Fifteen Years Later: A Tribute To John Spencer

Credit: Michael Grecco

I just wanted to see you in these pages, despite the fact that I can’t put you into words. You mean something untranslatable. – Mary Louise Parker

Like so many of my favorite actors, John Spencer was before my time. A phenomenal character actor with so much more to give, gone too soon. Fifteen years later, it’s hard to miss his appeal. He was an earthy man of charm, dry wit, and mirth, with eyes that held an unfathomable emotional depth that only those closest to him could ever dare understand.

He’s the type of man who seemed to have an infinite number of stories to tell like one could sit beside him all day and never get bored of him or of his voice or of his smile. It was an infectious smile, one rarely afforded to his most famous character, Leo McGarry. Even now, looking at it, feeling it in his performances, I know it could fill a room with warmth. I could bask in that warmth and the calmness it seems to exude. I envy those who’ve seen it in real life. 

I was thirteen when he died, too young to understand the implication of his death and how it ultimately brought an end to one of the greatest dramas of all time. I do remember thinking that it was so horrible that he’d died in the middle of filming. I remember thinking about how devastating it must have been for his friends and colleagues. 

Fifteen years later, I understand only a tiny fraction of that same devastation. It’s still a bit hard to process.

Watching The West Wing hurts the most. I watch it now knowing that I am watching Spencer in his prime and while doing so, I am, horribly, waiting for the penny to drop. I know what happens to Leo in season six. I know what happens to Spencer in season seven. It’s art imitating life imitating art in the cruelest of ways. That’s why I’ve yet to get through the show. I’m stuck on season three like maybe, just maybe, I can delay the inevitable. I can’t remember when I watched “Bartlet for America” for the first time – it was sometime this year, probably close to February or March – but I’ve not budged from that phenomenal performance, one which earned Spencer a much deserved Emmy in 2002.

What makes Spencer special for me, and maybe for so many others who grew up with his roles in the ‘80s and ‘90s, was his ability to melt into any role he acted and bring a sense of warmth and humanity no matter who he portrayed. Often, he would be the hardboiled police officer, a result, no doubt, of his blue-collar upbringing in Totowa, New Jersey. It was an upbringing he left at the age of sixteen to pursue acting, a move that  “[must have] petrified” Spencer’s working-class parents.

In an interview with Terry Gross of NPR, Spencer said, “I look back and realize the horror I must have put them through. And I was pretty rebellious, and I was pretty sure of what I wanted to do.” And the thing he wanted to do the most, was act. “I knew by 8 years old that I wanted to act,” Spencer continued. “Why, don’t ask me. It just seemed a certainty for me in my mind.” 

Spencer got his first acting gig in 1963 on The Patty Duke Show, a show many of my contemporaries have probably never heard of, let alone seen. He played Henry, Cathy’s “kind of goofy” boyfriend, and he described himself as being “quite tall for the show” and that he “looked like a toothpick with ears.”

Credit: ABC

It’s safe to say he grew into the ears. 

Spencer appeared in seven episodes over the span of the first two seasons of The Patty Duke Show then appeared in bit parts in a handful of other TV shows. Before he became a recognizable television star, he was also paying his dues as a theatre actor. In 1981, Spencer won the Obie Award for his portrayal of Mark, a Vietnam war veteran, in Emily Mann’s play “Still Life.” After a brief hiatus in the early 90s, he returned to the stage shortly after beginning his work on The West Wing, to critical acclaim once more. This culminated in 2001 when he portrayed Martin Glimmer in Warren Leight’s play “Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine,” a role he would end up playing twice in his career.

Spencer’s first big role was in WarGames with Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy. While his role in WarGames wasn’t a big one, it was a memorable one. He played a character billed as Jerry who works for the military but cannot muster the gumption to fire a nuclear missile despite direct orders to do so. The film was a huge hit which put Spencer further into the limelight.

He portrayed a police officer in at least four of his big-screen roles which included Presumed Innocent, The Negotiator, Twilight, and Cop Land. He played FBI Director Womack in The Rock and even played a detective in a made for TV movie called In the Arms of a Killer. Each time, no matter who he was up against, he often outshined them with his brilliant performance and a face that was hard to look away from. 

