Born June 9, 1961, in New York, NY; married Megan Gallagher (an actress; divorced); married Julia Bingham (an attorney), April 13, 1996, (separated, 2001); children: (second marriage) Roxy. Education: Syracuse University, theater degree, 1983.
Home—Studio City, CA. Office—c/o John Wells's Productions, Warner Bros. Television, 4000 Warner Blvd., Building 133, Rm. 204, Burbank, CA 91522.
Writer, producer, and actor. Actor in New York City, c. mid-1980s; on-screen cameo appearances include A Few Good Men, 1992, and The American President, 1995. Co-creator and executive producer, Sports Night, ABC, 1998-2000; creator and executive producer, The West Wing, NBC, 1999—.
Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding American Playwright, 1989, for A Few Good Men; Humanitas Prize (with others) in the thirty-minute category, Human Family Educational and Cultural Institute, 1999, and TV Guide award for "the best show you're not watching," 2000, both for Sports Night; Golden Satellite Award for best television drama series, International Press Academy, 2000, for The West Wing; Nova awards for most promising producer in television, both 2000, for Sports Night and The West Wing; Humanitas Prize (with others) in the sixty-minute category, 2000 and 2002, both for episodes of The West Wing, 2000; Emmy Award for outstanding drama series, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2003, all for The West Wing, and 2002, for outstanding writing for a drama series.
A Few Good Men, Columbia, 1992.
Malice, Columbia, 1993.
The American President, Castle Rock, 1995
Other work includes uncredited co-author of The Rock, 1996, and Excess Baggage, 1997; uncredited coauthor, with David Marconi, of Enemy of the State, 1998.
Hidden in This Picture (produced 1988), published in Best Short Off-Broadway Plays of the Eighties, 1990.
A Few Good Men (produced on Broadway, 1989), S. French (New York, NY), 1990.
Making Movies (adapted from one-act play Hidden in This Picture), produced in New York, NY, 1990.
Also author of Removing All Doubt.
The West Wing Script Book, Newmarket Press (New York, NY), 2002.
Also wrote episodes of The West Wing and Sports Night.
If verisimilitude were the benchmark for dramatic success, then writer and producer Aaron Sorkin, creator of the popular and iconoclastic television series The West Wing, would score one hundred percent. So real has his presidential character, Josiah Bartlet, become to the viewing audience, that almost one third of viewers wanted to vote for him for president in the 2000 election—more than opted for either of the two actual front-running candidates, Al Gore or George W. Bush, in an unofficial CNN poll. At the time of the 2000 election, Donna Shalala, then a member of President Bill Clinton's cabinet as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was also pro-Bartlet. "He's your dream candidate for president of the United States," she told Beth Nissen for CNN.com. "He's a moral man, an intellectual. He thinks through issues, he struggles. He shows the complexity of decision-making in the White House.… The candidates seem plastic in some ways compared to him. He seems more human."
Sorkin's Emmy Award-winning series has been hailed as one of the finest dramatic hours on television, and Sorkin was the moving force behind it for four years, from its inception in 1999 to 2003, when he decided to leave to pursue other work in film, television, and theater. Alessandra Stanley, writing in the New York Times about Sorkin's departure from the show, said that the series had always been noted for its high-mindedness. "Idealism was the sex of The West Wing," Stanley wrote, "an elan vital that drove even small-minded people to do mad acts of ethics. It was the most romantic show on television." With Sorkin's departure, Stanley conjectured, that would most likely change. But the final episode of the fourth season maintained his signature. "Mr. Sorkin's West Wing ends the way it began, with honor, not lust, quickening the pulses of his characters." And amazingly, during his four years on the show, every script but one was written by Sorkin, a situation virtually unheard of in television where team-writing is the rule. In 2002 Sorkin was honored with an Emmy for outstanding writing for the series.
An actor turned writer, Sorkin is also the creator of Sports Night, a short-lived television comedy series that appeared at the same time The West Wing, broadcast on another network, was holding down the top spot in the drama category. Sorkin came to television from film, where he wrote the screenplays for The American President and A Few Good Men, among others, and before that from the stage where his award-winning plays appeared on Broadway. Such productivity is doubly amazing in light of the fact that it was accomplished in spite of a drug addiction that became apparent when Sorkin was arrested in the spring of 2001 for cocaine, marijuana, and hallucinogenic mushroom possession. "Both writing and freebasing have proved devastatingly addictive to Sorkin," according to Peter de Jonge writing in the New York Times Magazine. De Jonge went on to note, however, that Sorkin's work in general "has nothing to do with the darkness so apparent in his life or in what he calls the 'whole black world of addiction.'"
