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Bradley Whitford: The TV Squad Interview

by Bob Sassone, posted May 5th 2006 11:15AM
Bradley WhitfordI always cringe a bit when I interview a celebrity whose work I admire. I'm always afraid that they're going to turn out to be a jerk, or they hate me for some reason, or I'll find out they're into terrible things, like torturing puppies or watching Wife Swap. Thankfully, I've only found out once in twenty years that a celebrity I loved on the screen was a really terrible person (and no, I'm not going to tell you who it is). My lucky streak continues with Bradley Whitford, ex-Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman on The West Wing, guest star on one of ER's best episodes ("Love's Labor Lost"), guest star on most TV shows since the mid 80s, and star of Aaron Sorkin"s new fall series, Studio 60. Whitford is an extremely nice, friendly, classy guy, I'm happy to report.

And I found out that Bradley Whitford is a lot like Josh Lyman, except for ... well, I'll let him explain that.

Bob Sassone: Hey, Brad.
Bradley Whitford: Hey Bob ... where's 617?
BS: That's the Boston area.
BW: Get out of here! My brother lives in [name of town]!
BS: Really? That's not too far from me...so how was it filming the final episode of The West Wing?
BW: It was tremendously disorienting and sad. Because doing a TV show, especially a one hour drama that had the big-ass aspirations of this show, it's like being in a cult. The hours are insane ...
BS: The other cast members must be like other members of the cult.
BW: Yes, and the crew. It"s all a big cult, and you know everthing about everyone and everyone's been revealed to everybody and it's got all the nourishment and horror of family.
BS: The good and the bad.
BW: Yes. And it will be, for most people, the first line in your obituary, and it's been a big, wonderful piece of luck.
BS: Yeah, you don't usually get a show, a quality show like this, or at least one that lasts as long.
BW: Yeah, and actually it's interesting to me because on one hand, I remember reading the pilot, and what you often think in Hollywood is that it will never go. So on one hand it's a miracle it went seven years. On the other hand, I feel it's been underreported that this show went seven years, it had a cultural impact, it made a lot of people a lot of money, and we did it without really having a lead-in. So the emotional trauma of a show ending, and I hesitate using that word because it"s not like we had leukemia. It's just a big show ended.
BS: Right.
BW: Also, we lost John [Spencer] this year, and that made the end of the show seem pretty insignificant.
BS: Yeah, I was going to ask you ... I can't imagine having to go back to work that first episode after he passed away, because Leo McGarry is the most beloved character, and I would assume he was the heart and soul of the show off-camera as well.
BW: Yeah, he was the connection. Him and Martin [Sheen]. Unfortunately in television there aren't many central middle-aged characters (whispers) -- I'm hoping to change that -- but he was a meticulously prepared professional. Nobody was more comfortable with the joy of knowing that for how long he had been an actor, how fortunate it was to be on a show with a bunch of great theater actors, saying words that weren't humiliating. He knew it was a miracle, and he appreciated it every day. It was very, very hard. I'd known him since Presumed Innocent.
BS: That's right, you were both in that.
BW: Yeah. It was very ... the awareness part of it was, you know, shooting scenes of running to the hospital, and finding out he was dead. Which is something I did in life. And I did it with a stinkin' camera in my face. I was a pallbearer at his funeral ...
BS: And then you had to film that.
BW: Yeah, in some ways ... ultimately I think they handled it very well. John Wells is a really unsung hero in all of this, because I think he really found his voice with the show, and it was a tough way he came in.
BS: Did the writers struggle with how to write John's death into the show ...
BW: Yes, very much.
