Happy Birthday, Martin Sheen!

Today is Martin Sheen’s birthday! He turns 80 years old, which I can hardly believe. In his honor, I’d like to note just one scene from his amazing life of work. This is from The West Wing‘s Season Two opener, called “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen”. The previous season had ended with an assassination attempt on President Bartlet (Sheen), and as the finale ended we didn’t know who had been shot or even killed.

When Season Two began with this two-part episode, we learned that President Bartlet and his Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), had both been shot. Bartlet’s injuries weren’t life-threatening, but Josh’s were critical, and the episode unfolds as doctors work to save Josh and the White House and the nation react to the attack. Meanwhile, in flashbacks, we learn how the cast came together in a quixotic campaign to elect a long-shot candidate President.
Throughout all of the flashbacks, much is made of Bartlet’s prickly nature, the fact that he’s not especially nice to those in his inner circle, and that he simply isn’t ready to be President. Aaron Sorkin’s script even has a description: “There’s something about Bartlet that seems smaller somehow.” I don’t know how Sheen managed to suggest “being somehow smaller”, but at the end of the episode comes this scene.
It’s one of the flashbacks. On the very night that Governor Josiah Bartlet wins the Illinois primary, thus becoming the almost-certain Democratic nominee, Josh receives the phone call that his father has suddenly died of cancer. As the campaign celebrates and gets ready for the trip to California, Josh instead has to go to the airport to fly home for his father’s funeral. He’s sitting at the gate when he notices Secret Service agents forming a perimeter around him…and then there’s Bartlet, the last person he expected to see.
In this scene Bartlet finally shows some warmth to the people who have given up other careers to try and elect this guy, and it really is quite a wonderful scene between Sheen and Whitford. But the real amazing thing comes at the end of the scene, when Josh is heading off to catch his flight. Leo McGarry (John Spencer), Bartlet’s oldest friend and campaign manager and eventual White House Chief of Staff, comes up from behind and asks Bartlet if Josh will be OK; Bartlet replies, “He’s gonna be fine,” and then…Bartlet turns around to face Leo.
And in that simple act of turning around and straightening up just a bit, we see that indeed Bartlet had been “somehow smaller”, but now…he’s not. He turns to face Leo, and he straightens just a bit, and he says: “Leo, I’m ready.” I love when actors can create a completely different tone in their characters just by altering their posture in the tiniest bit.
Here is the scene, and Happy Birthday, Martin Sheen!

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1 Response to Happy Birthday, Martin Sheen!

  1. Charlie says:

    Shadow of Two Gunmen were the first TWW episodes I saw (which I wouldn't recommend, but back then one watched the episode that was on TV at the time), and without any context from knowing the characters I interpreted this scene as Bartlet being a master Machiavellian manipulator who feeds Josh some "now I'm your new father figure" line to secure his undying loyalty. That interpretation was mostly based on how Martin has Bartlet's affect go completely still when he stands up and says "they're calling your flight" and on the little grin he gives as Josh walks away, clearly completely shaken.

    So, in that context, "he's going to be fine" means "I own him now; he'll go home and mourn for a bit but he's mine and he'll be back on the job soon" and "I'm ready" means "I just dominated a top Washington operative; I'm ready to take this show to the Oval Office." Which, having now seen the whole run of the show a few times, is obviously not the intent but it's still hard for me to switch away from seeing it that way. My own "what color is the dress" TWW scene, I guess. It made the next several episodes very confusing for me – I needed the super-warm Bartlet experience in Shibboleth and Ellie to straighten myself out.

    In any case, yes, happy birthday, Martin!

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