On a Wing and a Prayer

Patrick Goldstein is a Times staff writer

It is 1:30 a.m. and Aaron Sorkin is slouched in a director's chair, commiserating with Rob Lowe between scenes on the set of "The West Wing." The new NBC drama, which co-stars Lowe as a harried White House speech writer, is one of two shows, along with ABC's "Sports Night," created by Sorkin in his young career as TV's new golden boy.

Right now the golden boy is beleaguered and exhausted. Up at dawn, Sorkin has been going at a David E. Kelley-style pace, writing every episode of both shows. "It's like being with two lovers in the same week," he says. He pens "West Wing" scripts on weekdays, grabbing time between production meetings, casting sessions and visits to the set. Over the weekend he writes "Sports Night," which returned for its second season Tuesday, finishing the scripts in time to be messengered Sunday night to cast members for the show's Monday morning table read.

By the second week of September, the strain is showing. The new "West Wing" script, due days earlier, is stalled somewhere in the first act. When the director of the upcoming episode stops by, Sorkin bluntly informs him: "I owe you a script, but I have nothing." He walks the director out, handing him a "West Wing" cap. After he's departed, Sorkin turns to Lauren Carpenter, his assistant. "Mark this down on our calendar," he says glumly. "We'll never be on schedule again."

If anyone would thrive on the high-wire act of doing two TV shows simultaneously, it's Sorkin, a brainy, sometimes arrogant, always ambitious 38-year-old playwright and screenwriter. When he says that he loves "smart, quick, flawed characters," you can't help but think he's talking about himself.

He was still in his 20s when he wrote "A Few Good Men," the Broadway hit he later adapted for the screen, earning an Oscar nomination for best screenplay and best picture. In his early 30s, he spent two years holed up at the Four Seasons Hotel here, writing the script for "The American President." By the time the movie was finished, Sorkin's life was spiraling out of control--he'd become a cocaine addict and had to check into the Hazelden Institute in Minnesota to kick the habit.

So why would he want the stomach-churning pressure of writing two TV shows? "It's a good question," he says one night. "Possibly the sort of question best left for a therapist." He tries to joke away the jitters. "I saw David Kelley at the Emmys and he just [messes] with me now. He looked at me and said, 'You don't look tired at all.' "

Late one Friday, bundled up in a hooded sweatshirt and sneakers, Sorkin looks like a bleary-eyed marathoner, if marathoners chain-smoked Merits and could write monologues about Andrew Jackson serving free cheese in the White House. He tells Lowe that when he drives home at night from Burbank he fantasizes about checking into one of the gnarly room-by-the-hour motels on Ventura Boulevard for a quick snooze. "I suppose no one actually uses those motels for sleeping," Sorkin says. "I'd have to bring my computer so I could tell the clerk I'm just a writer who needs to get some work done."

"I really don't think you have to worry," Lowe says dryly. "I doubt that any of the clerks actually speak English."

Sorkin can be forgiven for imagining he was somewhere else. He thought he'd scored a coup by hiring William H. Macy--on leave from prepping a David Mamet film--to play a hardball ratings consultant on "Sports Night." But arriving at the last minute earlier that day, Macy gives what Sorkin describes as a "chillingly terrible" rehearsal performance. Sorkin and his director stare forlornly at each other, wondering if this Bill Macy, who is married to "Sports Night" co-star Felicity Huffman, can possibly be the fabled theater actor who has worked for years with Mamet and was so drolly funny in "Fargo."

Once the cameras are running, Macy nails every take. "He was perfect," Sorkin says. "Maybe that's why Mamet let us have him--he just didn't want to see him rehearse."

Around midnight, director Thomas Schlamme, Sorkin's closest confidant and an executive producer on both shows, stops by to discuss the merits of a potential "West Wing" director. Afterward, Sorkin shakes his head. "I wanted to tell Tommy, 'Don't invite me to that meeting.' The way things are going on this script, I can't imagine us ever getting to Episode 15."

*

Sorkin is still in the honeymoon period with NBC, which has been heavily promoting "West Wing," smelling a potential hit. But with ABC, relations have been rocky from the beginning, even though "Sports Night" was easily the third-place network's most acclaimed new show last season. Driving back to the Disney lot, Sorkin passes the half-completed ABC-TV building across the street that will replace the network's Century City headquarters. Having the top brass right next door is clearly too close for comfort. "When it's finished," he says, "I guess we'll have to move the show to New York."

