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Cameras roll on Lawrence County Farm for 'West Wing' season premiere

Monday, August 26, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Actor? Politician? Martin Sheen blurred, bent and ultimately erased the line between the two yesterday while filming the first scene from the season premiere of NBC's "The West Wing" on a Lawrence County farm.

"West Wing" star Martin Sheen, who portrays President Bartlet, laughs with a crowd of extras between takes of the series, filming yesterday on a farm owned in partnership by Jeff and Gary McConnell in Volant, Lawrence County. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

Taking his place at a podium before a crowd of more than 400 extras who cheered his arrival, Sheen quickly and easily won them over.

"Now what is this rally all about?" he asked as the crew worked to position cameras.

"Soybeans!" one person shouted.

"Anarchy!" said another.

"Martin Sheen for president!" screamed a third.

In between takes he told jokes, sang "Love Me Tender" ("Don't quit your day job," one of the extras yelled playfully) and teased fans about upcoming plot developments.

"I was hoping my re-election was a foregone conclusion, but I just read the script," he said. "Can you see James Brolin in 'The West Wing'?"

Brolin plays the Republican opponent to Sheen's Democratic incumbent, President Josiah Bartlet. Though it may be a tough road, it's a sure bet Bartlet will win another term.

"The focus [of the upcoming season] is going to be the election," said actor Richard Schiff, who plays communications director Toby Ziegler. "That's really important to us because if we lose, we're all out of jobs, our characters and the actors."

In the episode, Bartlet attends a campaign rally on an Indiana soybean farm, with portions of Western Pennsylvania substituting for the Hoosier State. Press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) is on hand for the rally, too.

Series regulars, from left, Richard Schiff, Janel Moloney and Bradley Whitford chat while awaiting their turn before the cameras.

Toby, deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) and his assistant Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) get left behind on the farm and spend much of the season premiere trying to catch up with the president's motorcade.

The episode, which airs Sept. 25, is titled "20 Hours in America," and begins with Bartlet at the farm rally. Red, white and blue balloons and bunting decorated a stage constructed for the faux president's appearance and extras held signs, including one that read, "Bartlet: Eight more years."

"Don't get me wrong, I like his thinking," Sheen said as cameras rolled, easily becoming his character and segueing into a reference of past plots and the president's wife. "But I think I've probably tested the Constitution about as far as Abby's going to let me for a little while."

Yesterday's scene was supposed to be filmed Friday but the schedule was reshuffled due to rain. Filming took place near Volant on Kemland Farm, home of Jeff and Roberta McConnell, who sat with their family in the first row of extras during the rally scene.

Roberta watches "The West Wing" regularly, but Jeff doesn't get to see it as often. "Generally it's on in the evenings when we're out in the barn milking our cows," he said.

Roberta, who runs Roberta's Tours of Lawrence County's Amish country, has been amazed by the small army a TV production requires.

"It's been just crazy. That's the only word I can use to describe it," she said, laughing, as she compared the number of vehicles entering and exiting her driveway to a highway entrance ramp. "It's the opportunity of a lifetime, but it's kind of nuts."

Last Tuesday, Roberta watched as a crop duster circled over the farm, waiting for the director's signal to fly into camera range.

"I could tell when they radioed to bring it in because it quit circling and would go to the adjacent farm and go down low," she said. "You could see them spray the crops. We don't do crop dusting here, but they do in Indiana and they have to make it as close to Indiana as possible."'

Brent Baker, 10, plays an impromptu ball game with Bradley Whitford and Richard Schiff (not in picture) yesterday. Brent is the nephew of Roberta and Jeff McConnell. Jeff and his brother Gary own Kemland Farm near Volant, Lawrence County, where "The West Wing" was being filmed.

Roberta said "The West Wing" crew began descending on their property Aug 17, building the platform for Bartlet's speech and doing "what they call dressing the set, getting things ready."

Limousines (for the presidential motorcade) and Indiana State Police patrol cards were parked behind barns to hide them from the camera's view. A kitchen on wheels was brought in to prepare food for the cast and crew.

"It's not just that the food is good, it's the presentation of the food," Roberta said. "Everything is so fancy. It just blows me away. I keep telling them they can stay on another week if they'd like because I don't cook like that."

Lunch was served yesterday afternoon under tents in a nearby mowed cornfield. For four hours prior to that, Whitford, Schiff and Moloney filmed a scene that comes after the big rally and will take up about 90 seconds of the two-hour episode. It's the moment the trio realize they've been left behind. Donna tells Josh there's no "trailer car" in the motorcade they can ride in.

"Good budget cut," says an exasperated Josh. "Good item."

The scene was shot from more than four different angles, requiring changes in camera position. Some takes were punctuated by the sound of helium balloons popping. Other times, filming was delayed due to noise from airplanes overhead or while waiting for the sun to come out from behind a cloud. Whitford, pantomiming, used his hands to attempt to shoo the clouds away.

He said location shooting, though difficult for actors who are away from their families, "gives the show a real legitimacy." All three actors featured in the bulk of the scenes shot here said local residents were welcoming.

Schiff compared filming on a road near an Amish farm to being on a movie studio lot.

"Here we are, doing a political drama, and the people next door are doing an 18th-century Western," he said. "It's like they're just passing through the commissary. That's what it feels like. There's camera trucks and technology everywhere, and then you see a horse and buggy vintage 1852. They've been sweet. They wave, they keep to their business, which is interesting, but they've been very accepting of us."

On Friday, their day off, Moloney said she and Janney went shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh.

"How pathetic are we?" she said, laughing. "We just walked around."

Schiff, who's married to Greensburg native and actress Sheila Kelley ("L.A. Law"), said he didn't get a chance to visit his in-laws, but he was hoping to do so yesterday.

At one point during his visit, Whitford walked along the river, memorizing his lines.

"We spend a lot of our lives in Los Angeles and New York where they're used to seeing actors walk around," Whitford said. "So I had the not uncommon experience when you get out of Los Angeles -- and this happened here in Pittsburgh -- of people telling me I look exactly like that guy on 'The West Wing.' "

"I just tell them, 'I get that all the time.' "

Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to http://www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

Correction/Clarification (Published Aug. 31, 2002): Kemland Farm in Lawrence County is owned in partnership by brothers Jeff and Gary McConnell. A photo caption accompanying the Aug. 26 version of this story about the filming of NBC's "West Wing" season premiere incorrectly said the farm is owned by Roberta and Jeff McConnell.

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