TV - John Spencer

John Spencer

Steve Taylor-Bryant has decided to look back at some of his favourites. Today he looks at The West Wing and gives us a personal account of how one actor, playing one character, saved his life...

[Upon winning an Emmy for his role in The West Wing] "I've never wanted to do anything but act. It saved my life, it's the reason I get up in the morning, it's my opiate. The prize for me was always getting the next gig so I could do this wonderful thing that I love. So this, my friends, is deliciously redundant."

2005 was a horrific year for me personally. Addiction and undiagnosed mental health issues gripped my head and my body and didn't seem like they were ever going to let go (I've been clean since 2008 and now on a controlled regiment of anti- depressants that keep the black dog at bay most days). I was working in excess of 100 hours a week, had no friends and basically I was a hopeless specimen, the worst advert for mankind that there was. My only high points were the occasional day off when I caught up with The West Wing, a drama from Aaron Sorkin that saved my life on more than one occasion. I was particularly fond of Bradley Whitford as Josh Lyman and John Spencer as Leo McGarry. McGarry himself was an addict, a man of power and prestige but with personal weakness and it was Spencer's performance as he took McGarry on the journey through booze and prescription pills to eventual sobriety that started me on my own road to recovery. I always knew I wanted the help, but it took the death of an actor I'd never met to spur me on to the start.

John Spencer's death hit me hard, but in true Hollywood fashion the show had to go on. Filming schedules were changed and the grief the actors bore on-screen had more than a little realism about it. Leo McGarry was the centre of The West Wing universe, even Martin Sheen's President was heavily reliant on his chief of staff. Leo was a wise man, the man that inspired Bartlet to run for office in the first place, and surrounded the President with the best people 'for him'. As an avid viewer you wouldn't pretend that the staffers were the best at what they do, Josh Lyman in the early days would have been sacked numerous times in any other White House, but the team assembled by Leo was the best fit for what his vision of support entailed. Leo took on Vice Presidents, congressmen and Senators, foreign dignitaries, all in the name of the right thing to do, despite personal issues, and that strength of character is what I aspired to reach.

As for Spencer himself, before The West Wing he was one those actors you'd see pop up in something and not know his name. The Rock, The negotiator, LA Law with Jimmy Smits who he would go on to perform with again in The West Wing, he was even Mr Gadget in Lois and Clark The New Adventures of Superman! He himself was a recovering alcoholic, well trained in the part of Leo before even being cast, but more than that he was a man that never stopped, working at his craft, the thing he loved until the day he died.

Without John Spencer's portrayal of Leo McGarry I doubt I'd be where I am today. A husband and father, a businessman and writer, rich in love and friendship. Leo always had his sayings in times of adversity, a word to the right person at the right time, and he certainly spoke to me. Your past mistakes craft your future accomplishments, a lesson I was taught by a great man acting a great role. Rest in peace Mr Spencer, you will never be forgotten by this once lost soul.

Image - IMDb.