From Acting to Writing
Born in New York City in 1961, Sorkin is from a family of lawyers: his father, older brother, and older sister are lawyers, and he also married an entertainment lawyer. Yet he always considered himself, as de Jonge noted, "the dumbest person in the room." He grew up in the New York suburb of Scarsdale and never entertained the idea of writing. For the young Sorkin, merely getting through English class was a struggle. Acting was what attracted him: a role in an eighth-grade play convinced him that the theater was his proper milieu. He recalled in New York magazine the thrill of that first thespian experience: "I still remember wild laughter, the standing ovations." In high school he joined a drama club, and graduating, attended Syracuse University, majoring in drama. However, his work in college theater did not bring the raves he once received. "I even failed freshman acting," he told the contributor for New York.
With his college diploma in hand, Sorkin headed for New York to become a professional actor, but soon learned the harsh realities about making a living in the arts. After several years he had come no closer to success than a tour of the South with a children's theater repertory company, the Traveling Playhouse. Then, when temporarily staying with a friend in Manhattan, Sorkin made a discovery about himself: he loved to write. One day, with nothing better to do, he rolled a sheet of paper into his friend's typewriter and began tapping on the keys. "Four and a half pages later," according to de Jonge, Sorkin "had a journalist named Shepherd throw down in disgust the script he had been given by his actor friends Danny and launch into a wordy speech." This was the germ of an idea that led to Sorkin's first play, Removing All Doubt. However, at the time, Sorkin only knew that it felt good: "[I] felt a phenomenal confidence and a kind of joy that I had never experienced before in my life," he told de Jonge. With this first experiment in writing, Sorkin hit on his strong suit: dialog and the rhythms of speech. It was about this time, also, that Sorkin began experimenting with cocaine, a drug that gave him "a real break from a certain nervous tension that I kind of carry with me moment to moment," he explained to de Jonge.
Sorkin quickly began to think of himself as a writer rather than an actor; he began his literary life with Removing All Doubt, which was never produced, and made his living during his writing apprenticeship in a variety of jobs, including bartending at Broadway theaters. Then came the limited success of Hidden in This Picture, a one-act play in which he performed, and which was later adapted into the full-length off-Broadway play Making Movies. But it was his next play, A Few Good Men, that made his career and for which Sorkin received an Outer Critics Circle Award. Inspired by an actual event told to him by his sister, a naval officer and judge, the play deals with the murder of a Marine and the subsequent investigation and trial at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In A Few Good Men two Marines accidentally kill a third while disciplining and hazing him. Three members of the Judges Advocate General, or JAG, are called in to defend the Marines but end up refusing a plea bargain for the defendants, and instead get to the bottom of who was really responsible for the death. The main character among the lawyers is a Harvard-trained attorney who is serving three years in the Navy to work off his law school scholarship. He comes up against a commander at the base who does not want the real story told; the two Marines are taking the rap for following his orders. At the heart of the play is the conflict between military necessity—as represented by the commanding officer—and the due process of civilian life, as represented by the lawyer. William A. Henry III, writing in Time, felt that it is "at least as good a play as The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which it resembles." Writing in the Washington Post, Megan Rosenfeld described the play as a "military courtroom drama that is surprisingly old-fashioned in some ways. It has a plot and well-defined characters, and they talk to each other in complete sentences most of the time. It also has twenty-one characters, almost unheard of for a straight drama these days." Rosenfeld further noted, "The story even tussles with some ideas, with concepts of honor and patriotism as seen by people on different ends of the military spectrum." Reviewing the play in the Wall Street Journal, Edwin Wilson noted that Sorkin's drama is "not intended as an airtight moral argument but as an entertainment, and on this level it succeeds admirably." Wilson went on to comment, "Sorkin not only knows how to set up a scene, he has a sharp sense of humor."
Life as a Screenwriter
Even before the play's Broadway debut in 1989, Sorkin, only twenty-eight years old at the time, was hired to write the screenplay adaptation for A Few Good Men. The film version of Sorkin's play was directed by Rob Reiner and stars included Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, and Jack Nicholson. Sorkin kept the movie true to his play, with Cruise playing the part of the enterprising young lawyer, and Nicholson the crusty older commander. Kenneth Turan, reviewing the movie in the Los Angeles Times, felt that it is a "brisk and familiar courtroom drama of the old school, as pleasant to watch as it is predictable," as well as a "tribute to pure star power." Writing in Time, Richard Schickel found that the film a "little too neat structurally," with moral issues "a little too clear-cut." Schickel, however, praised Sorkin's "spit-shined dialogue," and ultimately found the movie "hugely entertaining." Similarly, People's Ralph Novak felt that A Few Good Men was a "somber, stud-iedly intense drama that is absorbing despite its total predictability." And for Owen Gleiberman, reviewing the film in Entertainment Weekly, the judgment was less equivocal. Gleiberman felt it was the "most exciting courtroom drama in years," and a "thrillingly effective crowd pleaser."
