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He Just Follows the Words

Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

Just outside the rehearsal room at the Mark Taper Forum annex, a weary personal assistant waits for a break in the action to duck in with a tray full of frozen coffee drinks from Starbucks--four tall plastic cups filled with the sweet, milky, fashionable slush known as a Frappuccino. A jolt of caffeine, maybe, a sugar rush to keep the cast going until the rehearsal winds up at 11 p.m.

True enough--except that all four of these out-sized beverages are for just one actor: John Spencer.

It’s not the first time--not even the first time today--that Spencer’s assistant, Heath Mensher, has carted in the Starbucks. And if it’s not Frappuccinos, it’s cigarettes, or an endless supply of toothpicks treated with pungent tea tree oil that always get chewed into splinters.

It doesn’t take long in a conversation with Spencer for the actor to tell you he’s a recovering alcoholic; the struggle remains central to his life. “An addictive personality never really loses that,” Spencer says--the off-road gravel in his voice belying a temperament so sweet and obliging, it’s almost weird.

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“It’s a hard thing to accept when you are trying to get clean. It’s like being told you’ve got cancer, and we’ll make it so you don’t die, but you’ll always have cancer,” he continues. “You think, can’t I ever just get well? But addiction is addiction is addiction. You can decide not to use, but you will still have the disease.”

Frappuccino, toothpicks and cigarettes, he admits, are substitutes for the drinking habit he kicked in 1989. But now he has a new, more positive reason to need an outlet for nervous energy.

Spencer has entered an exhilarating, and exhausting, new phase of his career: starring as White House chief of staff Leo McGarry in NBC’s award-winning drama series “The West Wing"--and, at the same time, playing a major role onstage at the Mark Taper Forum in “Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine,” a new play by Tony Award-winning playwright Warren Leight.

“Glimmer” opened Thursday and continues through March 4. And so, somehow, must Spencer. For the next few months, he’ll juggle two characters, two jobs, two worlds--one beginning at 6 a.m. on the set of “The West Wing” at the Warner Bros. Studios lot in Burbank, and another that begins around 7 p.m. and continues until 11 p.m. at the Taper.

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On weekdays, Spencer is up at 4 a.m. at the Beverly Hills home he shares with his girlfriend, actress-choreographer Patti Mariano. And, after the evening’s rehearsal--or these days, performance--of “Glimmer,” he heads home for another two or three hours of work, running the complex, rapid-fire dialogue for the next “West Wing” episode, with assistant Mensher playing the rest of the large ensemble cast. Mensher has taken up temporary residence on one floor of Spencer’s house to be available around the clock.

“He won’t go to sleep until the lines are perfect,” says Mensher, 27, operating on three hours’ sleep, in a recent between-takes conversation in the Oval Office on the “West Wing” set. The room is an exact replica of the real one, down to the paperweights. “But I know if I’m working 20 hours a day, he’s working 20 1/2.” Spencer’s other personal assistant, Asaari Karkhanis, takes over the job on weekends. These days, it takes a tag team of two twentysomethings to keep up with 54-year-old Spencer. And, after a few sessions of watching Spencer go through his paces, you almost expect him to say it:

Hello, my name is John, and I’m a workaholic.

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“I find when I really want something, I go after it,” says Spencer, sounding almost apologetic about his commitment to his craft. “I find when I want something passionately, I’ve been very fortunate--most of the time, it will happen.

“I find that, as a general rule, if I follow the words, I end up in the right place. I’ve made career decisions for money--we’re all human, with a mortgage to pay. But I find the only foolproof way of choosing is if I say: ‘These are great words, I have to say them. I have to do this part.’ ”

Coincidentally, both of the characters Spencer is playing are addicts. Leo is a recovering alcoholic who spends his days in office corridors and conservative suits. Martin Glimmer, an aging jazz trumpeter, is a very not-recovering drug user, who now spends his days coughing his lungs out in a hospital bed, paying the price for his habit.

“Playing Martin and Leo at the same time is an interesting stretch, from White House chief of staff to a junkie jazz musician,” Spencer says. “I have found so far, so good--one man is not bleeding into the other. I have to be diligent about that, I am constantly asking Heath when we run lines for ‘West Wing,’ ‘There’s no Martin coming in, right?’ ”

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At a rehearsal before the opening of “Glimmer,” playwright Leight notes that Spencer is usually not scheduled to report to the Taper until 7 p.m.--but if work at “The West Wing” ends early, he’ll show up at 5. “It’s really psychotic,” Leight says, sounding awed.

