NEW YORK It was an unsettling scene last May, to say the least.
President Bartlet, his lovely daughter and her boyfriend and all the White House bigwigs you adore were blasted by gunfire in a Virginia parking lot.
Then came a slow fade to black for the season finale of “The West Wing” and a 4 and 1/2-month wait to see if everyone made it.
You could have analyzed that wrenching scene frame-by-frame, like poring over the Zapruder film about the assassination of President Kennedy. Even if you did, though, the questions remained: Who were the shooters? Who was their intended target, and why? Who was hit? How badly?
In the choppy, blurry ambush, everybody was seen lurching or hitting the ground, but there were no telltale wounds or blood. No obvious casualties not even to the actors getting fired upon, including John Spencer, who plays chief of staff Leo McGarry.
“One or more of us could have taken a bullet,” Mr. Spencer acknowledged last June, “but who among us did, we don’t know. We were all supposed to panic and drop as we heard the shots.”
At long last, the answer was shared with viewers on last Wednesday’s two-hour “West Wing” season opener. It turns out that Mr. Spencer didn’t have anything to worry about. (“The West Wing” will not be shown on NBC tomorrow night because of the presidential debate.)
After all, “The West Wing” is enjoying a sky-high approval rating. In its freshman year, it scored big audiences, critical raves and a Peabody Award. In September, it reaped a record-setting nine Emmys, including the one for best drama.
Besides, it has a near-perfect cast, boasting Martin Sheen (as the President Josiah Bartlet), Rob Lowe, Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford and the incomparable Richard Schiff, to whom likewise-nominated Mr. Spencer lost the Emmy for supporting actor in a drama series.
In short: This was a series with no need to prune its ranks or inflate its ratings with a shoot-‘em-up stunt.
Instead, this was something of an artistic whim. “Aaron had started playing with the idea of an assassination attempt months before,” says Mr. Spencer, referring to “West Wing” guiding light Aaron Sorkin. “When we heard about it, we were surprised.”
From its beginning, “The West Wing” has been fueled by the element of surprise, including the biggest surprise of all: that a weekly TV series about Washington politics could be funny, moving, smart and inspirational.
On the other hand, there never could have been any doubt that Mr. Spencer would prove as vital to the show as Leo McGarry to the Bartlet administration.
Best known until a year ago as the freewheeling, street-smart Tommy Mullaney on “L.A. Law” in the early 1990s, Mr. Spencer embodied McGarry from the first moments of the pilot episode of “The West Wing.”
In a glorious scene that tracked his arrival at work, McGarry swept through the West Wing hurling orders, making pungent declarations and even telling his assistant to get the New York Times crossword editor on the phone.
“Tell them that ‘Khaddafi’ is spelled with an h and two d’s and isn’t a seven-letter word for anything,” he growled.
“Is this for real or just funny?” his assistant asked, hesitating.
“Apparently,” Leo said, looking even more hangdog than before, “it’s neither.”
He is fair, honest, tough as nails, with a mischievous grin he deploys only sparingly. He is world-weary, yet tireless in the service of his president. He also is a recovering alcohol and drug addict. He is a survivor of the highest order.
“Leo, I think, is a better man than me,” Mr. Spencer says. “He has qualities that I wish I had more of. I often say to Aaron, ‘You’re writing the man I’d like to be.’ ”
Even so, Mr. Spencer can easily find parallels. For starters, he, too, is an alcoholic. (He has logged 11 years in recovery to McGarry’s eight.)
“Like Leo, I’ve always been a workaholic, too,” he adds. “Through good times and bad, acting has been my escape, my joy, my nourishment. The drug for me, even better than alcohol, was acting.”
Now 53, Mr. Spencer grew up in Paterson, N.J., the son of blue-collar parents. Enrollment at the Professional Children’s School, across the river in Manhattan, had him sharing classes with the likes of Liza Minnelli and budding violinist Pinchas Zukerman.
As a teen, he landed a recurring role on “The Patty Duke Show” as the boyfriend of English twin Cathy. Stage and film work followed. Then came his big break: playing Harrison Ford’s detective sidekick in the 1990 courtroom thriller “Presumed Innocent.” That role delivered him to “L.A. Law.”
Now Mr. Spencer plays the right-hand man to the president of the United States on TV’s most celebrated series. It’s the American dream. Including Wednesday’s nightmare.