‘The West Wing’: Aaron Sorkin’s Contract for Actors Demanded Dialogue Be Verbatim What He Wrote

Twenty-five years ago, Aaron Sorkin gave the world a carefully crafted and well-written TV show that went on to become one of the best shows to have ever aired on TV. For someone who never wanted to do TV, Sorkin’s The West Wing proved how versatile and adaptable the writer could be.

When Sorkin wrote the script, he didn’t tolerate any changes to the text. He reportedly demanded that the show’s dialogue be verbatim what he wrote. 25 years later, viewers are glad Sorkin stuck with the decision because The West Wing is one of the most remarkable series of all time.

NBC was unsure of a political drama

The cast of 'The West Wing.'
L to R: Allison Janney as Claudia Jean ‘C.J.’ Cregg, Richard Schiff as Toby Ziegler, John Spencer as Leo McGarry, Martin Sheen as President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet, Rob Lowe as Sam Seaborn, Dule Hill as Charlie Young, Bradley Whitford as Josh Lyman | NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

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When Sorkin was approached to write a series, he wasn’t sure what he would do. He, therefore, pitched to John Wells about a series with senior White House staffers. Although Sorkin expected that Wells would hesitate, he ran with the idea, and Sorkin was left wondering if he had made a mistake.

After the restaurant negotiations, Wells approached NBC and pitched The West Wing. Wells was still riding the ER success wave, so he wanted to incorporate The West Wing into a package deal with ER. However, the network’s executives were at first hesitant.

They believed that no one would be interested in watching a political show. The concerns were all understandable considering the issues that were happening when Sorkin was writing the show’s pilot.

A White House scandal had just broken out involving the then-president Bill Clinton, and rumors of an affair with staffer Monica Lewinsky were circulating. Additionally, a political show had never quite worked out on TV, so the network decided to delay it for one year.

Although NBC didn’t favor The West Wing at the time, they held on to it because of Sorkin’s terms, and at Wells’ urging, the network greenlit the show for a few episodes.

‘The West Wing’ wasn’t Sorkin’s first rodeo

Martin Sheen and Dulé Hill in 'The West Wing'
Martin Sheen and Dulé Hill in ‘The West Wing’ | NBCU Photo Bank

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By the time Sorkin was asked for The West Wing’s pilot, he had created and written several other successful shows in the past. Some of the shows that Sorkin had brought to life were the American President and A Few Good Men.

The American President was a show that followed President Andrew Shepherd and his blossoming relationship with campaigner Sydney Ellen Wade. At the helm of the show was Michael Douglas, who played the Commander in Chief, and Annette Bening, who played lobbyist Sydney.

 A Few Good Men centered around two US marines who were court-martialed on charges of murdering their fellow marine. The arrest orders were issued from higher up, and the two marines had to figure out how to clear their names. The film starred Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, and Jack Nicholson and was directed by Rob Reiner.

When writing the script for The West Wing, Sorkin took some of the scraps from the American President and used it as material for the show’s pilot and story arc.

Aaron Sorkin demanded that the script be verbatim what he wrote

Part of The West Wing’s charm was the fast-paced and rhythmic dialogue. The show popularized the walk-and-talk exchange that is commonly used in today’s shows. By the time NBC had agreed to take on a full season of the political drama, Sorkin had gone to great pains to ensure that whatever was said was what he wrote.

Actor Martin Sheen, who played President Bartlet, recalled that the actors were allowed to make suggestions but couldn’t improvise. Sorkin had reportedly gotten furious with Sheen after he rearranged some of his lines in the audition. Sheen later realized that Sorkin had been writing in meter, and he needed the show’s rhythmic language to be as he had envisioned it.

Richard Schiff, who played Toby Ziegler, had improvised in his audition.

“I had been used to improvising and even in the audition I was feeling free to rearrange Aaron’s words a little bit, as lovely as they were. I didn’t find out until after I got the part how furious Aaron was at me for doing that,” Schiff told EmpireOnline. “They said, ‘He was livid. He did everything in his power not to jump down your throat!’ But I came to realize that Aaron was writing in meter and the rhythm of the language is very important.”