“It’s like he has two families--we think we’re his family, but there’s this other family where he’s actually quite happy,” Leight continues. “We’re aware that he’s apparently on some TV show. But when he gets here, he always has energy, maybe it’s the Frappuccino maintenance program. He seems to get stronger as the night goes on.

“Both of his characters--I mean, neither of them is a Prevention magazine reader. But Martin is so much coarser--this guy would not even be allowed to take a picture of the White House, much less be in it.

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“But John walks in, and he makes the switch; he puts on these slippers, and he ages 20 years and 400,000 miles. I laugh now when I watch ‘West Wing'--I think, who the hell is that?”

Rehearsals for “Glimmer’ began in late December, but it was not until early January that Spencer experienced his first day of going directly from shooting scenes in costume and makeup at “The West Wing” to his “Glimmer” rehearsal downtown. Fellow “Glimmer” cast member Jonathan Silverman said he and the other actors, used to seeing Spencer only as Martin Glimmer, were in for a shock.

During the first days of rehearsal, Silverman observes: “John just let himself go, his hair was unkempt, and he hadn’t shaved--I mean, I’m sure he bathed, but he certainly didn’t come to rehearsal with makeup on, he didn’t come in so clean-cropped and smelling so good. It was awkward seeing him come in directly from the TV set, he looked great. It might have taken him a moment or two to switch gears.

“How he’s able to do this, I have no idea,” Silverman adds. “Whenever the rest of the play’s ensemble is teetering on exhaustion, if we are considering complaining about the workload, we just have to look over at John.”

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It’s still no surprise the actor would insist on carving out time for theater in his career. Born John Speshock to working-class parents in Totowa, N.J., Spencer left home at 16 to pursue a stage career in New York. In his teens, he landed a TV role on “The Patty Duke Show” as Cathy’s boyfriend, but between then and the early 1980s, most of his work was on the stage.

Between 1974 and 1981, he performed in productions of David Mamet’s “Lakeboat,” John Hopkins’ “This Story of Yours” and “The Glass Menagerie.” In 1982, he won an Obie for his performance in Emily Mann’s “Still Life,” based on the experiences of a returning Vietnam vet, presented under Taper auspices at Hollywood’s Aquarius Theatre in 1982. That performance led to his first film role, a bit part as a military grunt in 1983’s “War Games,” then more film work in “Black Rain,” “Presumed Innocent,” and “The Rock,” to name a few. Before “The West Wing,” Spencer was probably best-known for his four years on “L.A. Law” as street-smart attorney Tommy Mullaney.

Clean-cut Leo and ragtag Martin were both characters Spencer wanted desperately to portray. But getting both opportunities at the same time was a situation he tried desperately to avoid.

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He’d been burned on this stove before. In 1998, Spencer was obliged to turn down an invitation from Arthur Miller to create a role in Miller’s new Broadway play, “The Ride Down Mount Morgan,” because he had already committed to replacing Philip Bosco in the cast of the short-lived NBC drama “Trinity.”

“Trinity” was canceled after just two months on the air, and after that, Spencer swore off hour dramas for good to avoid another conflict in the future. Besides, hour shows require a much more demanding shooting schedule than sitcoms.

Then, Spencer’s agent showed him the pilot script for “The West Wing,” created by Aaron Sorkin, who also created ABC’s “Sports Night"--and once again, he was hooked. “I read it, and I said, this is phenomenal--I have to play this role,” Spencer says.

The actor read for the role, got it and signed a contract to do the pilot. Then his agent called, this time to say: “I just read the best new American play I’ve ever read.” He sent Spencer the script, then titled “The Glimmer Brothers.”

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The producers were considering Spencer for the part of Martin Glimmer, one of twin brothers who were part of a jazz trio in the big band era of the 1950s, but have been estranged for 40 years. Leight’s play “Side Man,” also set in the world of jazz, won a Tony in 1999. And once again, Spencer found himself saying, “I have to play this role.”

Another conversation with the agent. Agent says Spencer has to fly to New York to read for the play. Spencer says he can’t because he’s shooting the pilot for “The West Wing.”

A compromise is found. Spencer sends two videotapes of himself performing two monologues from “Glimmer"--one to the playwright, one to the director. He gets the part. In 1999, he devotes the summer--the traditional TV hiatus for actors--to the premiere of “The Glimmer Brothers” at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts.

There is good news and more good news--which leads to bad news.

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Spencer is well-received, and plans get underway to put the play on the road to Broadway, probably via other regional theater productions. “John Spencer (a film and TV character actor with a face more recognizable than any role) is a powerhouse as Martin Glimmer,” writes critic Terry Byrne in the Boston Herald. Meanwhile, NBC picks up “West Wing” for fall 1999.

