Wells: I've done a lot of things that were challenging in my career but that next six months was as hard work and as difficult as anything I've ever attempted. I gave Aaron a hard time because he left with the President's daughter being kidnapped and somebody else in the Oval Office! I said, "So you're quitting, but you aren't going to tell me what you planned to have happen next?" And he goes, "Oh, I have no idea what was going to happen next. That's one of the reasons I'm quitting, actually." Well thanks a lot!

"Alan Alda had actually been in original talks for President Bartlet. He and I had worked together so Alan was a name that I brought up very early on."

John Wells

Whitford: John came in at the table read for the first episode – he very bravely wrote the first two – and I remember we sat down to read and he said, "I feel like Ethel Merman's understudy."

Janney: In that first year it was a little bumpy because there were so many writers trying to fill Aaron's shoes. It was all a hodge-podge of different kinds of episodes and finding a way to write for the characters, some more successfully than others.

Lowe: I stumbled upon it once and I saw what looked like a nineteen-year-old John Spencer wading around in a rice paddy in 'Nam. I never watched it again.

Schlamme: I had once said to John, not knowing if this day would ever happen, "Maybe what they should do with West Wing is every year, just give it to somebody else. Let this be Norman Lear's West Wing, let this be Stephen Bochco's West Wing". Give great titans of television the franchise for a year so that they could just reinvent it each time. That first year would've been a real difficult transition for anybody. Slowly, by the sixth and the seventh year, it was their show. And the final year, everybody should be as proud of that as any other year of that show.

A Change Is Gonna Come

Wells: With Bartlet, we caught up to him in the second year of his presidency and then we did the re-election. Now we wanted to do stories about the waning years of a presidency, a campaign and the beginning of a new one.

Jimmy Smits (Matt Santos): I was working in New York City, doing Shakespeare In The Park, when I got a call from my agents that John Wells was interested in talking to me. John wanted to explore the whole dynamic of what is involved in the campaign process.

"We did [the live show] twice, one for the East Coast and one for the West Coast. It was nerve-wracking, but it was exciting . You know, just like jumping off a cliff."

Jimmy Smits

Wells: We spoke to political consultants about what a minority campaign would look like. They said, "Well there's this young senator out of Illinois that people are talking about a little bit," which turned out to be Barack Obama. They basically laid out for us what they thought the campaign strategy would have to be for him to ever run for president, although they kept telling us the whole time, "It'll never happen, of course."

Smits: What struck me more than anything is how the people that are involved in government start out from a place of really wanting to do well, no matter what kind of political spectrum they're on, how they have to hold onto that warm fuzzy place in their heart while they're stuck in the machine. In the case of West Wing, that involved the campaign process and Santos' feelings with Josh. What's the best way to preserve your dignity and learn how to compromise?

Whitford: Jimmy is this very powerful guy with a humanity and sweetness in him that made that work amazingly.

Wells: Vinick was based on John McCain and a number of possible centrist Republican candidates. The rise of the Tea Party, that very militant side of the Republican Party, hadn't really forced people into the positions that Republican presidential candidates have to take now. So we were looking for someone far more moderate, what would now be considered an establishment Republican. The 2008 election was very odd. We called the political consultants we'd worked with and said, "You guys kind of knew what you were talking about!"

Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda filming the ground-breaking West Wing live debate episode
'Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda filming the West Wing live debate episode

Alan Alda (Arnold Vinick): John called me and asked if I would like to run for President as the Republican nominee. That's all he said and that was enough for me because he's such a good writer and the show was such a good show. I liked Arnie very much, because the character wasn't written as a straw man to be knocked down by the other party. The arguments were rational arguments. He was drawn as a humane person, he just had different solutions to the problems before the country than the other party had.

Janney: It was great to have a Republican character as likeable as Alan was. He was one Republican I would probably vote for; he was old school.

Wells: Alan had actually been in original talks for President Bartlet. He and I had worked together so Alan was a name that I brought up very early on.

"The one hour live debate that we did was one of the most exciting times for me on stage or on camera, because anything could go wrong."

Alan Alda

Alda: Yeah, at one point they talked to me about that but I was busy with other things and I didn't want to do a regular series. But you couldn't play that role better than the way Martin played it.

Wells: Alternating between the White House and the campaign was challenging, but it was the way we were writing the show once Aaron had left that made it possible to do. I say that with all due love for Aaron, but we were able to write episodes a long time in advance and then plan them logistically, which was complicated.