BS: ... because they had to write it for the show but also make it part of the election storyline.
BW: Yeah, and also you didn"t want to do that tacky, "hey, gee, actor's death, there may be ratings here." So they struggled with it a lot and thought about it a lot and checked in with us and were sensitive to us when it came to shooting it, and made sure we had our ... Chris Misiano, one of our great executive producers, was directing it, and we're all going through it ... it was very strange. In one hour television the hours are so relentless that life blurs with ... you're spending more time acting than you are living. Which is always great for your mental health. (laughs)
BS: (laughs)
BW: Say what you will, but at the end of the day, show business just grounds you. (laughs)
BS: Right.
BW: It brings out the best in people.
BS: Yeah, God, doing the same character for seven years ...
BW: Yeah, yeah, it's hard but ... first of all, it's not like you're on ER, and after the third year you can be pretty confident that a gurney is going to be flying through the door too. In this show, the dynamics change with every moment of the presidency. This show started with me being green in the White House, and ended with me running a presidential campaign. It was always different. And this show happened at a time when Gore was running against Bush, the overwhelming zeitgeist politically was that it just didn't matter.
BS: Who to vote for.
BW: Yeah, and that"s not true anymore because people realize it matters a lot.
BS: Now, I think I speak for all West Wing fans when I say we were really happy to see Rob Lowe come back. It's one of those times where, you find out the show is ending, and you say "wouldn't it be great to have Rob Lowe come back, as a bookend" ...
BW: Yeah!
BS: ... and you think it's never going to happen because you want it to happen so much.
BW: Yeah, yeah, when he came back it was fun. God, I remember when he left, and I walked into his trailer and I said, are you sure you want to do this? (laughs)
BS:  So that was good having him back?
BW: Yeah, things snapped right back.
BS: Now, are fans going to like the way the Josh/Donna storyline plays out?
BW: It depends on the fan.
BS: (laughs) That's true.
BW: It certainly made sense to me. I always say that the difference between me and Josh is that if I'm really in love with someone, I have sex with them before seven years go by.
BS: (laughs)
BW: Because I was really beginning to think there was something about Josh that I didn't know.
BS: Well, wasn't there a line that Janeane Garofalo said to you, something about you're single and people start to talk after a certain age?
BW: Yeah, there comes a time when being a single man becomes pathetic. I don't know if you're ...
BS: I'm 40 and single.
BW: (laughs) Well ... no, I won't say it.
BS: Come on ...
BW: I was just going to say that there are advantages.
BS: That's a nice way of putting it.
BW: Yeah.
BS: What was it like when Aaron Sorkin left? Because it had his stamp all over it. It was romantic, it was inspirational ...
BW: The metaphor that I use that Aaron despises is that it was like being a Branch Davidian and David Koresh left.
BS: (laughs) We have a cult theme going here.
BW: Yes. It was disorienting. It was sad. We couldn't imagine the show without him, and we couldn't imagine the show without Tommy [Schlamme]. I think it's a testament to the world they created that it lived beyond them.
BS: Yeah, it was strong enough to survive even after the creative forces left.
BW: Yeah, and by the way, everyone talks about that Aaron left. The miracle is that he was there that long. I have never, nobody has ever seen anyone work that hard. In the last couple of years I've gotten to write a couple ... and I felt this ... when I sat down to write it it was fucking hard. (laughs)
BS: And he was doing it every week.
BW: I mean, seriously, try it. It hurts!
BS: People think that writing is mentally hard, but it's physically hard too.
BW: It absolutely is. And as someone who has spent their life getting nervous and creatively scared, writing was a whole new level of mind fuck.