Speaking of Presumed Innocent for a moment, I have to say that I disliked the movie. No offense to the actors and creators. It turns out, it just isn’t my jam. However, just because I didn’t like the movie, doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the fact that Spencer is a shining bright spot in a film that is bogged down by wooden characters. He plays Harrison Ford’s detective friend Dan Lipranzer, a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, no-nonsense type of guy who saves Ford’s character on more than one occasion.  You can tell that Spencer enjoyed that role. It came across so vividly in his performance. I’d rewatch the film just for his bits.

Credit: Warner Bros.

In that vein, it’s easy to say that Spencer was the epitome of a star to watch, even if he never was a leading man. There was a warmth and inherent relatability to his performances. He drew you in with every unspoken word, every gaze, every smile. He was breathtaking, controlled, a sight to behold. Almost every character he’s played, that I’ve seen, has become some of my favorite characters in television and cinema. He’s inspired me in a way that only a few other actors have managed to do, and without a doubt, it’s a testament to his down to earth and grounded personality. It’s also a testament to what feels like his unfailing understanding of the human condition, our motivations as people, and his own as a person and a stage and TV actor, more specifically a character actor. 

Character actors are the life-breath of so many films and TV shows. Oftentimes, they’re the most interesting characters in whatever the film or TV show is. In an interview with Variety in 2000, actor John Spencer said, “This venue, acting as part of an ensemble, is much more interesting to me.” While there’s no doubt he would’ve crushed it as a leading man, he was more comfortable in a crowd. None of which diminished his undeniable talent.

Character actors, while generally overlooked by the masses, have the incredible experiences of portraying characters who are unusual, interesting, or eccentric. We paint those words in broad strokes and generalities. They can mean any number of things, but for actors like Spencer, it meant an opportunity to hone characters that might mean different things to different people. It also meant that he was continuing to give stunning performances right up to the very end, always learning, always improving, always delivering devastating and brilliant moments that strike a chord in me now, so many years later.

As Eli Attie said in an interview with Kid in the Front Row Film Blog, after Spencer’s death, that Spencer had “that same amazing character actor’s face when he was six, he was just waiting to grow into it. Which might be why his career really came alive later in his life.”

Character actors always seem to have an earthy quality to them. Maybe it’s because many character actors begin their careers as stage actors. And maybe it is my own experience on the stage (at the high school level, mind, but still just as important) that makes me feel like I connect to stage actors better than I connect to other actors because they always have a deeper understanding of the things that make normal people tick. I keep going back to that reliability, and I suppose, I keep doing that for a reason, because two of Spencer’s most famous roles, Tommy Mullaney in L.A. Law and Leo McGarry in The West Wing, spoke to and conversed with several shades of that human condition, most poignantly with addiction and mental health.

Spencer never held back when it came to his story of recovery. In the “Requiem” episode of The West Wing Weekly, the cast and crew spoke candidly about their memories of Spencer. One memory, shared by Bradley Whitford (Josh Lyman), has stuck with me since I heard it. He said, in part: 

“You know, John had struggled with…a horrific…addiction issues. And, I met John, who I had been aware of, and had actually known people who had worked with him, when he was really struggling with this. And he was always known as this wonderful, gritty, actor. And in New York, who had gotten…into very difficult situations with alcohol, and lost work and stuff, because of it. I met John, the teamster picked me up for the read-through of Presumed Innocent. It was a van, picked me up on 88th Street. John was already in it. And we were going to the read-through. And John had a very big part in this movie. And it had been a reason for him to finally get sober. And John is, you know, he’s tough. And he presents this kind of tough, street thing. And almost immediately in the car, he was a little shaky. And immediately, in the most vulnerable way, revealed to me that he was absolutely terrified. Now, we’re going from 88th Street to Columbus Circle. And he revealed to me that he did not remember ever acting not under the influence of alcohol. And he had gotten out of rehab, I think, a couple of days before.” 

Earlier in the podcast, for the season three episode “Bartlet For America,” West Wing Weekly showrunners Hrishikesh Hirway and Josh Malina, shared an interview from CNN’s David Daniel that Daniel had done before the 2002 Emmy Awards. In the rarely heard interview, Spencer talked about Leo’s battle with addiction. He also talked about his own addiction and how Nancy Regan’s “Just Say No” campaign harmed those who suffered from addiction. While I’ve never suffered addiction, I do deal with mental health issues and The West Wing and the “Bartlet For America” episodes really came at a time where the messages and Spencer’s performances struck a chord in me. 

