‘The West Wing’: NBC Gave Show Creators Strange Edits That They Thankfully Rejected

The hilarity that ensued when C.J. goes to the dentist and is unable to deliver an important press briefing afterward. The tears shed by fans when we said goodbye to Mrs. Landingham. The courage Josh displayed when he boldly faced his PTSD. Before any of these memorable moments ever made it to television, The West Wing was just an idea in screenwriter Aaron Sorkin‘s imagination.

And if Sorkin’s bosses at NBC had gotten their way, the hit TV show that went on to win 26 Emmy Awards would have looked very, very different. In an interview, Sorkin and the cast revealed some of the strange and unusual edits they received from NBC that they ended up rejecting. 

‘The West Wing’ evolved from discarded story ideas 

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

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Sorkin wrote the screenplay for a 1995 romantic comedy movie called The American President. Scenes and stories from the film that were never used inspired him to go on and create the general plot for The West Wing.

In an interview with Empire, Sorkin points out that as he wrote the pilot and pitched the idea to NBC, he immediately hit some roadblocks.

The first problem was the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which was engulfing the real White House at the time. The second problem was that political TV shows had never been successful before, and the television executives at NBC were feeling very cautious and wary of his ideas. 

Out of this nervous caution, Sorkin’s bosses at NBC sent him and the cast numerous revisions and edits to his original pilot and the general storyline. If Sorkin had followed those suggestions, The West Wing would have turned out a lot different. 

NBC didn’t like the original pilot for ‘The West Wing’ and suggested making it more action-packed

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The West Wing is renowned for its pace, its dialogue, and its iconic “walk-and-talk” scenes. But that trademark pacing was immediately flagged by NBC, which wanted Sorkin to add more intensity and action to the political show.

In the same interview with Empire, actor Bradley Whitford (who plays Josh Lyman) says that NBC “read the pilot and, if you remember, the Cuban refugees were on boats and Sam [Seaborn] and I are trying to figure out whether we let them land in Florida or send them back.”

Whitford explains that the cast received a note from NBC saying that the TV network wanted the pilot revised so that he and Sam (played by Rob Lowe) jumped into the water trying to help the migrants. 

“Like [Chicago mayor] Rahm Emanuel in a [expletive] Speedo!” laughs Whitford. “Saving the Cubans!” 

But Sorkin stuck to his guns, and Whitford and Lowe didn’t have to jump into the water. “If Aaron had allowed his show to have the conventional network interference, it would’ve been a disaster,” reminisces Whitford. 

NBC wanted President Bartlet to be a conservative populist, not a liberal Democrat

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President Josiah Edward “Jed” Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, hails from the Democratic party. Much of The West Wing‘s plot revolves around themes central to the real-life Democratic party, such as reforming Social Security and appointing more women and people of color. And the fictional character event went on to endorse Hillary Clinton’s 2016 run for presidency, reports the Washington Post.

However, the political climate was very different back in the 1990s and early 2000s when The West Wing was on television. And NBC did not like the idea of a fictional liberal president.

John Wells, one of the executive producers for the show, told Empire that NBC thought a president who was more conservative would make the show better.

“There was a governor at the time who had just been elected in Minnesota called Jesse Ventura,” says Wells. “He’d been a professional all-star wrestler: a big, bald dude.” This inspired NBC to tell Sorkin and the producers to change President Bartlet’s background. 

“The network kept saying, ‘We don’t want to do something about a liberal Democrat,'” explains Wells. “‘We need a populist, somebody who’s a wrestler or a race car driver or a football player coming in from the outside and shaking things up.'”

Wells, Sorkin and the rest of the team obviously ignored that suggestion. And in the 2020 election special that reunited the cast of The West Wing, President Bartlet was as liberal and progressive as always.