BS: Now, I don't think I've ever been more excited about a show coming on than Studio 60.
BW: Oh really?
BS: Oh, yeah.
BW: Now tell me what you know about it.
BS: I actually read the pilot script, an early pilot script ...
BW: Where did you get that?!
BS: (laughs) It's going around online actually. I think it"s a realy early draft. I think the title was still Studio 7?
BW: Yes.
BS: And I think a couple of character names are different. I don't know how they got it, but it seems real enough to me, the way that it's written seems like something Aaron Sorkin would write. It seems great, and the cast ...
BW: Yeah, the cast is great, and I just heard they're very happy with it.
BS: So, you've filmed the pilot?
BW: Just the pilot. Technically we don't know if we've been picked up.
BS: Now I thought I heard that NBC had picked up 13?
BW: You know, probably. I think we'd all be surprised if it didn"t, given Aaron and Tommy's pedigree. (Note: check out the news about Studio 60 from this morning.)
BS: Well, hopefully I'll be interviewing Aaron at some point, as the show gets closer. As a writer as well, I look up to the guy a lot.
BW: Oh yeah, he's the real deal.
BS: We share the same birthday. (laughs)
BW: Really? When's his birthday?
BS: June 9.
BW: I should know that.
BS: Now, I was talking to my editor, and we were talking about your movie career. And we were trying to think of, who are the great assholes in movie history, and we picked you from Revenge of the Nerds II.
BW: Oh, thank you!
BS: There's no award that goes along with it, so don't get too excited.
BW: Yuppie scum was my wheelhouse.
BS: Yeah, you had a bunch of movies where you played the ... the ...
BW: The dick?
BS: (laughs) The flawed character.
BW: Yeah, the flawed, vulnerable, misguided ...
BS: Yuppie scum that you wanted to get it in the end.
BW: One of the great improvised lines in my career is in that movie.
BS: What"s that?
BW: "Comprende, dickhead?"
BS: (laughs)
BW: And by the way, Tim Busfield is in that movie.
BS: Is he really?
BW: The nerd with the Coke bottle glasses and the violin.
BS: Yeah!
BW: That's Tim Busfield.
BS: Wow.
BW: Yeah.
BS: That's wild. It's funny, if you stay in your business as long as you have, you work with people that you worked with years ago. Let me give you an example. This might blow your mind. I was watching an episode of The Equalizer ...
BW: Oh my God.
BS: And  you're in it. And in the very same episode, Ed O'Neill (Baker, West Wing) is in it.
BW: Yes!
BS: I don't know if you had any scenes with him.
BW: Yes!
BS: Am I blowing your mind? The Rolodex in your mind is spinning ...
BW: Can I tell you something? Ed O'Neill is on our show, and he's a really good actor.
BS: It's funny, you look at Married, With Children, and he created such an incredible character, and you look at him in other stuff, and you say, is this the same guy?
BW: Right. He's a great guy. Really good friends with David Mamet.
BS: I remember reading an interview with him where he said he honestly didn't think it would last more than six episodes. And then it lasted for ten or eleven years.
BW: Yeah, it's what life puts in front of you. It"s not all Emmy roles.
BS: So what are you working on now (besides Studio 60)?
BW: I'm doing some light writing ...
BS: Light writing. You mean like poetry? Haikus?
BW: (laughs) I'm pursuing my haiku dream.
BS: (laughs)
BW: John Wells let me write a couple of West Wings, which was an incredible gift. I loved it once I got past the brain injury part of it, and so I'm working on a couple of things that are far from fruition, but what I want to pursue.
BS: It's weird, you and your wife (Jane Kaczmarek, Malcolm in the Middle) both have shows ending.
BW: Yeah, we're actuallly opposite each other. These shows got picked up the same week, and the finales are in the same time slot opposite each other.
BS: The same day, May 14?
BW: Yeah.
BS: Wow.
BW: Very bizarre.
BS: Don't tell her, but I'll be watching yours.
BW: Thank you.
BS: That's why God made TiVo.
BW: Exactly. And that's why I'll be in the poolhouse. (laughs)

