hard that it was being judged not on “Is it good or not?” but on ratings. It’s hard when something you love doesn’t take off.
SORKIN: Spin City was our lead-in, and an episode of Spin City ended with Connie Britton saying to Michael J. Fox, “Is there anything I can do for you?” And he says, “I just want to know who won the Rangers game.” And she turns on the TV, and there’s Casey and Dan, and the camera kind of moves into the TV, and we’re in our show now. We tried this seamless transition, and it didn’t work. They still stopped watching ABC right at that moment. [Laughs]
CHARLES: I was kind of new to the whole television experience, so everything about the process was new to me. Some of that was really exciting, and some of that was really frustrating. One of the frustrating parts was the idea of realizing television is a bit like Vegas. You just don’t know what’s going to hit or not.
The laugh-track battle and ratings woes were nothing compared with Jan. 14, 1999, the day Guillaume suffered a stroke on the Sports Night set, terrifying Sorkin and the cast and putting the actor’s future with the show in question.
GUILLAUME: On that particular day, when I got to the set, I was already not feeling right. I got in the dressing room and began to try to put my costume on. When I was trying to get my pants on, I fell, and I began to fear that I was not in control of the situation.
SORKIN: We were waiting for Robert on set. Tommy [Schlamme] isn’t a guy who loses his temper, but he turned to a PA and said very sternly, “Would you go up to Robert’s dressing room and get his ass down here?”
GUILLAUME: They were summoning me to the set. The tumult — caused by the phone ringing and hearing my name called over the loudspeaker — created an anxiety in me and made whatever signs even more apparent.
SORKIN: The PA got somebody with a key to the dressing room, opened it, and Robert was collapsed on the floor.
GUILLAUME: The brass decided that they’d better check me out at the hospital. After concluding that I’d had a stroke, I immediately began to think about the show and fear the outcome.
SORKIN: Once Robert was out of the woods, I promised him if he wanted to come back to work that I would simply give the character a stroke. And that’s what happened.
GUILLAUME: Since my speech was not compromised, and I had no pain, I felt, “Maybe with a few adjustments I can get through this.” I became confident that I’d be a part of the show still, so that buoyed my hopes.
MALINA: It was a major blow, but it was a pretty cool comeback. Isaac was the glue that held the office together, and Robert was, in many ways, the glue that held the cast together.
KRAUSE: Robert is just a neat guy. A director was having some difficulty with me — I didn’t like how I was being asked to play something — so Robert took me aside, and he said, “Peter, listen: When a director tells you to do something, just nod, and then when the action is called, just do whatever the f— you want.” Which was a nice piece of advice to have at the time. Every now and then, he’d come out with some zingers. There was a day he was wearing this blue shirt and Felicity came up to him and said, “Robert, you look so good in blue.” And he turned around and looked at her and said, “S—, girl, you’d have to be some kind of ugly not to look good in blue.”
The cast and crew breathed a sigh of relief when ABC renewed the show before the 1999 upfronts. At the same time, Sorkin had a second project greenlit for the 1999–2000 TV season: The West Wing.
MALINA: Season 2 was not a slam dunk, by any means. I think we had won “The Best Show You’re Not Watching” [from TV Guide]. Most actors would prefer to be on “The Worst Show You Are Watching.” [Laughs]
SORKIN: Tommy and I aren’t the world’s most efficient producers; when other people are going home at 6 and 7, we’re still shooting at midnight and 1 a.m. And the second year of Sports Night was also the first year of The West Wing, so Tommy and I were doing both at the same time.
KRAUSE: I think [Aaron] would admit to you himself that he bit off far more than he could chew that second season of Sports Night, in between writing all the episodes of the first season of West Wing and all the episodes of the second season of Sports Night. The creative output during that year is unmatched, but I think it took its toll on him, too.
With the show’s future in the air, it was unclear whether the audience would ever see what would become of will-they-or-won’t-they duo Dana and Casey.
HUFFMAN: I was rooting for them to get together, but I totally understood what Aaron was doing, which was: Once they’re together, then what? They say the trick is: Write two characters who are perfect for one another and then keep them apart. But since it only went two years — although how could we have known that? — it would have been great to have them be together.
KRAUSE: Aaron is real soft-hearted and kind of falls in love with the characters and sometimes wants to show his affection for the actors who portray the roles, so he’d pick music for certain story lines. And he used this Tommy James & the Shondells song “Crimson & Clover,” and that’s at the end of an episode where it’s pretty clear Casey really is feeling a lot of love for Dana. I loved that.
SORKIN: I think in the first season I was more successful with the romance than I was in the second season, but I like those stories so much.
KRAUSE: I loved working with Felicity. There’s this episode where Casey and Dana go behind the anchor desk and she says, “Hey, if I were to ask you out on a date right now, what would you say?” And Casey says, “Ask me another time.” And I watched it recently, and I was surprised because we were better than I thought we were, looking back. I was like, “Oh, wow, that was some really good, sophisticated acting work there.” And I don’t remember it coming off that nicely.
Amid ratings and cancellation concerns, there was still time for fun on the set.
KRAUSE: We had an ongoing poker game up in the control booth. The game became so important that there were times when work felt like an interruption. And people would go back and forth from the floor of the show up to our little gambling den.
