Veteran actor eschews leads, prefers 'one-of-the-gang' roles

John Spencer finds comfort in his fellow actors. Ask him to step up to a more starring role and he’ll offer a “no thank you” in a nanosecond.

Being part of an ensemble has worked especially well for Spencer, who certainly made an impression on Emmy voters with his turn as Martin Sheen’s chief of staff in NBC’s heralded White House drama “The West Wing.”

“This venue, acting as part of an ensemble, is much more interesting to me,” says Spencer, already on the set shooting the first two episodes for the upcoming fall season. “How many leading men are as interesting as Leo McGarry?”

McGarry and Spencer actually have a lot in common. They’re both recovering alcoholics and are immensely respected by their peers.

Spencer, 53, has worked with a slew of A-list actors over his nearly 40-year career. In addition to his stint as Tommy Mullaney on “L.A. Law,” which ended in 1994, and “The West Wing,” Spencer co-starred with Harrison Ford in “Presumed Innocent,” Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery in “The Rock,” and Paul Newman in “Twilight.”

“It seems I’ve had a few blessed bumps in my career,” says the New Jersey native. “‘Presumed Innocent’ was a bump. ‘L.A. Law’ was a bump and then I managed to do a bunch of feature films after that. The actor’s job is to keep his eye on the ball.”

It might be hard for Spencer to get back on the bigscreen if the success of “The West Wing” continues, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t. The freshman show, nominated for an astounding 18 Emmys, has seemed to strike a chord with both viewers and critics, not always an easy accomplishment.

After being nominated, Spencer didn’t spend much time basking in his new-found glory. He turned down several opportunities to talk about the nom in order to stay home and study Aaron’s Sorkin’s script.

“I had mounds of dialogue to learn,” says Spencer, who believes that fans of the show will be surprised to learn who’s been shot as part of last season’s cliffhanger episode. “(The nomination) comes as a nice appreciation, though. … The funny thing is that I always hear people saying it’s an honor just to be nominated. It seems very coy but I kind of get that concept now. The joy for me has always been the action of acting.”

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