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C.C. De, lll

Greetings All...Great Interview...You mentioned both Bradleys TV guest appearance past...as well as his upcoming NBC dramedy "Studio 60"...as such, I found it neglectfully interesting your not mentioning that Bradley's "Studio 60" co-host is Matthew Perry...whom intermittently guest starred on "The West Wing" playing a character named Joe Quincy...a Republican Supreme Court Law Clerk hired by Josh, and Sam as an Associate White House Counsel...Matthew, long considered by many to be the most talented natural actor of the 'Friends' cabal was very well received by the 'West Wing' audience, as well as the cast and crew...and after the 'Friends' finale was offered and seriously considered playing Joe Quincy as a recurring role...true "West Wingers" recall that it was Matthew's character whom confirmed Vice-President Hoynes adulterous extra-marital infidelities and reported them to CJ...thus leading to Tim Matheson's resignation from the Barlett Administration.
I, would be truly remiss if I did not take this opportunity to pro-offer my personal "West Wing" favorite...it was an episode from 'Season 1', entitled "Mr. Willis from Ohio", starring the legendary Albert Fann, the great Black theatre and character actor, and producer, who played a school teacher from Ohio whom is appointed acting-Congressman due to the un-expectedly sudden death of his wife, the duly elected Representative from their Ohio District. At issue was the final passage vote of President Bartletts Federal Budget, in which the opposition threatened a total Government shutdown due to a provision, drafted by Toby, that the U.S. Census, for purposes of congressional re-districting and government funding uses 'projected' census tallies as opposed to actual enumeration in counting as set forth in Article I; Section II of the U. S. Constitution.
A bi-partisan deadlock ensues and the lobbying on both sides intensifies. Toby, erroneously assumes that acting-Congressman Willis simply flys to Washington to "visit his late wife's friends...and see some sights"...and thus, rubber-stamp his Census agenda by voting for passage of the Budget and its associated partisan provision...benignly un-aware that acting-Congressman Willis...is afterall, a High School Civics teacher and takes the right to vote and all matters of the political process seriously.
Toby, of all West Wing staffers, now embattled in intense negotiations with opposing political forces plays the race card in a White House Conference Room...requests that acting-Congressman Willis openly state that Article I, Section II declares that the American Holocaust of African Slavery reared its poisonous venom in asserting that "ALL" U.S. Citizens of African ancestry...forced into terroristic human bondage as slaves be counted...as 'only' 3/4...three-fourths of a human-being...defying all intelligent and scientific logic...as how does one divide the persona of a human individual of mankind...leading 'ALL' to wonder...just what was Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and John Hancock were thinking...in stating that "ALL" men were created equal...Benjamin Franklin, of course vehemently opposed such racist provisions.
Mr. Willis, leading by example, and voting his conscious...without chastising Toby...
Thus, not only teaches Toby a valuble political lesson...but one of moral authority and one's ability to share their human convictions of conscience upon others...even in the American political arena...obviously a lesson that Toby had not heretofore learned as yet...
With great poignancy, the sentimental conclusion came when Toby, while at the weekly White House poker game with President Bartlett, Leo, Charlie, Josh, Sam and CJ...leaves his hand...to go watch the C-SPAN coverage tally of acting-Congressman Willis's first and 'only' vote before the United States House of Representative's...
A grandson of an African Slave..constitutionally deemed 'only' 3/4ths of a man...voting in the most esteemed body of Representative Democracy in the course of human history.
That episode still to this day brings tears to my eyes...

May 24 2006 at 12:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tom Schultz

Josh has been one of my favorite WW charadters & for very good reason - he is as real in life as he is on screen - he & Jane (and their family) go to the same church that we do so we see them in real life & they are definitely the 'real deal', just as devoted to all the causes they have become associated with as you could hope for. I will miss their TV screen characters a lot.

May 10 2006 at 1:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Great interview with someone whose work I really enjoy. Sadly not looking forward to the end of The West Wing and Josh Lyman as a character. But interested to see what Brad can do to bring his "Studio 60" character to the table. If he maintaines the same talent, humour and energy that projects from this interview, then I would say we'll be seeing Brad around for many years to come.

May 08 2006 at 6:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tom Farley

Great interview, Bob; I'm glad someone got BW to talk at length about the end of a show that has meant a lot to me these last seven seasons. BW's performance this season has just been fantastic; I hope he's rewarded with another Emmy, and I look forward to seeing him on "Studio 60."

May 07 2006 at 3:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

BW's surprise at hearing that you had read the Studio 7 pilot script was feigned. He can't be genuinely surprised that something like that got out. Acting!

May 05 2006 at 5:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Bob - great interview. I'm glad to hear that he is as nice as he comes across. He's one of my favorite actors. He is tremendously talented and extremely funny. His work on WW this year was amazing (and will hopefully garner him an emmy nom). But I also admire him (and his wife). They seem to use their celebrity status for good by drawing attention to causes that they care about and in the process help raise funds for charities.

May 05 2006 at 2:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Bradley is one of my favorite actors and Josh is one of my favorite characters. I love watching interviews with him and you can see how passionate he is about everything from his family to his work to charity and so on. Thanks for the interview.

What I'm shocked is you didn't know Timothy Busfield was Poindexter in Revenge of the Nerds!

May 05 2006 at 2:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thanks for the interview! I Love Ya Brad. I'm Really, really going to miss Josh Lyman, but I'm looking forward to meeting 'Danny Tripp?'

May 05 2006 at 12:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Richard Keller

Nice interview. Bradley seems to be a pretty down-to-earth guy. And, yes, he played his share of flawed movie characters. The one I thought of when reading this interview was his role in Billy Madison.

May 05 2006 at 11:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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