"Sports Night" was network TV's most pleasant surprise--a brash half-hour comedy with the heft of an hourlong drama. Sorkin, who wrote all 23 episodes, created a gallery of witty, absorbing characters who labor for an underdog, "ESPN SportsCenter"-style highlight program.

Huffman plays Dana Whitaker, the show's tightly wrapped producer, whose suppressed attraction to co-anchor Casey McCall (Peter Krause) provides much of the show's sexual electricity. Two of the show's other regulars, associate producers played by Sabrina Lloyd and Josh Malina, provide the overt office romance, while co-anchor Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) gallantly survived several first-season humiliations by the opposite sex. The show's father figure is Isaac Jaffe, a gruff, Lou Grant-style boss played by Robert Guillaume who returns this season, recovering from a real-life stroke that Sorkin has incorporated into Isaac's character.

Even though the show has been lathered with critical praise, both for Sorkin's razor-sharp dialogue and for Schlamme's innovative direction--which won him an Emmy last month--it struggled all season, ending up a lowly No. 66 in the year-end ratings. The mediocre ratings are a particular problem for "Sports Night," which costs about $1.2 million per episode, significantly more than the average sitcom. ABC is hoping for better, especially with the show, which airs Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m., getting a strong lead-in from "Dharma & Greg."

Sorkin spent much of last season noisily battling with the ABC brass over everything from the show's promo ads to its laugh track. To make matters worse, Sorkin aired his complaints last fall in a New Yorker piece that cast him as a defiant dilettante. Unhappy over the network's insistence on airing the show with a laugh track, Sorkin complained that it felt "as if I'd put on an Armani tuxedo, tied my tie, snapped on my cuff links, and the last thing I do before I leave the house is spray Cheez Whiz all over myself."

The show's second episode last season focused on Dan, who after revealing that he'd once smoked marijuana, is forced by the network to make an on-air apology. Sorkin says that when he was in New York earlier, schmoozing network advertisers, he ran into a young ABC comedy executive then assigned to the show. "I was told to let the network in more, like they were on our team," he recalls one day in his Disney office, which has Orange Crush in the fridge, mounds of M&Ms; on the tabletops and the smell of stale cigarettes. "So I told her about the episode. And she spent untold hours beseeching me not to write it--or at bare minimum, write it as the 23rd episode of the year."

Once an actor himself, Sorkin has mastered the art of pausing for dramatic effect. After a beat, he concludes: "And, of course, that was the episode that got me an Emmy nomination."

This season, Sorkin has channeled his beefs with ABC into his scripts. The show's third episode, due later this month, focuses on a trio of network suits who try to install the new ratings consultant in Isaac's job, using Isaac's laborious stroke recovery as an excuse to put him out to pasture. Watching the cast run through the episode, it's impossible not to draw parallels between Sorkin's script and his own run-ins with ABC.

In one scene, Isaac tells the suits: "Just because we didn't execute all the network's suggestions doesn't mean we weren't listening, it just means we didn't agree. You didn't expect me to substitute your judgment for mine, did you?"

Later, when J.J., the lead suit, criticizes Dana's anchormen, she tells him: "Dan and Casey are professional writers. They're not waiters in a restaurant. You can't tell them what you'd like and how you'd like it prepared." J.J.'s response: "This show is bought and paid for by my network, Dana. I'm afraid that's exactly what I can do."

It's unclear how ABC Entertainment co-chairman Stu Bloomberg feels about the network being portrayed as a corporate bully--he didn't respond to requests for an interview. Sorkin says Bloomberg wasn't thrilled. "I expect that Stu, being human, feels like somebody just took a cheap shot at him. But everybody fires spitballs at network heads and politicians. When he sees the show I really believe that he'll say, 'Hey, this is great television.' "

Barely an hour after the run-through, a call comes in from Bloomberg. Sorkin assures the network chief that he's building up the relationship between Dana and Casey--an obvious ABC priority--and downplays the episode's acerbic shots at network executives. "Stu, you're not the devil," he says cheerfully. "This is fiction."

It can't help matters that the actress playing one of the episode's executives, a pretty woman with a mane of curly hair, bears an obvious resemblance to recently departed ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses. "I understand the resemblance, but it's totally coincidental," Sorkin insists. "I wouldn't do that to Jamie. We just thought the actress sounded like a lot of network execs we'd had meetings with."

