The West Wing Was Careful Not To Overuse Scenes With Martin Sheen

Despite its often idealistic portrayal of the White House, "The West Wing" is still the gold standard for a fictional Presidential administration. Aaron Sorkin's political drama is known for its snappy, long-running dialogue, though the excellent cast helped lift it all off the ground. Martin Sheen, in particular, thrived as President Josiah Bartlet, a force of nature in the series best characterized by his earnestness. The quintessential President, Sheen embodied every aspect you would expect from the leader of the nation. Indeed, it was because of his imposing qualities that "The West Wing" make certain not to overuse him.

Although he's a consistent presence throughout the show, it was clear from the first episode that President Bartlet was simply one part of a bigger machine. In the pilot, President Bartlet remained largely absent, mainly due to his bike accident. But when Bartlet did appear, he gave a long speech to his staff, who listened intently. His prolonged absence was intentional, an example of just how scarce he would be for the rest of the series. However, thanks to Sheen's inspired performance, the show's creators realized they didn't need to be afraid of using him, either.

Keeping things balanced

While there were multiple big-name actors in the running to play President Bartlet, it was Martin Sheen who would ultimately land the gig. He was also the last major cast member to sign on for "The West Wing," which raised questions about just how prominent his role would actually end up being. In a 2014 interview with Empire Magazine, as part of the outlet's 15 year anniversary feature "The Definitive History of The West Wing," Aaron Sorkin recalled feeling worried about overusing President Bartlet in the series, even prior to filming the pilot:

"I'd been concerned all along that the character of the president would throw the ensemble out of whack, that that character would simply take up all the oxygen in a room. I wanted to hold off bringing this character in until the last possible moment."

To be fair, Sorkin has a point. During the character's introduction, there is a clear, commanding presence to him that could have easily sucked up all the dialogue in the room. After all, he starts off by reciting the first commandant from the Bible, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God." That scene alone proved Sheen could be the imposing figure Bartlet is usually portrayed as. Sheen's endearing performance often leveled things out, though, allowing for a place where people don't always have to stand silently listening to his every word.

'Nothing felt pompous or aloof'

While Bartlet's speech in the pilot speaks to Martin Sheen's ability to command a room, the series did not limit the character to only moments of grandeur. It didn't happen overnight, but once Aaron Sorkin and his creative team fully grasped the character's potential, Sheen's role was expanded. Longtime "The West Wing" director Thomas Schlamme commented on realizing Sheen's inherent ability to appear accessible to audiences:

"Aaron's whole thing was that he didn't want the pomposity of the presidency. He didn't want everybody to do exactly what, in the final scene, everyone does, which is stand still and be respectful and just listen to what the President has to say. But once we cast Martin and we realized Martin's incredible accessibility, nothing felt pompous or aloof. If the show is about all the planets, let's end it with the sun."

According to Sheen, he actually had to reconfigure his deal, which only had him appearing in "three or four episodes every season." Instead, President Bartlet became a consistent character that showed up quite often. Not as someone more important than the rest of the crew, but as a member that served a special purpose, not to be overused. Despite any implications of godlike power, Bartlet was just as flawed as anyone, albeit an inspiring and unwavering pillar worthy of his title.

All seven seasons of "The West Wing" are available to stream on HBO Max.