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'West Wing' creator vetoed a Bush cameo

Saturday, January 13, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- Although George W. Bush is a Republican and "The West Wing's" President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is a Democrat, in the mind of at least one Bush campaign worker, the two would have made a good team.

"West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin said a low-ranking Bush campaign official contacted "The West Wing" production offices before the primary last year to inquire about Bush making an appearance.

"They wanted to know if we'd be interested in having him make a cameo -- like as a pizza delivery guy or something," Sorkin said. "I'm sure whoever the call came from is not totally in tune with the pulse of 'The West Wing.' "

Sorkin said producers declined to extend an invitation to Bush because it was simply wrong for the show. As it is, Sorkin has regrets about an episode last season that featured Bartlet's staff visiting Hollywood to drum up donations.

"There was this party scene by the pool and Jay Leno's there and a bunch of other people, and I felt uncomfortable about that," Sorkin said. "The reason why is that I feel like in a world where there is Jay Leno, Bill Clinton is the president of the United States and we immediately know that. Moreover, for Jay Leno to do a scene with C.J. Cregg a week after Allison Janney was on 'The Tonight Show,' it's a strange line that's a little bit difficult."

For the same reason, Sorkin made a change in the episode that aired Wednesday. One story had Leo regretting a joke he made about the shoes of a powerful New York Times columnist. In the original script, the columnist was real-life writer Maureen Dowd. Sorkin changed it to a fictional character.

"It started to feel like 'The Larry Sanders Show,' like we were getting mileage off the fact we were tossing around a contemporary name," Sorkin said.

Although he turned down the Bush overture, Sorkin said he often hears from politicians who are interested in having "The West Wing" tackle specific issues.

"Politicians will get in touch with us if there's an issue that they feel is underpublicized that would be well dramatized on the show," he said. "I always listen, if only because I need to get story ideas from someplace. If it's a good pitch, I'm in business."

Sorkin said the show's newest character, Republican lawyer Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter), will return in a two-part episode airing during February sweeps. Other members of the "West Wing" repertory will also be back, including Stockard Channing, Marlee Matlin, Ted McGinley and Roger Rees.

The two-parter takes place in the hours following the president's State of the Union address. Sam realizes that in the three months Ainsley has worked in the White House, she's never met the president.

"She's incredibly nervous to meet the president and knows when she does she's just going to embarrass herself somehow," Sorkin said. "So Sam arranges a meeting between the two of them and it goes terribly, and she basically spends the entire two-parter trying to make it better and ends up making it worse."

Even as he added Ainsley to the "West Wing" roster, Sorkin has yet to explain the disappearance of Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly), who hasn't been seen since last season. He said he intends to reveal where she went, but he hasn't yet figured it out himself. However, he has one idea.

"In this two-parter you're going to meet Ed Begley Jr. who [plays a character that] will in some ways remind you of Ralph Nader in that he's coming at the [administration] from the left," Sorkin said. "He's a junior senator from North Dakota who is the darling of the environmental lobby and the darling of any number of liberal causes and is now planning on causing some trouble for Bartlet in terms of re-election. I want to hold out the possibility that Mandy re-emerges as this guy's campaign operator."

CONTINUING TO "PRACTICE": While The WB haggles over a new deal to air "Buffy" and NBC talks about bringing back "Frasier," ABC cut a new deal to continue airing "The Practice" through the 2003-2004 season.

But ABC still hasn't gotten much traction for its sophomore drama "Once and Again."

"It drives us crazy that a broader audience has not come to this gem," said Stu Bloomberg, co-chairman of ABC Entertainment Television Group. "But we will not rest until we grow this beyond a critical darling, and we're hoping the move to Wednesday night will accomplish that."

ABC's midseason series include:

"The Beast" (10 p.m. Monday in the spring after "Gideon's Crossing" concludes its run) -- Hoo boy. Hollywood writers try to tackle TV journalism five minutes into the future. World News Service, a brash cable upstart, broadcasts behind-the-scenes footage of its newsroom 24 hours a day over the Internet. In the pilot, WNS tries to televise an execution, which is presented as brave and forward-thinking. A "Network" for television, let's just hope real TV news never sinks this low.

"The Job" (9:30 p.m. Wednesday starting March 14) -- Denis Leary stars in this single-camera comedy about a New York police detective. Pittsburgh native Bill Nunn stars as Leary's partner. Not previewed.

"Making the Band" (date and time to be announced) -- The boy band group O-Town returns accompanied by the release of their first album. Not previewed.

"The Mole" (8 p.m. Tuesdays) -- Another reality series, this one apes the "Road Rules" formula of adventurous challenges with an added twist. A saboteur among the group, The Mole, tries to thwart their success. Contestants must take a quiz every week and guess the identity of The Mole. The contestant who does poorest on the quiz gets sent home. Inoffensive, but not as well produced as "Survivor."

"My Wife and Kids" (8 p.m. Tuesdays starting March 13) -- "This is nice," Damon Wayans says at the end of the pilot for his new family sitcom. And so is this genial comedy. It's been a while since viewers have had a true family sitcom to watch (wherefore art thou "Home Improvement?"), and "My Wife and Kids" capably fills that void.

"Untitled Joan Cusack Project" (9:30 p.m. Tuesdays starting March 27) -- Geena Davis, eat your heart out. Here's a movie actress with a smart team of writers and a too-cute personality that's hard to resist. Like Davis' character on her show, Cusack has a coffee klatch of female friends, but they're funnier and less annoying.

NBC'S FUTURE: Despite the success of shows from years past, NBC has yet to launch a bona fide sitcom hit this season -- leading to a perception that NBC is in a slump. And the network has yet to develop a reality series in the vein of CBS's "Survivor"

"Obviously we're going to look for non-scripted programming," said newly installed entertainment president Jeff Zucker. "Our bread and butter remains sitcoms and dramas and we will ultimately live and die on that. But non-scripted programming has to be an element of what we do as we go forward."

Zucker, who spent the past six years as executive producer of NBC's No. 1-rated morning show "Today," is expected to have an eye for reality projects that might work on NBC. But he's not as well-versed in the day-to-day operations of a network's entertainment division. While acknowledging he has much to learn, Zucker said he comes to the job with the eye of an average viewer.

"To say that I can't tell what a good program is from a bad program -- I made that choice my whole life every night when I sat down in front of a television set," Zucker said. "I could tell as a viewer, not somebody who is picking the shows. I come to this as a viewer and also as somebody who programmed television every morning for three hours and making decisions as to what people wanted to watch."

Zucker acknowledged NBC "needs to find some comedies that work," and expressed confidence that "The Weber Show" will improve following its hiatus.

NBC West Coast president Scott Sassa was optimistic about the chances "Frasier" will remain on NBC. The network's deal to carry "Frasier" ends this season and producer Paramount, a sister company to CBS, is expected to demand an enormous sum for renewal.

"[Series star] Kelsey [Grammer] has personally told me he would like to stay on NBC," Sassa said. "Paramount has told me they would like to stay on NBC. I hope rational minds will prevail and we'll be able to make a deal."

Post-Gazette TV Editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association winter press tour.

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