In the judgement of the Emmy Awards, The West Wing was the greatest American television drama series ever made. Along with Hill Street Blues, Aaron Sorkin's ambitious, beautifully scripted talkathon about the staff of a fictional Democrat President named Jed Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) won 26 Emmys over its seven series. The show did so because it succeeded where the real politicians had failed: it made politics sexy.
So imagine being Richard Schiff. He played Toby Ziegler, Bartlet's hangdog director of communications, for seven series of The West Wing, during which his own awards mantelpiece became impressively crowded. He is now in London to perform Underneath the Lintel, an offbeat monologue about a Dutch librarian and the uncanny fruits of his research. It is a play that he recently performed in a small theatre in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Compared to The West Wing, it must feel like he has moved from Manchester United to Port Vale.
"Actually, when I said to the guys on The West Wing that I might go and do this play everyone said, 'Are you crazy?'", remarks Schiff, who, at 51, is much sunnier (and, he says, "better-looking") than his West Wing character. "[But] I read this script, and I couldn't put it down. It took me on a little journey and I thought: 'That's a good play.' Then I put it down and didn't think about it again because the idea of doing a one-man play in New Jersey was too dumb to even think about."
Several re-readings later, Schiff was sold. He moved to New Jersey from his "big, stinking house in LA" to undertake what he said was his "monk's mission". It was, in a sense, a return to his roots. In the late 1970s and 1980s he drove a cab around his native New York to raise the money to put on fringe productions - although for the most part, he was directing, rather than acting in those plays.
"It was tough doing Underneath the Lintel in New Jersey in the wintertime," he says, "but rewarding. Those audiences were lively and interactive. On-stage was great, but off-stage was difficult. New Brunswick, this nice little town about 40 minutes from New York, tried its best, but I was in a small apartment about a block from the theatre and very far from my family."
London is treating Schiff better, despite his having created a little press storm (almost as his plane touched the ground) by deriding West End musicals. "Deriding?", he asks. "Listen - I like musicals. Even when they're bad, there's a couple of dancers I can watch. But I was asked by this guy from the BBC something like: "There are currently 24 musicals playing the West End. What makes you think that anyone wants to come and see your play?' Which is a fair question.
"But my response was: 'They should see a straight play because there are 24 musicals in the West End.' Why not see something different? I think when I was asked I had just seen Frost/Nixon and had been blown away by it. And, for my buck - or quid - I would like to see something that actually changes me a bit. Frost/Nixon had a profound effect on me. There are some musicals - Caroline, or Change and West Side Story, perhaps - that can also do that. But most are just fun."
Schiff was inspired, in part, to perform Underneath the Lintel, by his late colleague, John Spencer, who died filming the seventh series. Indeed, Spencer [who played the chief of staff, Leo McGarry] was the only one of his co-stars who, on hearing about Underneath the Lintel, immediately said: "Sounds great... you gotta do it." Schiff was preparing for the play in New York when he heard the news.
"It was devastating," he recalls. "Brad [Whitford, who played Josh Lyman in the programme] called me and said, 'John died'. He was a good guy - such an enthusiastic actor. Went to work with a gumguard in. And, when I was on my own doing the play out in New Jersey I used to talk to him from backstage."
Spencer's death was the nadir in a difficult endgame for Schiff and The West Wing. His episodes, and many of his colleagues', were cut - "Purely a financial decision," he says. "We were expensive actors." He felt let down by the scriptwriters.
"I was sad for the show," he says. "I hated my storyline. Toby would never in 10 million years have betrayed the president in that fashion [in the seventh series, Toby is indicted for leaking classified information]. Even if he had, there would have been seven episodes' worth of fights before he did it... In the end, the only way I could make sense of my story was to come up with my own story - that Toby was covering for someone else. That, at least, made sense to me."
So, who was Toby covering for? "I don't think I should ever reveal that."
The ructions of the last series were a far cry from the first, which was when, Schiff believes, the show reached its apex.
"Back then, it was all about collaborative problem-solving," he says. "We were ahead of the game, and working 15, 16 hours a day, five days a week going deep into Saturday morning on this fortified Hollywood studio lot. Whenever there was a problem, you could say to Aaron or Tommy [Schlamme, the show's producer] if you were unhappy, and that problem would spark nine new ideas... Suddenly, you'd have an amazing script. The first year was always my favourite - there was a purity then - but I always felt that even our worst show had value."
It is a measure of how much The West Wing gripped the American consciousness that it not only garnered critical plaudits, but became a touchstone for American political debate as a whole. The actors themselves became political figures - which, in Schiff's case, was not such a leap. His family were highly politicised - his mother was a leader of the Women's Liberation movement, and his stepfather, Clarence Jones, was Martin Luther King's lawyer.
As a schoolboy, Schiff, an early attendee at Black Panther meetings ("I stood out a little"), protested in Washington DC in the late 1960s, before becoming disillusioned with activist politics by "the constant in-fighting". When he returned to the White House as a member of The West Wing, it was, he says, "the first time I had seen DC without tear-gas". On one of those visits, Schiff remembers a strange moment when, in the first days of the Iraq war, he met President Bush's director of communications, Dan Bartlett, in the lobby of Washington's Ritz-Carlton hotel.
"I asked him, 'What do you think of your boss as a human being?'" recalls Schiff. "He had to think about that one. Then he listed about 15 really solid qualities about Bush - he's loyal, smart, a good friend, devoted to his job. "And then he said: 'I've been with him for 13 years, and I can honestly say that in that time, he has not changed one iota.'
"I thought, 'This is a man who was a drug addict, an alcoholic. Then he was in the National Guard, started an oil business at which he was a miserable failure. Then he owns a baseball team who never come in anywhere but last. Then he runs for President and wins, experiences the greatest attack on our country ever, and starts a war in response. You're telling me he hasn't changed in 13 years?' It was the scariest thing I had ever heard. It was, to me, the definition of insane."
As Toby, it seems, Schiff enjoyed a gloriously surreal existence. As the protagonist in Underneath the Lintel, he may receive fewer invitations to hold forth on national politics, or visit the White House, but he may have rediscovered the reason he drove that taxi on so many New York nights. "Theatre," he says, "has a great power to move people. And if you can experience that, why miss it?"
'Underneath the Lintel' opens at the Duchess Theatre on 12 February
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