More MS news articles for January 2000

A doctored plot

'Wing' writer winged prez's MS

THE WEST WING. 9 tonight, Channel 10.

BURBANK, Calif. - Those who believe that there is a higher power directing our lives can only be grateful that Aaron Sorkin is not God.

Life's scary enough.

Last week, on NBC's "The West Wing," millions learned that Sorkin's fictional president, Josiah Bartlet, has multiple sclerosis, and that he's known about it for seven years.

What did the creator know, and when did he know it?

It would be pretty to think that Sorkin, the dialogue-happy producer who also writes ABC's "Sports Night," has had this particular plot point in mind since the series began last fall with the news that the president of the United States, who's played by Martin Sheen, had just ridden his bicycle into a tree. But Sorkin, a fidgety sort who talks as fast, if not quite as glibly, as most of his characters, doesn't do pretty.

"When I was writing the pilot, I didn't have any idea what was going to happen in Episode 2, much less Episode 12," Sorkin said last week in a session with reporters on the Warner Bros. lot where "The West Wing" is filmed.

On that morning, a Thursday, Sorkin said he'd just finished writing the second act of an episode that would start shooting the following Monday. (He also planned to write the following week's "Sports Night" that weekend.)

"I have a certain degree of confidence in what's going to happen in the third act, less in what's going to happen in the fourth act, and no idea what's going to happen in the next episode after this," he said.

"I honestly can't remember" how he decided Bartlet should have MS, Sorkin said. "I think I wrote it four episodes ago, and it all started because I wanted the president to be in bed watching a soap opera. . .and I had to figure out how he got there," he said.

"I didn't want it to just be the flu - I also wanted us to discover that Stockard Channing is a doctor," he said.

"It wasn't there because I wanted to explore MS, or medicine," he said. "It's there because it happened in that episode, and now it's part of the show's bible, and we'll live with it," he said.

All this may sound a bit seat-of-the-pants, but Sorkin's "West Wing" partner, John Wells, a longtime executive producer of NBC's "ER" and a guy with a reputation for plotting shows a season at a time, said Sorkin has "excellent" instincts.

"I think you shouldn't get too wrapped up in what the working technique is behind the eventual product," Wells said. "Every writer works differently, and Aaron likes to push himself right up against the edge and then finds exactly what he wants to say."

One actor who's enthusiastic about the new wrinkle in the White House drama is John Spencer, who plays Leo McGarry, the president's chief of staff. "It rips on a lot of levels," he said, including "the disappointment and the hurt that my best friend on earth didn't share something so great with me [and] fear, because there's a duality now, a kind of devotion and love for [Bartlet] as the man, and a desire to protect the presidency and the administration."

"That's established a big conflict for me, which is great," Spencer said.

Not that it wasn't a surprise.

"I found out at the table read, about three days before we started filming," Spencer said. "That's kind of part and parcel of our drama. I've had it both ways. I've had David Kelley , who wrote everything in advance, and I had Billy Finkelstein the last season of 'L.A. Law,' who would sometimes give me my summations the morning that I was going to do them," he said. "I prefer the former, but as an actor you learn to do what you need to get the performance."

Sheen, too, seems comfortable with Sorkin's style. And so far, Sorkin said, he's having no regrets about being tied to what could be a complicated plot line.

But if gets too difficult, Sheen, at least, has a solution: a miracle cure.

"I can always go to Fatima or Lourdes," he said.

You can reach Ellen Gray by e-mail at elgray@, by fax at 215-854-5852 or by mail at the Philadelphia Daily News, Box 7788, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101.