Still, the point is made: The battles facing the characters in "Sports Night" aren't so different from the ones Sorkin confronts. After talking with Bloomberg, Sorkin launches into a slashing, two-cigarette soliloquy that you could imagine Dana delivering on a future show. "Stu is a good man, and I like his taste, but something is clearly bothering him. He's losing money on our show and he's got a creator-head-writer-executive-producer--me--who's a real pain the ass. But I care more about pleasing my cast and Tommy than I do the network.

"This isn't TV camp. I see people who don't write or act or direct or carry a sound boom, and yet they're experts on doing a TV show. If you work at ABC and you're insistent that your hands be on the steering wheel of this show, let me ask this--are you the creative inspiration behind 'Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place'? Or behind 'Two of a Kind'? Because that's not the person I want on this show."

Sorkin sighs as he lights a new cigarette. "I know that arrogance and belligerence plays a huge part in this, but I want to be liked too, and it'll bother me if Stu thinks I'm a jerk. But if I make an argument against a network idea, I want to hear an intelligent response. Instead, they just run back to their boss and say, 'Hey, Aaron threw a ball at me!' Collaboration is about yelling and debating and standing on sofas. I can't just take the network's notes and fix things. Once that happens, I just become a stenographer. If it gets to that point, hey, I can get a whole lot more money spending a week rewriting a script for Jerry Bruckheimer."

Sorkin exhales a cloud of smoke. "In fact, I still have another television show."

*

On the "West Wing" set one day, Sorkin watches Brad Whitford and Janel Moloney play a scene in which they discuss briefing the president about the disclosure that the smallpox virus, once thought to be safely stashed in two freezers in Russia and the United States, is now also in the hands of Iraq, Syria and China. Sorkin hears a line--a line he wrote--that bothers him.

"Don't you think there's something about 'Isn't that something we got rid of in the '50s?' that's clumsily expository?" Sorkin asks as he steps out from behind the camera. Moloney politely nods. "This doesn't make it Chekhov or anything," Sorkin says. "But what if you say, 'Didn't we get rid of it?' And [Brad] could say, 'In the '50s.' "

Sorkin looks over at director Anthony Drazan: "You OK with that?" Drazan says sure. They do another take. Sorkin frowns. "Did that make it better or worse?" he wonders aloud. "Did I make Janel sound stupid by her not knowing it's in the '50s?"

TV is not a medium for manic perfectionists. But as a former playwright, Sorkin values the word--and the sound of a word--so if he thinks a line of dialogue sounds off, he will unapologetically hit the brakes and stop the train to fix a loose coupling.

Raised in Scarsdale, N.Y., Sorkin always had a glib knack for dialogue. He prepared for his bar mitzvah by passing over the usual Torah study. "I went to Rabbi Greenberg and told him, 'I have a very good ear. Just speak [the Hebrew] into a tape recorder and I'll learn it.' It's my gift. I can give the impression of being a very bright, interesting person that you'd want to invite over for dinner."

Sorkin was vice president of his high school drama club and went to Syracuse University because it offered a degree in musical theater. He acted in children's theater after he graduated, but his progress as an actor was slow. "He really started writing out of actor's frustration," says David Handelman, a childhood friend who co-wrote a "Sports Night" episode last season. "He did his first script on my grandfather's old manual typewriter when I was away and he was feeding my cats."

Within a few years, Sorkin had launched his career with "A Few Good Men," which he followed with the off-Broadway comedy "Making Movies" and a trip to Hollywood to adapt "A Few Good Men" for the screen. His experience on the film set the tone for his future dealings with studio suits. The first time he met with director Rob Reiner, Sorkin found himself in a roomful of various production executives. Fifteen minutes into the meeting, someone gave a tin-eared note that infuriated Reiner.

"Rob got up and said, 'There's too many god---- people in this room,' and he threw everyone out but me," Sorkin recalls. "I realized what a difference it made that he was not only the director and the producer, but his company, Castle Rock, owned the movie. When you have these party crashers who demand that you collaborate with them even when you've never asked for their help, you have to tell them there's too many damn people in the room."

*

After "A Few Good Men," Sorkin was hired to write "The American President," also for Reiner. It's become legend that Sorkin dreamed up "Sports Night" after he found himself watching ESPN's "SportsCenter" while he was at the Four Seasons working on the film.

Sorkin's first draft was a 385-page script he sent Reiner in a shopping bag. He eventually trimmed the script but developed a problem along the way--he became a freebase cocaine addict. "I was the kind of addict who was functional--I was actually writing good material," he says. "But I didn't see people or talk to people. I'd fax my pages over to Rob at 7 a.m. and after we'd talked about it, I'd close the curtains and start writing again."

