In the Spotlight
In the Spotlight

Back in 1972, a little sixth-grader named Aaron Sorkin stood on the side of the road in Scarsdale, New York, and waited for President Richard Nixon’s motorcade to roll through town. He carried a sign that read: “McGovern for President.” But before his 11-year-old voice could be heard, a woman—older than Methuselah and shorter than Sorkin—grabbed the sign out of his hands, whacked him over the head with it, threw it on the ground, and stomped on it.
      Revenge can be sweet.
      Twenty-nine years later, Sorkin’s voice—as the creative soul behind NBC’s critically and commercially acclaimed series The West Wing—reaches more than 17 million viewers each week. In only two years, the hour-long political drama about President Josiah Bartlet and his impassioned White House staff has accumulated a record Emmy haul (nine awards last September, including one for Sorkin’s writing) and has tapped a cultural vein to such an extent that “Bartlet for President” bumper stickers can be spotted on Sunset Boulevard.
      Yet the irony is that this tale of retribution has nothing to do with politics. That sixth-grader’s sign merely symbolized a crush he had on a classmate who had volunteered for McGovern. And Sorkin will tell you his writing career, which includes authorship of A Few Good Men and The American President, stems from the very same get-the-girl pursuit.
      “I was standing in the back of the theater during a test screening of The American President," Sorkin recalls. “At one point, Michael Douglas says something nicely romantic to Annette Bening. Way down in front I heard three women gasp, and I thought, ‘Wow, I did that to them.’ So I became very happy being sort of heard and not seen.”
      Which wasn’t the original plan at all. The Los Angeles Times has christened Sorkin as “TV’s new golden boy.” Mirabella dubbed him “the most literate voice on TV.” And TV Guide listed him—along with such entertainment icons as Oprah Winfrey and Regis Philbin—as one of television’s 10 most valuable people. But Sorkin never set out to conquer the small screen. He loved the stage. And he never expected to write for a living. He was an actor.
      Sorkin first caught the acting bug in eighth grade when he played General Bullmoose in Li’l Abner at Scarsdale Junior High School. “I have always loved plays,” he says. “My parents began taking me at an early age, and as soon as I was old enough to take the train into the city by myself, I did. I saw all of them.” He also saw himself starring in them, in part because he figured the writing life required a more exotic background than his middle-class, mostly suburban upbringing.
      So he enrolled in SU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts, and having been a star performer in high school, he expected much the same on campus. But his 8:30 a.m. theater classes interrupted his sleep schedule, and he found himself repeatedly being quizzed about plays he hadn’t read. When you’re unaware that the salesman dies at the end of Death of a Salesman you’re not going to get by on wit and charm. He flunked his freshman core requirements. “Come back and pay attention next time” was the familiar refrain. “The professors felt I wouldn’t amount to anything unless they knocked me down a few pegs,” Sorkin says. “And I’m eternally grateful to them.”
      Duly humbled and newly serious, he rededicated himself to his studies, gained the faculty’s respect, and graduated in 1983 with a bachelor of fine arts degree in musical theater. The story comes full circle—as Aaron Sorkin stories often do—a few years later when playwright Arthur Miller actually asked Sorkin to fill in for him as a lecturer at City College of New York. The subject: Death of a Salesman.
      After graduation, Sorkin returned to New York City expecting immediate fame in front of the footlights. Instead, he joined the horde of aspiring actors for whom no job is too odd. He delivered singing telelrams, drove a limo, toured Alabama with a children’s theater company, and donned a moose head and handed out fliers promoting a hunting-and-fishing show. His most successful gig came as a bartender on Broadway, which, for a theater major, turned out to be the ultimate postgraduate education.
      Then one night—the kind of Friday night, Sorkin says, “where it seems like everyone was invited to a party but you”, he slipped a blank piece of paper into a friend’s semi-manual typewriter and began banging the keys. This was Newton’s apple, Naismith’s peach basket, Fleming’s petri dish. “Almost instantly, I felt a confidence that I had never felt with acting. And I thought acting was all I ever wanted to do,” he recalls. “But I realized all that time I hadn’t been learning acting. I had been learning what a play was.”
      Sorkin’s first creation, Removing All Doubt, was good enough to merit several high-class stage readings. His second, written primarily on cocktail napkins and based very loosely on a case involving his attorney sister, was A Few Good Men. To paraphrase Sorkin’s instant-classic line, the truth—if you can handle the truth—is that this aspiring actor was an overnight writing sensation. When your first full-length play opens on Broadway, earns you the Outer Critics Circle Award as Outstanding American Playwright, and nabs you a Golden Globe nomination by becoming a hit movie directed by Rob Reiner and starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson, well, that’s a heck of a rookie year.
      Sorkin’s next collaboration with Reiner was The American President, the story of a widowed commander-in-chief who falls in love with a lobbyist. While writing the screenplay, which earned him his second Golden Globe nomination, Sorkin spent two years holed up in the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles. In the process, he developed an affinity for late-night ESPN SportsCenter breaks and an understanding of White House machinations. These led to yet another feather in Sorkin’s multimedia cap—two television series.
      Sports Night, a half-hour behind-the-scenes look at the frenzy of an 11 p.m. nightly cable sports show, debuted in 1998. The West Wing arrived in 1999. Serving as executive producer and writer or co-writer of every episode of both series, Sorkin would pen the latter during the week and the former over the weekend. In all, he churned out about 70 scripts in his first two years of television. A 5:30 a.m. to midnight workday was the norm.
      ABC canceled Sports Night after two seasons, despite its enthusiastic core audience. Some observers had trouble categorizing the show. Was it a comedy? A drama? A sitcom? An anti-sitcom? The question surprised Sorkin, given television’s successful hybrid history with shows like M*A*S*H. He offers an analogy: “If you’re driving along and your radio is tuned to a rock station, you don’t say, "Wait a minute! I just heard elements of jazz and blues. Let’s get to the bottom of this before I can enjoy this song.’ To me, it was just a half-hour show.”
      Indeed, Sorkin’s body of work defies such categorization. The West Wing is a drama with laugh-out-loud moments. The American President was a romantic comedy with moments of sobriety. Even A Few Good Men, a very serious story, included some very funny lines. Some may consider it Sorkin’s calling card; he claims it’s just compensation. “To use a sports analogy, my fastball isn’t fast enough just to throw a fastball. My curveball doesn’t break enough just to throw a curve,” he says. “I have to mix up my pitches.”
      What Sorkin’s creations also have in common is an attempt to surmise what it might be like behind the scenes, whether it’s the military, ESPN, or the White House. In fact, The West Wing has been so successful at examining political issues and dramatizing the challenges facing all the president’s men and women that Time magazine described it as a “national civics lesson.” Sorkin, however, insists his goal is neither to teach nor to preach. “I don’t have a political or social agenda with the show,” he says. “The show’s not meant to be good for you. I’m not asking anyone to eat their vegetables. I’m just trying to come up with an entertaining, compelling hour of television.”
      Sorkin signed a $16 million development deal with Warner Bros. Television last September, meaning he will shape new projects for the studio. But television’s golden boy will always point to the theater as his first love. “There’s never going to be anything more exciting than doing something on stage for a live audience,” he says. “On the other hand, with television, I’m doing a new play every week. I’m reaching a huge audience, much larger even than I have in the movies. I think, for a writer, I have the best job in show business.”

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