Stockard Channing reflects on The West Wing and her instant chemistry with Martin Sheen
Plus, that crazy '70s TV movie she did that was co-written by Joan Rivers.
Having been discussed but never appeared, first lady Dr. Abigail Bartlet was finally set to be introduced in the seventh episode of the first season, “State Dinner.” “I happened to have seen the pilot and thought it was just amazing,” says the Emmy-winning actress of getting the call to become the wife of President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), to which she immediately said, “I do.”
“I flew from Toronto across the country, they threw me into an evening dress. Marty was outside sneaking a cigarette, wearing white tie and tails, I'll never forget. I got out of the car, fresh from hair and makeup, and went up and introduced myself: ‘I know we've never met, but I think we've been married for about 25 years.’ And they said, ‘Okay, we need you on set.’ That was it.”
In that moment, one of the most beloved couples in TV history was born, and Channing says no heavy lifting was involved. “It just worked,” she says. “We had this chemistry from the beginning. I don't know what it was, but we had it and it didn't go away. It was a happy accident.”
Channing, 76, says Abbey Bartlet didn’t get her M.D. until after that first episode. “I swear to God, we were having lunch, this is the second time I'd ever met [creator] Aaron [Sorkin], and I was like, ‘Hello, how are you?’ And he said, ‘Before lunch, I was writing that he had a cold, but now I'm thinking maybe you're a doctor and you're his doctor, and he has [multiple sclerosis].’ I said, ‘Whatever you say, boss,’” she says with a laugh. “And so the second episode I was in, I had a totally different hair color, looked totally different, and I was a doctor, and I kept his secret. So that's it. That was the beginning of that whole arc that went for seven years. I don't remember eating very much. It was very much of a whirlwind thing, but it worked. That's Aaron's imagination, it's incredible.”
The New York native went on to become a regular on the series, was nominated six times for an Emmy, and won one, for her fizzy face-offs with Sheen and the rest of the cast. It was an idyllic time for the actress who — in a robust career that has spanned her iconic depiction of Betty Rizzo in the beloved 1978 film version of Grease to her Oscar-nominated role in the film adaptation of the Broadway play Six Degrees of Separation (for which she won the Tony) — has had no shortage of memorable parts.
“The marriage of the actors, directors, and writing was at such a high level, and nobody was phoning anything in,” she says of her time on the show. “Everything was just premium, it was a joy to be part of it.”
It certainly has stuck in viewers’ minds as well. Channing cites Abbey Bartlet, and of course Rizzo, as among the top characters for which she is recognized. But fans of the actress might be surprised by the other role that people love to talk about with her: a little 1973 TV movie co-written by Joan Rivers called The Girl Most Likely To.
In it, Channing plays an “ugly duckling” named Miriam who, following plastic surgery, goes on a murderous rampage. Her costars included Ed Asner and “Gopher”-turned-Iowa congressman Fred Grandy. (If you have not seen it, treat yourself. It is bonkers.)
“If you remember, she always had a big thing about her weight and her looks and all that stuff,” says Channing of the late comedy legend. “She had a blind date with this guy and he showed up at the door, took one look at her, and turned around and walked away. Well, I mean, you know, you don't f--- with Joan. So, many, many, many years later, she's in Beverly Hills, she's Joan Rivers, she's famous and she goes to a cocktail party of some sort, and there's this man, he's a doctor and she realizes it's the guy. And she also realizes that if she killed him, no one would ever make the connection. Seriously. I'm not making this up. So that was the seed.”
The film was shot on a shoestring and involved a variety of wigs and voices and accents — “I had Marlon Brando’s makeup man!” — and, she says, “I was just a nobody and I read it and thought it was great. I just was raring to go. I had a washer up my nose [to help make her look 'ugly'] because... seriously. And my boyfriend at the time said, ‘What if your nose stays that way?’"
Crazily enough, The Girl Most Likely To ended up being pivotal to her career. “A lot of people talk about the G-word [Grease] and all of that, but back in the day, I had as many people stop me in the street about that one movie. Because it's about revenge, and people would sit in their living rooms and go, ‘Oh, I'm the only person watching this’ or ‘this person understands me.’ I'm not kidding. It was a million years ago, and then it was the highest-rated movie of the week. Revenge always works.”
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