John Spencer

Leo McGarry in 'The West Wing'
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The Independent Online

John Speshock (John Spencer), actor: born New York 20 December 1946; married; died Los Angeles 16 December 2005.

Art imitated life when the American actor John Spencer was cast as Leo McGarry, the Chief of Staff who ran the day-to-day operations of the White House and worked with President Josiah Bartlet to formulate policy, in the popular American drama series The West Wing - like McGarry, Spencer was a recovering alcoholic.

But, when the actor suffered a fatal heart attack, life was imitating art, though with more drastic results. During Middle East peace talks last year, McGarry collapsed with a heart attack in the grounds of Camp David. He recovered to return as Senior Counselor to the President (Martin Sheen) and, at the end of the last series, announced he would stand for Vice-President as the running mate of Congressman Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits). The seventh series, featuring the election campaign, was still in production at the time of Spencer's death.

Spencer had appeared in The West Wing since it began in 1999 and was nominated for an Emmy Award as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series five times, winning it in 2002. As the White House Chief of Staff, he was seen as Josiah Bartlet's rock, his closest ally and confidant. The First Lady, Abigail (Stockard Channing), would reassure the President that he could go to sleep at night, even in times of crisis, with the words: "Leo's in the West Wing."

The political partnership began when McGarry, who had served as a pilot in Vietnam, resigned as Secretary of Labor to the Republican President Owen Lassiter, persuaded his friend Bartlet, then the Governor of New Hampshire, to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, became his campaign manager and helped him to victory. He was then appointed as Bartlet's top adviser, often seen in his own office adjacent to the Oval Office or sitting in with the President in the Situation Room. Highs and lows included Bartlet's successful victory to give him a second presidential term and the kidnapping of his daughter Zoey (Elisabeth Moss) following his order to assassinate the Qumari defence minister. After McGarry was struck down by a heart attack, Spencer said:

It seemed so technically and dramatically correct that ultimately Leo's health would give out. If you look at the history, it started with the strain after the Sharif assassination where suddenly reality was slightly tarnished. In a way, the Bartlet administration was a Camelot up to that point and then suddenly we assassinated somebody, justifiably perhaps. Then there was a Macbethian sort of darkness that came in and I think that began the separation between Leo and Jed Bartlett. In a way, they could almost not look at each other without the knowledge that they had done this.

Born John Speshock in New York City in 1946, the son of a truck driver and a waitress, he was brought up in Totowa, New Jersey, and trained as an actor at the Professional Children's School in New York. Under the professional name John Spencer, he made his television début in the sitcom The Patty Duke Show (1964-65) with the regular role of Henry Anderson, the boyfriend of Cathy Lane, one of the twins both played by Patty Duke. Although he attended both Fairleigh Dickinson University, New Jersey, and New York University, he dropped out to return to acting.

After small roles in films such as WarGames (1983) and Black Rain (1989), Spencer's breakthrough came when he played Detective Dan Lipranzer alongside Harrison Ford in the courtroom thriller Presumed Innocent (1990). He later acted the FBI director in The Rock (1996) and a police chief in The Negotiator (1998).

Before The West Wing (1999-2005), Spencer was best known to television viewers worldwide as the charismatic, tough and quirky New York lawyer Tommy Mullaney in L.A. Law (1990-94) during the second half of its eight-year run. The streetwise attorney was in sharp contrast to the drama's glamorous cast and setting, and helped to reinvigorate it.

On stage, he won an Obie Award for his off-Broadway performance as a Vietnam veteran, Mark, in Emily Mann's play Still Life (1981), then acted the killer Dan White in her Broadway production Execution of Justice (Virginia Theatre, 1986).

Anthony Hayward