‘The West Wing’: Martin Sheen Helped Shape President Bartlet’s Background

The West Wing is arguably one of the best drama shows to have ever aired on television. The show aired at a particularly controversial time. Writer Aaron Sorkin began working on the show’s script during the Bill Clinton administration.

There weren’t many political shows during that time, and the show almost didn’t see the light of day. One of Sorkin’s demands was for the script to remain as was. However, Martin Sheen played a significant role in shaping one of the show’s main characters.

‘The West Wing’ narrowly made it to TV

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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The West Wing first aired in September 1999. The series came after the widely popular show the American President, which Sorkin also wrote. Initially, the series was meant to focus on the show’s administrators, with the president taking a back seat and only appearing in specific episodes.

However, the audiences began noticing Sheen’s performance, and his character, the president, soon grew in popularity. The writers had to incorporate President Bartlet into many of the scenes, thus significantly reducing the necessity of focusing on the other administrators.

The show centered on President Bartlet and his administration as they tackled legislative and political issues. Other scenes addressed some serious social problems such as post-traumatic disorders and family issues.

When Sorkin was approached to work on the show’s script, he didn’t want to do it. He, however, got to write the pilot and presented it to the network executives. When he submitted the pilot’s draft, NBC was wary and wasn’t sure that anyone would watch a political show.

Additionally, the news of President Clinton’s affair with a staffer rocked the nation, and the studio executives feared that the show would fail due to this. Regardless of the situations that plagued the show when it began, it managed to grow in popularity to become one of the most-watched shows of all time.

Who is Martin Sheen?

Martin Sheen in 'The West Wing.'
Martin Sheen as President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet on ‘The West Wing.’ | Scott Garfield/NBCU Photo Bank

Sheen was born on August 3, 1940, as Ramon Antonio Gerard Estevez. Sheen’s work was heavily influenced by the actor James Dean. In the hopes of getting recognition, Sheen opened a production company.

In 1963, Sheen appeared in an episode of the series The Outer Limits in 1968. He also appeared in The Subject Was Roses and reprised his role in the 1968 remake of the same name. His performance earned him a Golden Globe Award for Best-Supporting Actor.

In the 1960s and 70s, Sheen appeared in many more films such as My Three Sons, Hawaii Five-0, Columbo, The Rookies and The Streets Of San Francisco. In 1972, the 80-year-old actor appeared in That Certain Summer. The film won an Emmy award despite being involved in several controversies. It was the only film which portrayed homosexuality in the best light by that time’s standards.

Sheen’s favorite role came in the film Badlands, where he played a multiple murderer. His other favorite role was in the film Apocalypse, where he played a U.S Army Special Operations Officer. Sheen played President John F Kennedy in the show Kennedy and White House Chief of Staff A.J McInnerney in the American President.

Sheen played a crucial role in his role on ‘The West Wing’

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

When Sheen was brought on to play President Bartlet, he thought he was taking on a recurring role. Sorkin intended to show the president in a few episodes and focused on the staff members.

However, when Sheen appeared at the end of the first scene, his performance was exceptional that everyone wanted to have him around. When Sheen renegotiated to appear more in the series, the network gave its recommendations for Bartlet’s background.

However, being a Catholic himself, Sheen wanted Bartlet to be Catholic and form his opinions from a moral reference as Sheen did. He also asked that Bartlet be a graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Sorkin agreed to all the terms, and thus President Bartlet became the main character.