Spencer would say that his is an “interpretive art” and he would be right. The words he says were written by Aaron Sorkin and others, but the way he interpreted those words was something beautiful. In a way I cannot comprehend or explain, I feel safe when I watch Spencer act. I feel safe when I listen to the “Bartlet for America” episode of The West Wing Weekly. I feel like I’m understood and seen by a man I’ve never met, a man I, sadly, never will. It’s the beauty of film that makes us feel close to actors both past and present, and I’m so grateful for that gift. 

I’ll speak at length about the Irish Story in “Noel” in a future article, but I wanted to touch on it here because it is such an iconic moment in The West Wing canon. This is where art and interpretation and personal emotions all mix together in a lyrical crescendo that I don’t think anyone else could have delivered. “Noel,” as a whole, is a tour de force with every actor firing on all cylinders. Whitford deserved the Emmy he got for that episode, there’s no doubt about that, but I can’t imagine anyone else being Leo in that episode. The Irish Story alone is something so personal to me, and I think that feeling of closeness, that identification with the story, came from Spencer and his ability to let his honesty and vulnerability shine through. I have a different reaction to the story every time I watch the episode and that is a testament to what Spencer could do. His ability to interpret the words written on the page was nothing short of extraordinary. Not to mention Spencer gets some of the best one-liners and wisecracks of the show, in addition to the meatier material that he chews through with ease.

Much of that same honesty, vulnerability, and raw magnetism is present in his performance as Tommy Mullaney in L.A. Law.

Credit: NBC/Getty

School and work have gotten in the way of me continuing my watch of L.A. Law so I can only comment on season five and a few episodes of season six, but looking back at those episodes, many of which I’ve only seen once, there are moments of that same honesty present in every word and every moment as Tommy. Tommy is also much more emotionally available than Leo is and it is fascinating to put the two of them together to see Spencer’s incredible range. Tommy is as fierce as Leo is but he wears his heart on his sleeve and I cannot recommend his episodes enough. There is something so special to them. 

A part of that specialness comes from the way Spencer identified with Tommy as a character. In an article of the Baltimore Sun, Spencer said of L.A. Law, “It’s the best writing on television. When I got the first script, it was just phenomenal. They wrote the way I talked, the way I thought.” That, no doubt, contributed to the effortless way Spencer inhabited the role. And, once again, that no-nonsense, sometimes gruff, but always passionate and truthful portrayal must’ve come, in part, because of his blue-collar upbringing. Later in the show, it’s revealed that Tommy, like Spencer, was a recovering alcoholic. Another moment of art imitating life that Spencer nails with breathtaking subtlety and nuance. 

The one episode I’ve seen so far of L.A. Law that continues to stand out for me, the one I go back to every time, is the season five episode “As God is My Co-Defendant.” In the episode, Tommy defends a couple whose religious beliefs endangered and eventually killed their three-year-old child. Unlike “Noel,” “As God is My Co-Defendant” doesn’t have anything of personal significance. This isn’t the Irish Story. This isn’t “Bartlet for America” or even “Take Out the Trash Day.” This is just pure unadulterated appreciation for Spencer’s craft and the way he executes said craft. 

Spencer works through the material with quiet ferocity and determination. There is no doubt in Tommy’s mind that he has this case sewn up tightly. He’s going to win and he’s going to win by pure force of will if he has to. But the moment he realizes he’s lost one half of his case, Tommy’s devastation is subtle but obvious. It’s a quiet moment that gives us so much information about Tommy’s character and Spencer portrays it perfectly. Tommy can be an unscrupulous character, but his humanity is on clear display. I don’t feel that anyone else could have done that as Spencer did.

How does one put into words the magnitude of how much someone has touched their lives? How does one adequately give tribute to someone they’ve never met? I can’t begin to put into words how much I’m grateful that John Spencer lived and put a slew of great performances out into the world for generations to watch and fall in love with. I’m grateful for his honesty, which has helped me cope with this trainwreck of a year. I’m grateful for his performances and the stories he’s left behind. I only wish I could’ve experienced his performances live, but I’m glad I’m experiencing them now. As for this tribute, I’m not sure how well I did, but as Mary Louise Parker said, “I just want to see you in these pages.” And for me, writing is the most powerful thing I can do. I simply hope I did it justice.

So, in the words of Joshua Lyman: “Thanks, boss.” Thank you for being indelible.

Shelby Arnold
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