Fifteen years ago today, The West Wing premiered on NBC in the United States. Created by the now legendary Aaron Sorkin, the series has since set the benchmark for what, at its best, network drama can do.
The show had a strong regular cast with the likes of Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, John Spencer, Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff and Rob Lowe; and over the course of seven seasons, The West Wing charted the ups and downs of the administration of Democratic President Josiah Bartlett.
More often than not the downs – such as shots being fired at the White House, an assassination attempt in Roslyn, Vriginia, and the abduction of First Daughter Zoe Bartlett – meant that veteran character actor Michael O’Neill would grace the screen as Ron Butterfield, the US Secret Service’s Special Agent in Charge of the Presidential Protection Detail.
Though appearing in only 19 of the show’s 154 episodes, O’Neill’s presence was always felt. To mark the 15th Anniversary of The West Wing, TVWise recently spoke with the actor – who most recently co-starred on the CBS series Extant – about his time on the show, how he got the part and much more.
TVWise: The West Wing was such a ground-breaking show, what was it like working on that series alongside people like Martin Sheen and John Spencer?
Michael O’Neill: You know, it’s funny, because I had done a play and a couple of films with John Spencer in New York, so my first day on the set John took me by the hand and introduced me to the cast. He vouched for me, he said “Ok, he’s one of ours”. So they really welcomed me with open arms.
I remember learning a tremendous amount from Martin. In the very first show I had with him, someone had jumped the wall, the fence in front [of The White House] and we had a scene where I had to report to the president about what it was. He assumed, in the scene, that it was a college prank and maybe he was crazy and so he said something like “maybe he doesn’t have to be crazy to want to take me out” and I said “Mr President, you weren’t the target”. At that moment you could feel the temperature in the room change and all of a sudden Martin’s character went from sort of self-deprecating – he was trying to defuse the situation – to a singular focus and he said “who was it?” And I said “It was your daughter.” And man, oh man, when I watched that land on him, it really gave me a whole new respect for what’s possible as an actor. Because instantaneously I knew what the cost was of that. He may have been President of the United States, but he was a father and from the day they join us, the job is to protect them.
And so, it was a great introduction for me both to the company and to the cast – Alison Janney, who I probably still have a crush on; Brad Whitford, who I had known; Richard Schiff, who I felt was the conscience of the play in a way. They were great, great people to work with and they knew, because they were all New York actors, they knew that they had a great ensemble and they had great writing and they were going to enjoy it, and they did. There was a real sense of enjoyment on that show.
TVWise: We’ve seen Secret Service agents on TV and in film before but with a few exceptions, like Clint Eastwood on In The Line of Fire, they are rarely more than stand-ins. There was a more “genuine” feeling to Butterfield, did you do a lot of research for the role to get to that point?
Michael O’Neill: The Secret Service, the real Secret Service, was very generous about educating me. They work really hard and they’re always short-handed so there’s not a lot of time for some actor to go “Can you tell me about this? Can you tell me about that?” But I had a conversation with Jerry Parr, who is the man that pushed Reagan in the car in that assassination attempt. Mr Parr is legendary because he did some things, that aren’t written up in any text books anywhere. The first of which was taking him to George Washington Memorial Hospital, because that’s an inner city hospital that deals with gunshot wounds, and the security he had to create with only four agents was nothing shy of extraordinary. But he took me through the behaviour, so when we had the scene with Martin where the assassination attempt occurred [at the end of season one] and he was wounded, the discovery of it was not unlike what happened with Mr Parr and President Reagan. So my chief goal as an actor was to make sure that I played him faithfully and with dignity because I have such respect – they’re heroes to me, the Secret Service. There are few people in this world that would lay down their life in duty. They know what their job is. Their job isn’t to fire a bullet, it’s to take a bullet and I’ve always had such remarkable respect for them. I just hope that I did them justice.
TVWise: It’s one of your better known roles, but I understand that initially the part of Ron Butterfield was meant to be just for that one episode early on in the first season?
Michael O’Neill: [Laughs] Yes! You know, it’s the plight of the character actor. My wife was pregnant with twins and hadn’t been able to work for a while. I had worked one show in February, so we were broke basically, and this audition came up and they said it was one day on The West Wing. And I said “You’re out of your mind. I’m not going in on that for one day. That’s a great show, have you seen the writing on that show? Forget about one day, I want a character.” And then my agent said “Michael, your wife is about to have twins, go in and let’s just get a job, okay?” And I said “Alright”. I went in…and its funny because Chris Misiano, who directed a lot of them, was the director on that first episode Mr Willis Of Ohio and I actually messed up the audition the first time. Chris stopped me and said “I think I gave you the wrong note, forget what I said just do it your way” and he gave me an opportunity to do it again and I landed it. Then I went and I did the show and three-fourths of the way through the day the script supervisor came up to me and said “You’ll be back, they like you upstairs”. But I can’t tell you how many times you hear that as an actor and you never go back! So I was like “Oh, yeah, thanks a lot. I appreciate that” and I just turned and walked away. Sure enough, they invited me back and they kept inviting me back over the seven years. That is rare, that experience, I can tell you. For whatever reason we were a good fit…when Aaron was there and wrote, I thought, really in a compelling way for Butterfield with the crisis when Zoe was kidnapped and when the assassination attempt occurred.
TVWise: One of the episodes in which you had a particularly large role was the season three opener Isaac & Ishmael…
Michael O’Neill: When the White House was locked down after 9/11 Aaron wanted to write something really badly and he wrote Isaac & Ishmael…It’s funny, I was on the show the day that they locked down the studio, the day that all security changed in every studio because the word came forth from whatever channels that, because we were exporting our storytelling around the world, we were now on the list – we had been put on the list of targets by the terrorists, because they didn’t want that exported. Boy, I tell you it was an interesting and chilling day, but Aaron wanted, very very badly, to write something, and it was an extra episode in the year. He had convinced Warner Bros. to let us do an extra show, which was not an inexpensive proposition. I can remember walking with Brad Whitford to Stage 19 and we were learning lines as we were walking in. I mean, the pages were still warm out of the printer. So it was a labour of Aaron’s passion to make a statement about where we are as a people and what our inclination is and we need to give pause, we need to let something settle here before we react to what we don’t know what we’re reacting to. So I do think it was underrated, I agree. It was a difficult show to do.