BURBANK, Calif. -- Arguably the most popular politician to burst on the scene in the past few months isn't even a real person -- it's President Josiah Bartlett, the man who occupies the Oval Office on the Peabody Award-winning NBC drama, "The West Wing."
And, oddly enough, if the show's creator had gone with his first instinct, the character, played by Martin Sheen, wouldn't even be on the show."Originally, I wasn't going to have the character of the president in the show at all," said writer/executive producer Aaron Sorkin. "I really wanted the show to be about the senior staffers, and had the fear that the character of the president would necessarily skew the show in a different direction. And I very much wanted to write ensemble drama."
Indeed, "The West Wing" (which airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on Ch. 5) has assembled a fine troupe of actors, including John Spencer, Richard Schiff, Alison Janney, Bradley Whitford, Moira Kelly and Rob Lowe, who play top staffers in the White House. As Sorkin originally envisioned the show, the staff would work in the shadow of the president, but he would never be seen on camera except for the occasional glimpse.
"I then felt like that would quickly get hokey," Sorkin said. "That we will constantly be just missing the president. As he walks around the corner, we'll see the back of his head. He'd be like the next-door neighbor on 'Home Improvement,' somehow, and that was going to be silly."
So he decided to make the character of President Josiah Bartlett an infrequent visitor to the show, and Sheen was contacted about playing the part -- and signed to appear in just four episodes.
"When we had originally spoken about it, we would see the president every few episodes, and that was going to take care of my hokey problem," Sorkin said.
The pilot was an indication of how Plan B might have gone. After spending most of the episode with the staff, the president appeared only in the final few minutes of the program. But Plan B quickly gave way to Plan C.
"We all had such a good time making the pilot that we decided to become more steady," Sorkin said.
And it was soon after shooting on the pilot began that Sorkin and his fellow executive producer, John Wells (who is also the guiding force behind "ER"), decided to make the change. Very soon.
"When we saw Mr. Sheen's dailies," Wells said. "At the end of the first day, we all sort of looked at each other and said, 'Oh, boy, this is a thing.'
"What can happen is you put an actor into a show in a guest part or a part that you only expect to see occasionally, and you look at the dailies and realize that that's someone you want to see all the time -- that you want to write for. And we went back and said, 'We had a great time. Did you?' "
"And so I agreed to join the cast," Sheen said.
The rest is mock-presidential history. Sheen has appeared in every episode of "The West Wing," and the role has been greatly expanded.
Still, it's at least a bit surprising that Sheen would agree to star in a weekly television series, even as a member of an ensemble cast. What convinced him?
"Four words -- 'John Wells' and 'Aaron Sorkin.' That's it," Sheen said. "It doesn't get any better than that. And I couldn't be happier."
And, as popular and presidential as the character of Josiah Bartlett has become, Sheen is under no illusions that playing the president is anything like being the president.
"Do I feel presidential? No, not even a shadow of the real guy," Sheen said. "That's not possible. The only thing that we can really get into are the relationships. And I think that's the strength of the show -- that which happens away from public view. The personal moments. The effect of policy and personalities and events on the staff and the president.
"But it's not possible to have any clue of what it's like to be the president. There are only four guys still alive that could relate to that. . . . I'm an actor; I'm not a politician. It shouldn't be misconstrued."
Sheen has been an activist of sorts -- he's been arrested with some frequency during anti-nuclear demonstrations -- but he professes not to have much interest in politics.
"I've been interested in some political figures, but never specifically interested in politics per se," Sheen said. "I'm interested in the issues. I'm interested in history. I'm interested in peace and social justice issues, but politics, per se? No, I don't have much interest in that at all.
"I don't dislike politics or politicians, I just don't have much interest in them. Not all politicians are public servants, and I'm far more interested in public servants than I am in politicians."
Not that he has any complaints about playing a politician.
"There are things I have a lot of fun with," Sheen said. "At times I call myself the acting president."
DEALING WITH MS: One of the more surprising things we've learned about President Bartlett is that he suffers from a form of multiple sclerosis -- and that he's managed to keep that fact a secret from not only the press but from his own staff.
And Sorkin, who carries most of the writing load on both "The West Wing" and ABC's "Sports Night," said he "honestly can't remember" how he came up with that idea.
"I think it all started because I wanted the president to be in bed watching soap operas. I wanted him, for the first time, to be experiencing daytime dramas," Sorkin said. "And I had to figure out how he got there. And I didn't want it to just be the flu. Oh! I also wanted us to discover that Stockard Channing's character (the first lady) is a doctor and so things just started happening."
The storyline hasn't been much in evidence since the president collapsed in an episode in mid-January, but Sorkin promises that it will return.
"We're going to learn more about that as it goes on -- who knew and how they kept it from the press. And there's a medical way that they were able to do that," he said.
The character has remitting multiple sclerosis, which means he could live a normal life with a normal lifespan. Not that it doesn't pose some difficulties.
"There are going to be problems," Sorkin said. "For instance, a very high fever can be much, much more dangerous than it would be for you and me. Situations where you're under a great deal of stress can be life-threatening, and he is the president. So problems will come up like that. As well as the idea of how it's kept secret the whole time."