Bartlet for president: ‘West Wing’ reunion delights fans and cast at ATX TV Fest

“What’s next?”

The only possible answer to TV President Josiah Bartlet’s signature question on Saturday? “More ‘West Wing!’”

One of this year’s main events at the ATX Television Festival, the 10-year reunion of the cast and creative minds from the NBC drama packed the Paramount Theater. The panel delivered much of what people loved about the White House show: smart, often rapid-fire dialogue; serious topics mixed with humor; and a call to make the world a bit better.

Near-constant ribbing of Joshua Malina aside, the affection felt for each other and the show was clear among cast members Malina, Melissa Fitzgerald, Dulé Hill, Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford and Janel Moloney, executive producer Tommy Schlamme, writer and creator Aaron Sorkin, and writer Lawrence O’Donnell. That same love was reflected back from the audience, a good chunk of which appeared way too young to have seen the show on first airing. Sorkin said it was gratifying to see so many young people in the audience, and “I’m honored that people are inspired to go into public service” because of the show.

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Speaking of service, part of the purpose of the reunion was to support Fitzgerald, who played C.J.’s assistant Carol on the show and is now senior director of Justice for Vets, a nonprofit that creates veterans courts for veteran defendants, whose military service and its effects are not always understood by civilian courts. Fitzgerald’s “West Wing” castmates have pledged their support to the cause, even recording a PSA (above) that was shown at the panel.

Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford and Janel Moloney on stage Saturday during the 10-year reunion of "The West Wing" cast and creative team at the ATX Television Festival. (Photo by Sharon Chapman/American-Statesman)

Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford and Janel Moloney on stage Saturday during the 10-year reunion of “The West Wing” cast and creative team at the ATX Television Festival. (Photo by Sharon Chapman/American-Statesman)

Sorkin is not known for brevity, as he pointed out, and the panel ran almost two hours. Malina said ATX TV Fest folks agreed to let him use the audio for an episode of his “West Wing Weekly” podcast. Before that, here are some tidbits:

We’re walking and talking: The panel opened with “The West Wing’s” first “walk-and-talk” from the pilot. Sorkin deferred to Schlamme when O’Donnell asked if he knew in the writing that it would become the show’s signature. Sorkin said he wrote it, but Schlamme found the style as director of the episode.

Much missed: John Spencer, who played White House chief-of-staff Leo McGarry, carries that scene and died of a heart attack during the final season of the show. A special moment was given to Spencer on Saturday. “He was a gentleman among gentlemen,” Schlamme said, and as kind a human being as he was a great actor.

She quit her day job: Moloney had decided to quit acting before auditioning for the show. She wasn’t a regular cast member at first, but the chemistry between her Donna and Whitford’s Josh was clear fast. Moloney said she decided Donna would die for Josh before even meeting Whitford and played every scene that way. O’Donnell said the development of that relationship and decision to keep Moloney showed the dynamic feedback loop between the set and writer’s room; actors and writers influenced each other. (Another example: Schiff pitched the idea of Toby bouncing a rubber ball in his office when stuck on a problem. Sorkin took it to another level in the episode “17 People.”)

Elevating their own bar: “I was always left slightly unsatisfied after every episode,” Sorkin said. “That’s what you’re supposed to be.” He left the series at the end of season 4, and has not watched seasons 5-7. He followed the advice, which he didn’t believe at first, of Larry David, who left “Seinfeld” before it ended. David warned him that he’ll be miserable if the show is good without him and miserable if it’s bad.

Character development: Sorkin had the most trouble finding the “true north” for characters Toby Ziegler (Schiff) and C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney, perhaps tied with Martin Sheen for cast member most wished could make it Saturday). He found Toby’s when he came up with the idea that Toby was not Bartlett’s first choice for communications director, because Bartlett felt judged by Toby when Bartlett was not being the person he should be.

Representing "The West Wing" on Saturday at the ATX Television Festival, from left: cast members Melissa Fitzgerald, Joshua Malina, Dule Hill, Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford and Janel Moloney, executive producer Tommy Schlamme, writer and creator Aaron Sorkin, and writer Lawrence O’Donnell. (Photo by Sharon Chapman/American-Statesman)

Representing “The West Wing” on Saturday at the ATX Television Festival, from left: cast members Melissa Fitzgerald, Joshua Malina, Dule Hill, Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford and Janel Moloney, executive producer Tommy Schlamme, writer and creator Aaron Sorkin, and writer Lawrence O’Donnell. (Photo by Sharon Chapman/American-Statesman)

Rhythm and poetry: Schiff said he doesn’t usually watch things he’s in, but he watched the pilot recently before appearing on Malina’s podcast. He judges situations by how he feels in them, and “The music of (Sorkin’s) language was so beautiful.” He always thought Toby was the oboe of the orchestra: always playing, even if you don’t realize it, and dark. “It squeaks every once in awhile,” Whitford pointed out.

Prolific prose: Whitford pointed out that Sorkin wrote the equivalent of 11 feature films for four years. “No human being will ever again write 22 one-hour episodes for four seasons,” he said.

Worth checking out: a “West Wing” podcast that came before Malina’s called “Wingin’ It.” I met the hosts, Andrea Howat and Sallie Gregory, in line on Saturday. They are up to Season 5 on their show and have been interviewing cast members while in town for the fest.

So much more was said on Saturday — there is no line between the political beliefs of Brad Whitford and his character Josh Lyman, guest star Karl Malden used the same Bible from his role in “On the Waterfront,” a lunch with Stockard Channing sparked the multiple sclerosis storyline, Yo-Yo Ma was the best guest star ever — let’s get that podcast up post-haste Malina!

More ATX Television Fest:

Noah Hawley talks new novel and “Fargo.”

How “Oz” and “The Wire” changed the game.

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