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John Spencer, 58; Actor Best Known for Emmy-Winning Role on TV’s ‘The West Wing’

Times Staff Writer

John Spencer, an actor who received an Emmy Award for portraying the flawed but efficient chief of staff who anchored the large ensemble cast on NBC-TV’s “The West Wing,” died Friday morning. He was 58.

Spencer died after suffering a heart attack, said Ron Hofmann, his publicist. He said the actor had fallen ill at home and died at Olympia Medical Center in Los Angeles.

“We’re shocked and deeply saddened by the sudden death of our friend and colleague,” Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme, executive producers of “The West Wing,” said in a statement. “John was an uncommonly good man, an exceptional role model and a brilliant actor.”

On the Emmy-winning hourlong drama that began airing in 1999, Spencer’s character, Leo McGarry, is running for vice president on the Democratic ticket with Rep. Matthew Santos, played by Jimmy Smits.

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Art sadly imitated life for Spencer. His “West Wing” character was chosen as a running mate despite a recent heart attack and a history of alcoholism. The actor openly acknowledged that he had struggled with alcohol addiction since high school

In a statement, Smits said, “I am honored to call John Spencer a friend, and his death is a loss that will be felt for a long time to come. Working with him was a privilege.... John was a true pillar of a man.”

The death of an actor while a series is still in production challenges the producers and writers to find a logical plot line for the character’s sudden absence. “The West Wing” will have to deal with the loss because the fictional election is central to the story line.

David E. Kelley, a writer and executive producer on “L.A. Law” when Spencer joined that show in 1990, was too upset to speak but issued this statement: “We are all deeply saddened.”

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James Mangold, who directed Spencer in the 1997 film “Cop Land,” said he first noticed the “brilliant” actor when he played a street-smart attorney on “L.A. Law” on NBC.

“He was a kind, sweet, funny man ... a man who made your words come to life in ways you would never expect,” Mangold said.

Spencer was born John Speshock on Dec. 20, 1946, the only child of a working-class family. Most sources give his birthplace as New York City, but some say New Jersey.

His mother, Mildred, was an occasional waitress and homemaker who dropped out of school in the eighth grade. His truck driver father, John, never finished grammar school.

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“They wanted me to be educated, a doctor or a lawyer. They weren’t happy that I chose the arts,” the gravelly voiced Spencer told the Chicago Tribune in 1992. “They wanted me to have a good life. It’s ironic that I made the leap in a different way,” he said.

As a student at the Professional Children’s School in New York City, he sometimes took classes with Liza Minnelli.

At 16, he left his home near Paterson, N.J., to pursue acting in New York City and took Spencer as his stage name.

“I lived at the YMCA,” he recalled. “My mom would meet me at the bus station and slip me $10.”

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In the early 1960s, he landed his first television role, on “The Patty Duke Show” on ABC. He played Henry Anderson, the boyfriend of Cathy, the British twin.

“I had big ears and was quite tall for the show, 5-foot, 6 inches,” Spencer recalled in 2000. “I looked like a toothpick with ears.”

After that, he attended Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey and later New York University but dropped out to return to acting.

Most of his early work was on the stage, where he established himself as a character actor in regional theater.

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He toured with Gloria Swanson, playing her blind son in “Butterflies Are Free.” In 1982, he received an Obie for his portrayal of a returning Vietnam veteran in the Emily Mann off-Broadway play “Still Life.”

Mann also offered him the role of killer Dan White in “Execution of Justice,” her stage re-creation of the 1978 murders in San Francisco of political figures George Moscone and Harvey Milk.

“Still Life” led to his first film role, as a military grunt in 1983’s “WarGames.”

His big break in the movies came in the 1990 film “Presumed Innocent.” He played Harrison Ford’s detective sidekick, the man who tosses the incriminating piece of evidence overboard at the end of the courtroom thriller.

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“My life changed overnight,” he told Time magazine in 2000.

From there, he went directly to the NBC hit “L.A. Law.” Casting director Ronnie Yeskel knew Spencer’s work from the theater.

“He’s dangerous and interesting, not your typical pretty boy, and he’s got great humor,” Yeskel said in 1992. “We were looking for somebody different from the cast, an older guy, maybe with a little more ‘street.’ ”

Although Spencer was hesitant to join the series, Kelley’s script convinced him otherwise.

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“I got five pages into it, and it was one of the best scripts I’d read. David had got inside my head. He wrote it like I thought,” Spencer told the Chicago Tribune.

He joined “L.A. Law” in 1990 as maverick lawyer Tommy Mullaney and stayed until the show’s end in 1994. Spencer claimed Mullaney’s rumpled look was based on his own wardrobe.

Spencer, whose grandfathers were both alcoholics, said he woke up one morning in 1989 and decided to quit drinking. He called a cousin to take him to a rehabilitation center. A decade later, Spencer gave up smoking.

In his 40-year career, he also worked with Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery in the action-suspense film “The Rock” (1996) and with Paul Newman in the 1998 private-eye yarn “Twilight.”

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After appearing in the short-lived NBC series “Trinity” in 1998, Spencer swore off doing hourlong dramas but once again changed his mind when his agent showed him the pilot script for “The West Wing.” The role would bring him five Emmy nominations, including a win in 2002.

Right after he signed the contract for the pilot, his agent called again to say he’d just come across “the best new American play” he’d ever read, called “The Glimmer Brothers,” Spencer told The Times in 2001.

Again, it was a role that Spencer felt he couldn’t pass up.

He played Martin Glimmer, a dissolute trumpet player who’s about to pay the final dues of a hard life, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts during “The West Wing’s” summer hiatus in 1999.

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Two years later, he revived his well-reviewed role in “Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine” -- same play, different title -- at the Mark Taper Forum while filming “The West Wing.”

During the play, his role on the show was cut back, but Martin Sheen, who portrays President Josiah Bartlet on “The West Wing,” told The Times in 2001 that he 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,” Sheen said. “I don’t know how he does it, but man, he’s doing it.”

Spencer’s publicist said he is survived by many cousins, aunts and uncles. Funeral arrangements are pending.

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Times staff writers Susan King, Maria Elena Fernandez and Lee Margulies contributed to this report.


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