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On a Wing and a Prayer

'Sports Night' and 'West Wing' creator-writer Aaron Sorkin is flying by the seat of his pants as he strives for perfection on both shows.

October 10, 1999|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | Patrick Goldstein is a Times staff writer

It is 1:30 a.m. and Aaron Sorkin is slouched in a director's chair, commiserating with Rob Lowe between scenes on the set of "The West Wing." The new NBC drama, which co-stars Lowe as a harried White House speech writer, is one of two shows, along with ABC's "Sports Night," created by Sorkin in his young career as TV's new golden boy.

Right now the golden boy is beleaguered and exhausted. Up at dawn, Sorkin has been going at a David E. Kelley-style pace, writing every episode of both shows. "It's like being with two lovers in the same week," he says. He pens "West Wing" scripts on weekdays, grabbing time between production meetings, casting sessions and visits to the set. Over the weekend he writes "Sports Night," which returned for its second season Tuesday, finishing the scripts in time to be messengered Sunday night to cast members for the show's Monday morning table read.

By the second week of September, the strain is showing. The new "West Wing" script, due days earlier, is stalled somewhere in the first act. When the director of the upcoming episode stops by, Sorkin bluntly informs him: "I owe you a script, but I have nothing." He walks the director out, handing him a "West Wing" cap. After he's departed, Sorkin turns to Lauren Carpenter, his assistant. "Mark this down on our calendar," he says glumly. "We'll never be on schedule again."

If anyone would thrive on the high-wire act of doing two TV shows simultaneously, it's Sorkin, a brainy, sometimes arrogant, always ambitious 38-year-old playwright and screenwriter. When he says that he loves "smart, quick, flawed characters," you can't help but think he's talking about himself.

He was still in his 20s when he wrote "A Few Good Men," the Broadway hit he later adapted for the screen, earning an Oscar nomination for best screenplay and best picture. In his early 30s, he spent two years holed up at the Four Seasons Hotel here, writing the script for "The American President." By the time the movie was finished, Sorkin's life was spiraling out of control--he'd become a cocaine addict and had to check into the Hazelden Institute in Minnesota to kick the habit.

So why would he want the stomach-churning pressure of writing two TV shows? "It's a good question," he says one night. "Possibly the sort of question best left for a therapist." He tries to joke away the jitters. "I saw David Kelley at the Emmys and he just [messes] with me now. He looked at me and said, 'You don't look tired at all.' "

Late one Friday, bundled up in a hooded sweatshirt and sneakers, Sorkin looks like a bleary-eyed marathoner, if marathoners chain-smoked Merits and could write monologues about Andrew Jackson serving free cheese in the White House. He tells Lowe that when he drives home at night from Burbank he fantasizes about checking into one of the gnarly room-by-the-hour motels on Ventura Boulevard for a quick snooze. "I suppose no one actually uses those motels for sleeping," Sorkin says. "I'd have to bring my computer so I could tell the clerk I'm just a writer who needs to get some work done."

"I really don't think you have to worry," Lowe says dryly. "I doubt that any of the clerks actually speak English."

Sorkin can be forgiven for imagining he was somewhere else. He thought he'd scored a coup by hiring William H. Macy--on leave from prepping a David Mamet film--to play a hardball ratings consultant on "Sports Night." But arriving at the last minute earlier that day, Macy gives what Sorkin describes as a "chillingly terrible" rehearsal performance. Sorkin and his director stare forlornly at each other, wondering if this Bill Macy, who is married to "Sports Night" co-star Felicity Huffman, can possibly be the fabled theater actor who has worked for years with Mamet and was so drolly funny in "Fargo."

Once the cameras are running, Macy nails every take. "He was perfect," Sorkin says. "Maybe that's why Mamet let us have him--he just didn't want to see him rehearse."

Around midnight, director Thomas Schlamme, Sorkin's closest confidant and an executive producer on both shows, stops by to discuss the merits of a potential "West Wing" director. Afterward, Sorkin shakes his head. "I wanted to tell Tommy, 'Don't invite me to that meeting.' The way things are going on this script, I can't imagine us ever getting to Episode 15."

*

Sorkin is still in the honeymoon period with NBC, which has been heavily promoting "West Wing," smelling a potential hit. But with ABC, relations have been rocky from the beginning, even though "Sports Night" was easily the third-place network's most acclaimed new show last season. Driving back to the Disney lot, Sorkin passes the half-completed ABC-TV building across the street that will replace the network's Century City headquarters. Having the top brass right next door is clearly too close for comfort. "When it's finished," he says, "I guess we'll have to move the show to New York."

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