By the time "American President" went into post-production, Sorkin was missing deadlines, behaving strangely, getting high for days on end. It was obvious he was coming unglued. "I didn't use with people," he says. "But I remember having a drink with Warren Beatty and he said, 'Whenever you want to get help for your cocaine problem, let me know so we can do something for you.' "

Sorkin says Reiner went to one of his business-affairs lawyers, a woman Sorkin was dating, and told her, "You've got to get this person into rehab." Sorkin was ready. "Julia [Bingham] made a lot of calls, they had an open bed at Hazelden, and we were on the next plane to Minnesota." Sorkin spent 28 days in rehab. "Needless to say, when I showed up and saw all the fortune-cookie expressions they have, I thought, 'Oh, brother.' But it was a fantastic experience. Around the 10th day, it suddenly felt right--I found myself doing things I'd never done before. By day 25, I was saying to my counselor, 'Are you sure I have to go home?' That said, honestly, I'm the same as any other addict. I'm only a phone call away from getting loaded again."

His recovery had a nice dramatic twist--the lawyer that got him into rehab is now Julia Sorkin, his wife. He savors the irony: When she was at Castle Rock, it was her job to "see that I got as little money as possible, which I reminded her of when we were shopping for a house recently." They first met when Sorkin was so late getting her some legal paperwork that he sent along a bouquet of flowers. "Of course," he says, "she called accounting to see if I charged the flowers to the studio."

These days, with Sorkin leaving the house at 5:30 a.m. and returning home after midnight, Julia barely sees him at all. One night, obviously lonely, he asks his assistant to call her to see if she'll stop by for a late dinner while he makes script fixes. "It's incredibly hard on her," he says. "If she's not having an affair with another man, she must be crazy."

*

A "Sports Night" run-through is like a 440-yard dash. Spouting Sorkin's staccato dialogue, the cast sprints down corridors, reverses direction and bursts into the newsroom, with Sorkin, Schlamme and that episode's director trying to keep up. At the end of each scene, Sorkin confers with the director and cast. The writing staff doesn't participate--they are shooed away before Sorkin gives notes to the actors.

For a spat Dana's having with Casey, Sorkin tells Huffman: "The haughtiness comes at the end [of your argument], but just as a defense mechanism." He goes over a laugh line with Sabrina Lloyd, telling her: "Make it $2.5 million. That's a million dollars funnier."

Before the last scene, Sorkin asks the script supervisor how the episode is timing out. "We're over," she says. Sorkin shrugs: "Maybe we can get 'Dharma & Greg' to give us some time." Afterward, Sorkin retires to his office with Schlamme and the director, where the conversation is more serious. The episode isn't just a tad over--it's six minutes too long.

Schlamme lobbies for trimming a lengthy "walk and talk" scene. Sorkin suggests cutting a scene in Casey and Dan's office: "Doesn't that save us two minutes?"

"Five hundred dollars!" Schlamme booms. "You can have $500 in single bills if it's two minutes long." A quick script search ensues: The scene lasts 30 seconds.

Tony Krantz, co-chairman of Imagine Television, which produces "Sports Night," says Schlamme and Sorkin are "classic partners--they're like Hope and Crosby." Beginning a "West Wing" cast lunch, Sorkin says, "This is Episode 5 of the series, which means if we were the BBC, we'd be done for the season." Schlamme immediately adds: "And living in much smaller homes."

They met when Sorkin was looking for someone to direct the "Sports Night" pilot. ABC had suggested James Burrows, but Sorkin felt the legendary pilot director had too much of a sitcom mentality. "The network was upset that I'd let this big fish go," he recalls. "So when I met with Tommy, I asked him what he would do to make the show feel more comfortable, like a sitcom. And he looked at me and said, 'Are you kidding? That's the last thing you want to do.' And I instantly said, 'You've got the job.' "

Once Sorkin bonds with someone, the bond remains tight. Josh Malina, who first met Sorkin in high school, has been in every Sorkin play and film. Ron Ostrow and Tim Davis-Reid, who play "Sports Night" control-room technicians, are elementary school and college buddies, respectively. "Sports Night's" Peter Krause first met Sorkin when they were Broadway theater bartenders. "West Wing's" Brad Whitford was in "A Few Good Men" on Broadway.

