The plot twist shocked most viewers of “The West Wing,” but not Kathryn Joosten.
The actress, who has portrayed presidential secretary Dolores Landingham for the two seasons “The West Wing” has been on the air, knew exactly what was coming earlier this spring when she was told the show’s producer wanted to see her.
“There’s only one reason you get called into the producer’s office,” she said, “and that’s because they’re going to kill you off.”
And so they did, though mercifully off-screen. Her blunt-spoken character died in a collision with a drunken driver, adding to the president’s anguish with his job in jeopardy over revelations that he hid a serious illness.
For a bit player in a television drama, the fictional death nonetheless resounded to the point that a California Democrat called for a moment of silence in the state Assembly chamber to honor her.
And even now on “The West Wing,” with Mrs. Landingham popping up in summer repeats, viewers are still mourning her demise.
“It wasn’t done cavalierly, believe me,” said Thomas Schlamme, the executive producer who gave Joosten the fateful phone call.
Schlamme said he and Aaron Sorkin, the series’ creator, saw a chance to explore in flashback style the relationship between Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet and his father through the woman who worked for both of them.
“It was a terrible thing that we would lose this wonderful actress, who was so good and so loyal to the show, but it really did add a tremendous amount of understanding to the president of the United States, at a time it was really necessary,” he said.
He and Sorkin were both surprised, though, at the anger and disappointment expressed by the show’s fans. Maybe they shouldn’t have been.
Many viewers could see themselves, or their mothers, while watching Mrs. Landingham. “The West Wing” is appealing for its idealized vision of how the nation’s government should work. In a White House of people filled with self-importance, Joosten’s character took them down to size, and reminded them who they should be working for.
“I think she represented for a lot of people the voice of the little people,” Joosten said.
Sworn to secrecy about the character’s fate and not trusting herself, Joosten took off on vacation the week her “death” aired. She returned to find about 15 phone messages and 80 e-mails.
Since television characters are often written out of shows for health concerns, she’s been assuring people that she’s fine. It wasn’t a contractual tiff, either. Joosten wasn’t demanding more money or more screen time.
Joosten, 61, followed a dream to Hollywood six years ago after a lifetime spent working as a nurse or a saleswoman for Welcome Wagon in the Chicago area. She’s worked regularly as an actress, mostly in comedies such as “Frasier,” “Murphy Brown” and “Dharma & Greg.”
Mrs. Landingham was a breakthrough, though. If she’s upset to lose a job on an Emmy-winning drama, a much-praised show that is also becoming one of television’s most popular, she isn’t letting on.
“I don’t get to vote on these things,” she said. “But it’s been tremendous for me. The role itself has been a delight and being on ‘West Wing’ has been a delight on every level. The publicity resulting from Mrs. Landingham’s untimely demise has been good for me personally.”