Sorkin parlayed the success of his film adaptation—for which he earned an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay—into other work for the movie industry, including story work on Malice and script work on Schindler's List. Then in 1993 he began work on another movie for Reiner, The American President. He moved to Los Angeles, taking up residence in the Four Seasons Hotel where he wrote the screenplay. It took him two years of writing and in the end the script was so large he had to deliver it to Reiner in a shopping bag (later he had to cut two hundred pages). The movie—or parts of it that were left on the cutting room floor—later became the inspiration for his successful television series The West Wing. During the arduous writing process, Sorkin's cocaine habit became so bad that he was admitted to a clinic in Minnesota.
In The American President Michael Douglas plays the chief executive of the land, a widower, who falls in love with a lobbyist played by Annette Bening. Their relationship, of course, sparks more than romance. Political troubles ensue in this "witty romantic comedy," according to Time's Richard Corliss. Writing in the New Republic, Stanley Kauff-mann felt that the movie "provides chuckles and tingles, even a few sobs." Kauffmann also noted that Sorkin had written this not as a play first, but rather as an original screenplay. "Broadway has apparently lost another competent artisan," the critic noted. Sorkin earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Screenplay for The American President. Speaking with a contributor for Screen-writer, Sorkin remarked that the "research on The American President was so much fun to do. I got to hang out at the White House, talk with the President a couple of times. It was fantastic."
The Draw of Television
Though Sorkin continued to work in films such a Bulworth, The Rock, Excess Baggage, and Enemy of the State, he was increasingly drawn to the possibilities of television. He saw how he might be able to fit more of the stories he had researched about the White House into a series than he could into one film. Also, while writing The American President, he had become a fan of the hi-jinks on ESPN's Sports-center, and wanted to try the half-hour series sitcom format. Thus was born his 1998 series Sports Night, which aired on ABC as ostensibly a behind-the-scenes look at a sports-highlight show, starring Felicity Huffman as the producer who has a relationship with her anchor, played by Peter Krause. "Sports Night is so innovative," declared a reviewer for Time, "[that] it could become a new evolutionary stage of the sitcom—if it lasts." The same contributor felt that the show "represents the best opportunity in a long time for network comedy to evolve into something sharper and more interesting.… Sports Night's freshness is inspiring and its potential is great." Similarly, a critic for Entertainment Weekly found Sports Night to be "the most pulse-quickening show since ER." The same reviewer went on to call the show "a home run, a hole in one, a touch-down—at once the most consistently funny, intelligent, and emotional of any new-season series." This is accomplished by Sorkin managing to go "under the skins of people who are smug/smirky/ironic—which is to say, folks who are smart, vulnerable and a wee bit self-hating," according to the Entertainment Weekly critic. Sports Night introduced television audiences to Sorkin's "razor-sharp dialogue," as Patrick Goldstein described it in the Los Angeles Times. Despite rave reviews, the show suffered from poor ratings and was canceled in early 2000, after its second season.
The West Wing
Meanwhile, the inventive and prolific Sorkin had already launched The West Wing, producing the show and writing the scripts as well. The show features a Democratic president and his aides in another behind-the-scenes look at a fictional world.
Veteran actor Martin Sheen was chosen to play President Josiah Bartlet, a centrist politician with a doctor wife, played by Stockard Channing. His chief of staff is Leo McGarry, played by John Spencer, and his deputy, Josh Lyman, is played by Bradley Whitford. The communications director, Toby Ziegler, who becomes almost the moral compass of the White House, is played by Richard Schiff, and the speech writer is Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe in a role that resembles real-life Clinton speech writer George Stephanopolous. Press secretary C.J., who is played by Allison Janney, appears to have been fashioned after former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers, who joined the show as a consultant. Various other staffers and family members round out the cast, but each episode focuses primarily on these characters. Though the series was ready to go by 1998, the Monica Lewinsky scandal delayed production, for the sex scandal had demeaned the Clinton White House and a drama built around the presidency would likely suffer because of it.
With its premier in the fall of 1999 The West Wing was an instant success, garnering rave reviews and loyal viewers—predominantly well-educated, older, and well-to-do—who quickly numbered in the millions. Critics, such as Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker, soon noted the winning formula: "The powerfully attractive fairy tale behind writer-creator Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing is that the White House staff is a family—one that is both functional and dysfunctional, whose members are squabbling and obstreperous, but true-blue loyal to each other." Thus, in addition to running the country and negotiating the nation's role in the world, the president and his staff also have real and dramatic lives on the private level. From the outset, also, reviewers were remarking that the show is really about the Clinton White House that could have been, and as such it attracted ire from several Democrats as well as from conservatives. Also from the outset it was apparent that Sorkin's incisive dialogue would carry the day, and real issues would help drive the plot. Sorkin, speaking with Terence Smith on the Online NewsHour, noted, however, that "first and foremost, if not only, this is entertainment. The West Wing isn't meant to be good for you. We're not telling anyone to eat their vegetables.…Our responsibility is to captivate you for however long we've asked for your attention. That said, there is tremendous drama to be gotten from great, what you would say, heavy issues. There's also drama to be gotten from issues that most people would consider very dry and wouldn't pay any attention to." As an example, Sorkin cited one show he wrote around the debate over the sampling methods for the U.S. census.