MALINA: It became the go-to place where you essentially spent every moment you weren’t filming. I made out very well. It was a very nice supplement. Peter and Josh were definitely earning more than I was in terms of gross salary, but I feel like I did a decent job of closing the gap at the poker table.
KRAUSE: There was a lot of tomfoolery on the set. You can talk to Josh Malina and Josh Charles more about that. I was less apt to be trying to hit others or get hit in the groin than they were.
MALINA: There were a lot of pencils around, so I think whipping pencils at people’s groins was something. [Laughs] I think that was an activity that I spearheaded. We also had a rolling football game. There were a lot of rolling chairs, because it was an office comedy. We found a big open room in which each of the players had his or her own rolling chair, and there were essentially no rules. You could roll at any speed with any force and any violence you wanted into another player. There were injuries, but it was good fun.
CHARLES: We had so much fun off camera playing poker and rolling football. Peter and I used to spend a lot of time together. I lived with him for a while. He lived with me for a while. We had all these different things going on in our lives. Really, we were there for each other through some nice, big moments. That’s the stuff I remember.
NEXT: ABC pulls the plug, but Sports Night‘s legacy lives on
Though it was drawing 11 million-plus viewers every week, Sports Night finished the 1999–2000 season in 53rd place. ABC, high on blockbuster ratings from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, pulled the plug before production started on a third season.
SORKIN: It came down to the wire on a third season, which we were surprised not to get. We had a number of meetings over at ABC that we thought had gone well. But we were called and told that was it.
CHARLES: There weren’t enough people watching it. That’s really what it boils down to.
KRAUSE: I wish it would have gone on for five to seven seasons.
HUFFMAN: Oh my God, I wish it had gone five seasons!
MALINA: A lot of actors get itchy, like, “I want to try something new.” Once I get a good job with good people that I like and I like the material, I would sign on, like, “Here’s the contract that says you have 40 years of employment, but you can’t do anything else.” I would sign immediately.
CHARLES: To be frank, I was fine with the two seasons. I definitely could have enjoyed working with some of the cast more, but the process of doing the show was really difficult.
SORKIN: A two-year run would be a giant hit for a nonmusical on Broadway. Where I cut my teeth, if you got 75 people into a church basement in SoHo, that meant you were sold out. Six million people was an incredibly satisfying audience for me.
CHARLES: One thing we never did with the show by only being on two years, we never jumped the shark. We never had that ability for people to totally get sick of you.
MALINA: Maybe it never would have hit. Maybe it was too niche. I do think if it came up after The Office, say, or in the last five or seven years, I think it would have gone a very different way.
KRAUSE: I had some professional bitterness toward Disney at the time, when the decision was made to put Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on five nights a week. That took up five hours of prime-time programming and hurt Sports Night and other shows struggling to stake their claim.
In addition to Sorkin’s well-documented rise as an Emmy- and Oscar-winning writer, many of the show’s stars became household names after Sports Night went off the air. Krause broke out on HBO’s Six Feet Under the following year, while Huffman starred on ABC’s Desperate Housewives and later won a Golden Globe (and an Oscar nomination) for 2005’s Transamerica.
HUFFMAN: Suddenly I was getting auditions, and suddenly I could get in the door, and suddenly people knew who I was. David Mamet put me in his plays, and then Aaron came and saw those plays and kindly put me in Sports Night, and that really was the catalyst.
KRAUSE: It really was the beginning of my career. Before that, I was making a living acting, but I didn’t have a career as a leading man, and that’s what it opened up for me. And because of Aaron writing both drama and comedy, I got to do both, and that translated nicely into Six Feet Under.
LLOYD: It was hard after that to go on and read other scripts, because you were constantly comparing them to Aaron Sorkin scripts.
MALINA: He doubled down on me by casting me in The West Wing. Between the two things, it really helped me establish myself as an actor. Jeremy has defined the subsequent roles that I would play. I tend to play smart — smarter than I am — I tend to play a little neurotic, I tend to speak very quickly. You could probably draw a line from Jeremy on Sports Night to David Rosen on Scandal and go, “Yeah, that makes sense.”
GUILLAUME: I had always tried to find roles that would advance a self-imposed agenda that I had for my career. And Sports Night was the apex of that.
SORKIN: I would love to go back and rewrite every episode. I could do that show better. There’s even been times when I’ve thought about setting up the same premise and either doing episode 46 or doing it with a new cast and repiloting it.
MALINA: I’m in.
KRAUSE: I’d like to see the cable version of that show. I’d do it again, if Aaron Sorkin wanted to reboot Sports Night on HBO or Showtime or on Netflix.
CHARLES: The fact that people are still talking about it and people are still discovering it, people still will let me know that they love it and that it’s one of their favorites, I think that just over time things endure — that speaks for the show.
MALINA: People point to it as one of the early examples of what we’re used to now, which is single-camera comedies that mix comedy and drama. Those seeds were planted with Sports Night.
SORKIN: I get that, from a business standpoint, Sports Night was a failure. But for me, it just doesn’t feel like one. It feels like we did a TV show we were really proud of for two years. I can’t find anything to be unhappy about in there.