Alda: [Working on The West Wing] was similar in many ways to my experience on M*A*S*H, because you had people willing to work late at night to get it just right. The one hour live debate that we did was one of the most exciting times for me on stage or on camera, because anything could go wrong.

Smits: I've got to tell you, we rehearsed that as if it were a play. It was written concurrent to a subsequent episode that was being filmed so we didn't have the luxury of really pounding it out.

Alda: They kept pulling Jimmy out of rehearsals to shoot the episode prior to that, so we went in under-rehearsed. But that gave it a certain electricity, I think. And the presence of the audience really shook things up.

Smits: We did it twice, one for the East Coast and one for the West Coast. It was nerve-wracking, but it was exciting ( see video below). You know, just like jumping off a cliff.

Alda: They brought in another audience for the second one and they thought they were at a Democratic rally and they kept cheering Jimmy Smits and ignoring me! I finally quieted them down, I changed the dialogue and I told them to "Be quiet, this is going to be good." That was one of the happiest times for me acting, ever.

Wells: We went back and forth on whether the Republican should actually win the election. We thought that that could be a very interesting thing to do and then watch that transition and see what happened to our characters as they left government.

Alda: At one point they did decide that Vinick would win and they started to write stories that would make him more attractive to the public. There was a story in which he comes into possession of Santos' briefcase and decides not to use any information in it and gives it back; he behaves very nobly. That was intended to swing the public his way. You know, you always have to side with your character, no matter what the character is like, and I wanted him to win! I had this really funny experience watching the election episode where I thought the votes could still swing my way. I'd already watched the scenes where I'd lost!

Internal Displacements

The West Wing Prankster directright
The cast relive Joshua Malina's prank-related campaign of terror.
The Fish Bowl directright
How many easter eggs did you spot in each episode?

Malina: I'm a realist and I haven't spent too much time dwelling on what Will Bailey's trajectory would have been had it continued in Aaron's hands, Although I think it would have been different. Would he have gone on to run Bingo Bob's bid for the Presidential candidacy? I don't think so. But I harboured no ill will and I think actually there was a time where maybe John Wells thought Will Bailey's story had been told and I think he wanted to find a way to keep me on the show. I was actually very grateful and I relished the time with Gary Cole. A lot of fans turned on me, though, or turned on Will Bailey. For a lot of people, there is no real separation between the character and the actor. There was actual hatred from people!

Schiff: What was done to Toby [in the final season] was wrong. I was deeply, deeply hurt by that. They gave me this scene where I reveal myself as the White House leak and I thought, "Oh, maybe I'm taking the fall for somebody." So I played that out kind of heroically, like maybe I'm falling on my sword. I did not know that they wanted to shorten the number of my episodes! I hope it was just a bad idea that they thought was great and that there was nothing beyond that – but it was a really bad idea and very insulting to me. Aaron heard what they were doing to Toby and he wrote me one of the most beautiful emails I've ever gotten about my work. He said, "Toby is my favourite character I've ever written and I've loved working with you on the character." He went on to describe how much he loved Toby and why, and it made me cry because it was just really beautiful.

"What was done to Toby in the final season was wrong. I was deeply, deeply hurt by that."

Richard Schiff

Wells: I love Richard, but Richard was never happy. Sometimes in the midst of trying to do a complicated show, you're like, "Oh Richard, give me a break."

Janney: Richard had a hard time with his character's changes and I did as well, for different reasons. I liked the dynamics the way they were. Me having to be the boss of everyone wasn't as fun for me in the room and the comedy wasn't there. When C.J. became Chief of Staff it was a strange shift for me on the show and I wasn't comfortable in that shift.

Wells: Usually what happens is that the President wants to keep people he already trusts around him, so those kind of moves happen. Sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully. But these shows have to grow and change. It can be very difficult for people who've gotten comfortable with what they're doing, but that's what happens in life and certainly what happens in political life. You want to reflect that if you're going to have the show feel as if it's a realistic presentation of what's really going on.

Hill: I loved that Charlie came in looking for a job as a messenger and at the end he was working with the Chief of Staff. He'd been through a journey and a relationship with Zoe Bartlet, who obviously was his first love. He came in as an employee and he left as a member of the family. I couldn't be mad at that journey, I loved it.

Moloney: I thought they did a really terrific job with Josh and Donna. My biggest fear was that it was going to be like, "a very special episode of The West Wing – we've seen them laugh, we've seen them cry! Donna and Josh finally..." But no, I thought it was so smart and unexpected.

Whitford: It's so funny, because of course at the end of the first year I take a couple of bullets. But I'm in bed with her six years later and there are no scars! There's nothing! Nobody's ever brought that up.