Sorkin and the actors spend so much time together that it's often hard to tell when art is imitating life or the other way around. When Sorkin is too busy to attend a party Huffman and Macy have one night, he sends Huffman a card with a bottle of wine and a can of Spackle--exactly what Dan gives Dana as a gesture of apology after a spat in an upcoming episode. Another episode has Casey and Dan cagily trying to boost their vote totals in an Internet popularity poll, a plot twist inspired by a friendly rivalry between Krause and Charles on ABC's "Sports Night" Web site, although Krause says, "Aaron's version isn't nearly as extreme as it was in real life."

Real life intrudes in other ways. "West Wing" was recently criticized for its all-white cast of leading players. "The NAACP is right," Sorkin says. "The show needs to look like America." It's easy to dismiss his response as boiler-plate liberal patter. However, the way he recently dealt with the issue offers a more thoughtful commentary.

John Spencer, who plays Leo, the president's chief of staff, is seen conferring with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman John Amos during a foreign-policy crisis. When the meeting breaks up, Spencer tells Amos he's about to hire a new presidential aide, known as the president's body man, Charlie (played by Dule Hill). Spencer asks if Amos would have any problem with a young black man having the very public job of holding doors open and waiting on the president.

Amos responds: "I'm an old black man and I wait on the president."

Spencer: "The kid's gotta carry his bag and . . ."

Amos: "You gonna pay him a decent wage . . . treat him with respect in the workplace?"

Spencer: "Yeah."

Amos: "Then what the hell do I care? . . . I've got honest-to-God battles to win, Leo. I don't have that much time for the cosmetic ones, you know what I'm saying?"

*

"We're at Def-Con 4," Sorkin says, still deep into his week of writer's block. "I have nothing--we're in the weeds." He's addressing a "West Wing" writers' meeting, originally scheduled for 10 a.m., which finally convenes at 6:30 p.m. Sorkin is surrounded by a seven-person writing team that includes former playwrights, TV-drama veterans and ex-political consultant Pat Caddell, who also functions as one of the show's technical advisors.

The happy sense of collaboration you see between Sorkin and his cast doesn't extend to the writers, who find themselves in the unenviable position of working for someone who writes every episode of his shows. Sorkin asks them to spend the evening writing up four pro and con arguments culled from various political or cultural issues.

"Keep it simple, something that can be told in four acts," he says. "Introduce the issue, we fight about it, someone is right, someone is wrong, then we find a conclusion. Don't try to write scenes--just give me bullet points."

Caddell suggests an issue: public broadcasting. He says gruffly, "Why the hell are we funding public TV for rich people?"

"Great," Sorkin says. "Write it with that look on your face."

Sorkin, who seems to instinctively frame issues in their most dramatic terms, offers an example involving AIDS research. "There's a guy dying of leukemia, watching the Academy Awards in a hospital bed next to a guy dying of AIDS. And he's thinking, why are they wearing red ribbons for him and not for me?"

When Sorkin gets up to leave, the writers are silent. "Could I hear a little more enthusiasm?" he says, sounding like a football coach after a failed locker-room pep talk. The writers manage a few halfhearted smiles. Afterward, he responds to an observation made about the staff's discernibly low morale.

"With the greatest possible measure of respect," Sorkin says coolly, "their level of frustration can't be a problem for me now because I've got bigger problems--I've got a show to write."

Sorkin shares writing credit on an upcoming "Sports Night" episode with Miriam Kazdin. Otherwise, for now, the writers are there to help fuel Sorkin's imagination. "Who knows--maybe I'm honestly afraid of what might happen when someone comes along and writes a script that is better than the ones I've written."

It's something that Sorkin broods about constantly. Malina recalls Sorkin telling his cast one day that "when I'm not writing well, I'm not happy, no matter what else is going in my life." Malina adds: "I felt bad for him. What great pressure [there is] on you to write well if you're not going to be happy unless your writing is going well. It really gave you the sense that Aaron is writing for his life."

You are reminded of something that screenwriter William Goldman, who mentored Sorkin early in his career, once said about his charge: He writes like he's perpetually on a first date trying to impress a pretty girl. In fact, when Sorkin and his wife were first dating, he took her to see an early cut of "The American President."

Sorkin says he was terrified. "I thought, this is the ball game. If she likes the movie--meaning my writing--I'm all right. But if she doesn't, it's all over. Maybe that's why I spend so much time by myself writing. I've always felt that what I have that's most accessible or attractive comes out through my work. I just see myself as a guy who's better on paper than in real life."

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