But this means that Spencer, who has become fiercely possessive of Martin Glimmer, will probably have to leave the future of the character to another actor. He returns to L.A. to begin work on the TV series, bemoaning his fate.

Sorkin is a playwright as well as a screenwriter. In his 20s, he wrote the Broadway show “A Few Good Men,” which he later adapted for the screen; the film was nominated for two Oscars, best screenplay and best picture. Sympathetic, Sorkin comforts Spencer by saying: “If you find a play you want to do, I’ll make it possible.”

Spencer’s next line: “I have.”

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So everybody started talking. Spencer and Leight, both determined to keep Spencer in the cast of “Glimmer,” brought the play to the attention of Gordon Davidson, artistic director of downtown’s Mark Taper Forum--a convenient half-hour car ride from “The West Wing’s” ersatz White House in Burbank.

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Because Los Angeles is the center of the entertainment industry, this wasn’t the first time Davidson had heard a screen actor plead to return to the stage without compromising his or her shooting schedule.

“When I first came here in 1964, the theater group was based at UCLA, and we used to do it all the time,” Davidson says. “There was this big influx of East Coast actors suddenly finding Hollywood, finding roles in series like ‘Bonanza’ and stuff like that. But the runs at UCLA were short, so it was manageable. When I came downtown and had to preserve the primacy of the theater, it wasn’t easy. I don’t want to sell the theater short. What I won’t allow is a revolving door.”

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Davidson recalls the Taper made the combination work once for Judd Hirsch when the actor was starring in the sitcom “Taxi” by casting him in one of two shows that were playing in repertory--making sure that the other play always fell on Fridays, the night Hirsch filmed “Taxi” before a studio audience.

The challenge arose again for the Taper in 1999 when Brian Kerwin, starring with Molly Ringwald in “How I Learned to Drive,” got an offer to do a TV pilot, shooting in Vancouver, Canada, during the run of the play. Kerwin almost turned down the pilot--but Davidson agreed to have another actor to fill in for Kerwin on weekdays during a period of about two weeks. Kerwin commuted to be at the Taper for the weekend shows.

Spencer, however, has no scheduled absences during the play’s run. “This is a phenomenon,” Davidson admits.

“I sat him down and said, look, this is what we’re going to need. Because it’s a small-cast show, I think we can work around your schedule, but I need an absolutely clear tech week and clear preview week through the opening, and there was no compromise to that,” Davidson says. “I also asked for a guarantee that he would make every performance, because unlike the sitcoms, ‘West Wing’ doesn’t shoot at night. He said: ‘I’ll do it.’

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“When it works, I almost feel triumphant, because I feel it’s making a point,” Davidson adds. “I think it’s enlightened and encouraging and important, because actors want to be able to do both. It’s hard, you have to have stamina. But I think he’s indomitable.”

Rehearsals at the Taper had to move later in the day to accommodate Spencer, but Silverman said the actors didn’t mind because it helped the cast acclimate to the evening performance schedule.

“The West Wing’s” Sorkin, who writes the scripts, says he took Spencer’s theater schedule into account while writing the episodes that have been filmed or are yet to film during “Glimmer’s” run. The first of those episodes, he says, begin airing in early February.

“We see Leo a little bit less--although he’s far from gone,” Sorkin says. “I must tell you, ‘The West Wing’ version of a light load isn’t like other shows. For instance, the episode we’re shooting right now, in which I needed to write John down because of the play, he still has a page-and-a-half speech at the end. Believe me, it’s not like: ‘Good morning, Mr. President, see you later, I’ll be gone for three weeks.’

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“And, frankly, there are other things you can do other than reducing page count,” Sorkin continues. “If I can put all of John’s scenes on the same set, in the same room, they can be shot in one day, it doesn’t matter how many pages there are. And it can be shot on Monday, when the Taper is dark.”

Martin Sheen, who portrays President Josiah Bartlet on “The West Wing,” says he’s noticed no difference in life on the set with Spencer. “He’s extremely energetic, he’s got it down--I can barely keep up with the show,” he says. “I don’t know how he does it, but man, he’s doing it.”

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“Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine,” Mark Taper Forum, Music Center of Los Angeles County, 135 Grand Ave., downtown. Tuesdays-Fridays. 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Also Feb. 28, 2:30 p.m. No 7:30 p.m. performance March 4. Ends March 4. $30-$44. (213) 628-2772.

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