How Aaron Sorkin got ‘The West Wing’ cast back together on HBO Max: We wanted to do ‘a little more’

It wasn’t hard to get the cast of “The West Wing” back together. 

“‘The West Wing’ cast is pretty close,” says Aaron Sorkin, who created NBC’s 1999-2006 political drama about a Democratic president and his White House staff. “Pre-COVID we would find each other and have a drink or dinner once in a while. We email.”

So when Sorkin wanted to get Rob Lowe, Dulé Hill, Allison Janney, Janel Moloney, Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford and Martin Sheen back together, it was an easy sell. The original cast of the series (minus John Spencer, who died in 2006), along with some high-profile guest stars, brings the Bartlet White House back to life in HBO Max’s “A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote” (streaming Thursday). The special aims to increase voter turnout, and is produced in partnership with former First Lady Michelle Obama’s get-out-the-vote organization. 

The President is back. Martin Sheen sits in a makeshift Oval Office to reprise his role as President Jed Bartlet on "A West Wing Special."

“It started out as something smaller,” Sorkin says. “When all the theaters shut down (due to the COVID pandemic), I wanted to see if I could get ‘The West Wing’ cast together just to do a Zoom table read to raise money for an organization called The Actors Fund. But then the ground, which had already been shifting under our feet, seemed to shift quicker.”

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From protests after the deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of police to the high stakes of the 2020 presidential election, which he calls an “emergency,” Sorkin was moved to be more ambitious, and proactive, with a reunion.

Aaron Sorkin at the 2018 Oscars.

“We wanted to see if we could do something a little more,” he says. “We wanted to see if we could push voters to the polls.”

Sorkin, original “West Wing” director Thomas Schlamme and producer Casey Patterson brought his vision to life. He and Schlamme reimagined the Season 3 episode, “Hartsfield’s Landing,” as a stage play, and filmed it this month at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles. Instead of commercial breaks, scenes will be broken up by get-out-the-vote messages by figures ranging from Samuel L. Jackson to President Bill Clinton to “West Wing” actors not featured in the special, including Elisabeth Moss. 

Sorkin chose to revisit this Season 3 episode, which takes place at the beginning of Bartlet’s (Sheen) re-election campaign, because it is an “ode to voting,” he says. During the episode, Donna (Moloney), spends much of her time trying to get just one family in New Hampshire to vote for Bartlet, while the president teaches Sam (Lowe) about international relations and governance. 

Robe Lowe and Allison Janney return to their famous "West Wing" roles of Sam and C.J. for "A West Wing Special" on HBO Max.

“It also has the added advantage of being a very contained episode,” Sorkin says. “It all takes place on ‘The West Wing’ set, and (has) only a couple of guests. It all takes place in one night. What (Schlamme) did was he took an episode of the show and he completely restaged it as a play.”

The special also recasts one character: White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry,  played by Spencer. “This Is Us” star Sterling K. Brown steps into the role as the leader of the White House staff. 

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“John was not only this incredible actor, but he was also a really wonderful human being,” says Schlamme. “And he was also joyous, and he loved the craft of acting. … I would love to have shared with John, ‘We’re going to get Sterling K. Brown to play your character!’ Because I know (he’d say), ‘Aw shucks, that’s a great idea, Tommy, that’s a really wonderful idea.’ (He’d) be so supportive of that.”

Sterling K. Brown joins the "West Wing" cast to play Leo McGarry. John Spencer, who originated the role on NBC, died during the final season of "West Wing."

Sorkin hopes the special can persuade at least one person who wasn’t going to vote to change their mind. 

“One of the things that ‘The West Wing’ was always able to do was to remind people that the institutions of our democracy are great things, but they need to be populated by competent people who consider public service to be a calling,” he says. 

“We want to get one person who wasn’t going to vote, who was just going to flake, who just didn’t think their vote matters, to vote. (Then) we’ll consider it a success.”

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