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THEATER

He Just Follows the Words

That's why workaholic John Spencer feels compelled to act in 'The West Wing' by day and star in a Taper play by night.

January 28, 2001|DIANE HAITHMAN | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

Just outside the rehearsal room at the Mark Taper Forum annex, a weary personal assistant waits for a break in the action to duck in with a tray full of frozen coffee drinks from Starbucks--four tall plastic cups filled with the sweet, milky, fashionable slush known as a Frappuccino. A jolt of caffeine, maybe, a sugar rush to keep the cast going until the rehearsal winds up at 11 p.m.

True enough--except that all four of these out-sized beverages are for just one actor: John Spencer.

It's not the first time--not even the first time today--that Spencer's assistant, Heath Mensher, has carted in the Starbucks. And if it's not Frappuccinos, it's cigarettes, or an endless supply of toothpicks treated with pungent tea tree oil that always get chewed into splinters.

It doesn't take long in a conversation with Spencer for the actor to tell you he's a recovering alcoholic; the struggle remains central to his life. "An addictive personality never really loses that," Spencer says--the off-road gravel in his voice belying a temperament so sweet and obliging, it's almost weird.

"It's a hard thing to accept when you are trying to get clean. It's like being told you've got cancer, and we'll make it so you don't die, but you'll always have cancer," he continues. "You think, can't I ever just get well? But addiction is addiction is addiction. You can decide not to use, but you will still have the disease."

Frappuccino, toothpicks and cigarettes, he admits, are substitutes for the drinking habit he kicked in 1989. But now he has a new, more positive reason to need an outlet for nervous energy.

Spencer has entered an exhilarating, and exhausting, new phase of his career: starring as White House chief of staff Leo McGarry in NBC's award-winning drama series "The West Wing"--and, at the same time, playing a major role onstage at the Mark Taper Forum in "Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine," a new play by Tony Award-winning playwright Warren Leight.

"Glimmer" opened Thursday and continues through March 4. And so, somehow, must Spencer. For the next few months, he'll juggle two characters, two jobs, two worlds--one beginning at 6 a.m. on the set of "The West Wing" at the Warner Bros. Studios lot in Burbank, and another that begins around 7 p.m. and continues until 11 p.m. at the Taper.

*

On weekdays, Spencer is up at 4 a.m. at the Beverly Hills home he shares with his girlfriend, actress-choreographer Patti Mariano. And, after the evening's rehearsal--or these days, performance--of "Glimmer," he heads home for another two or three hours of work, running the complex, rapid-fire dialogue for the next "West Wing" episode, with assistant Mensher playing the rest of the large ensemble cast. Mensher has taken up temporary residence on one floor of Spencer's house to be available around the clock.

"He won't go to sleep until the lines are perfect," says Mensher, 27, operating on three hours' sleep, in a recent between-takes conversation in the Oval Office on the "West Wing" set. The room is an exact replica of the real one, down to the paperweights. "But I know if I'm working 20 hours a day, he's working 20 1/2." Spencer's other personal assistant, Asaari Karkhanis, takes over the job on weekends. These days, it takes a tag team of two twentysomethings to keep up with 54-year-old Spencer. And, after a few sessions of watching Spencer go through his paces, you almost expect him to say it:

Hello, my name is John, and I'm a workaholic.

"I find when I really want something, I go after it," says Spencer, sounding almost apologetic about his commitment to his craft. "I find when I want something passionately, I've been very fortunate--most of the time, it will happen.

"I find that, as a general rule, if I follow the words, I end up in the right place. I've made career decisions for money--we're all human, with a mortgage to pay. But I find the only foolproof way of choosing is if I say: 'These are great words, I have to say them. I have to do this part.' "

Coincidentally, both of the characters Spencer is playing are addicts. Leo is a recovering alcoholic who spends his days in office corridors and conservative suits. Martin Glimmer, an aging jazz trumpeter, is a very not-recovering drug user, who now spends his days coughing his lungs out in a hospital bed, paying the price for his habit.

"Playing Martin and Leo at the same time is an interesting stretch, from White House chief of staff to a junkie jazz musician," Spencer says. "I have found so far, so good--one man is not bleeding into the other. I have to be diligent about that, I am constantly asking Heath when we run lines for 'West Wing,' 'There's no Martin coming in, right?' "

*

At a rehearsal before the opening of "Glimmer," playwright Leight notes that Spencer is usually not scheduled to report to the Taper until 7 p.m.--but if work at "The West Wing" ends early, he'll show up at 5. "It's really psychotic," Leight says, sounding awed.

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