John Spencer, West Wing Actor, Dies at 58

Actor John Spencer, famous for roles on television series “The West Wing” and “L.A. Law” as well as several films, died today of a heart attack. He would have been 59 Tuesday.

‘West Wing’ Actor John Spencer Dies at 58

This recent publicity photo provided by NBC shows actor John Spencer as Leo McGarry on the set of 'The West Wing.' Spencer, 58, died of a heart attack Friday, Dec. 16, 2005, at a Los Angeles hospital, his publicist Ron Hofmann said. (AP Photo/NBC) John Spencer, who played a tough and dedicated politico on “The West Wing” who survived a serious illness to run for vice president, died of a heart attack Friday. He was 58. Spencer died after being admitted to a Los Angeles hospital during the night, said his publicist, Ron Hofmann. He would have been 59 on Tuesday.

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Spencer played Leo McGarry, the savvy and powerful chief of staff to President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen). In a sad parallel to life, Spencer’s character suffered a heart attack that forced him to give up his White House job. McGarry recovered and was picked as a running mate for Democratic presidential contender Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits; the campaign against Republican Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) has been a central theme for the drama this season.

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Spencer, who also starred on “L.A. Law” as attorney Tommy Mullaney, received an Emmy Award for his performance on “The West Wing” in 2002 and was nominated four other times for the series.

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As a teenager, he landed a recurring role on “The Patty Duke Show” as the boyfriend of English twin Cathy. Stage and film work followed. Then his big break: playing Harrison Ford’s detective sidekick in the 1990 courtroom thriller “Presumed Innocent.” That role led to his hiring for the final four years of “L.A. Law.”

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His made his feature film debut with a small role in “War Games,” which was followed by roles in “Sea of Love” and “Black Rain.” Spencer said his work in “Presumed Innocent” represented a “watershed role.” In recent years, he worked both in studio and independent films, including “The Rock,” “The Negotiator,” “Albino Alligator,” “Lesser Prophets” and “Cold Heart.”

A shame. Spencer was one of many excellent Hollywood actors whose face was instantly recognizable but whose name I wouldn’t immediately recognize.

My father had his second heart attack at about the same age but, fortunately, was able to undergo bypass surgery and is fine today.

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James Joyner
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James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.