Over the course of its first season, The West Wing attracted thirteen million viewers weekly who appreciated Sorkin's take on the Washington Beltway. "But it's not the depiction of political beliefs that makes the show work," commented Sharon Waxmaninthe Washington Post. "Something about Sorkin's gift for droll repartee, his canny mix of the mundane (an emergency root canal for C.J.) with the life-threatening (war breaks out between India and Pakistan) succeeds in making politics entertaining, while retaining an authentic feel." Waxman also noted that Sorkin's "dialogue crackles." Fortune's Marc Gunther also commended the show, calling it "beautifully written and photographed," and one that "tackles big themes." By its second season, during the 2000 presidential election, the show's ratings had soared to the top of the dramatic lists, viewer-ship was at twenty million, and bumper stickers appeared declaring "Bartlet for President." Awards followed: the 2000 Emmy for outstanding dramatic series as well as the 2000 Peabody Award. The Peabody committee noted in its presentation that "The West Wing continues to beat our deforce as it achieves what reality often fails to accomplish—making the political process both captivating and exceptionally interesting."
After the presidency went to the Republican Party in 2000, some critics and viewers noted that the show no longer seemed in touch with current American moods. Also, work on the show was taking its toll on Sorkin. At the end of the second season, in April 2001, he was arrested for possession of cocaine and narrowly avoided a criminal sentence by agreeing to counseling and regular drug testing. Further Emmy Awards came in 2001 and 2002, but by the fourth season, reviewers were beginning to think that the series had run its course. As Caryn James noted in the New York Times, "over the summer when no one was looking … it happened: The West Wing jumped the shark." Jumping the shark, in terms of a series, means that a show "begins its downward slide," as James explained. The same critic further noted: "The real problem is that Aaron Sorkin … has turned to desperate plot twists and preachier-than-ever dialogue this season. And the weak writing has been compounded by a trickier issue: as the show has tried to adapt to changes in the world around it, it has given us a fictional president who walks like a Clinton and talks like a Bush." During its fourth season the show steadily lost viewers and its ratings fell twenty percent; Rob Lowe was the first of the cast to leave the series, and finally Sorkin himself as well as his director Thomas Schlamme announced that they would be departing at the end of the fourth season. As Lisa de Morales reported in the Washington Post, Sorkin kept a public face on his departure: "'This has been the experience of any writer's dreams,'" Sorkin commented. "'I had the best job in show business for four years and I'll never forget that.'"
If you enjoy the works of Aaron Sorkin, you might want to check out the following:
The film Dave, starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver, 1993.
The television series 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland, 2001—.
The movie Running Mates, starring Diane Keaton and Ed Harris, 1992. 19.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 29, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Newsmakers, Issue 2, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2003.
American Enterprise, September, 2001, p. 13.
Atlantic Monthly, March 2001, Chris Lehmann, "The Feel-Good Presidency," p. 93.
Commonweal, November 3, 2000, Richard Alleva, "On Screen, Bill's Better Self," p. 22.
Daily Variety, August 30, 2002, p. 28.
Entertainment Weekly, December 18, 1992, Owen Gleiberman, review of A Few Good Men (film), p. 40; November 17, 1995, p. 56; December 4, 1998, review of Sports Night, p. 71; October 22, 1999, Ken Tucker, "Full Court Prez," p. 67; February 25, 2000, p. 32; May 4, 2001, p. 26; November 8, 2002, Ken Tucker, "How the West Was Undone," p. 30.
Fortune, September 27, 1999, Marc Gunther, review of The West Wing, p. 64.
Houston Chronicle, October 3, 1999, p. 8; July 23, 2000, p. 11.
Los Angeles Times, December 11, 1992, Kenneth Turan, review of A Few Good Men, p. F1; October 10, 1999, Patrick Goldstein, "On a Wing and a Prayer," p. 4; November 21, 2001, p. F1; May 2, 2003, Brian Lowry, "Changing of the Guard at NBC's West Wing," p. C1; May 21, 2003, Brian Lowry, "Just How Air-Worthy Will a No-Sorkin West Wing Be?," p. E2.
Nation, January 8, 1990, Thomas A. Disch, review of A Few Good Men (play), pp. 66-67.
National Review, December 31, 1995, John Simon, review of The American President, p. 48.
New Republic, December 18, 1995, Stanley Kauff-mann, review of The American President, p. 28.
Newsweek, May 17, 1996, p. 68; October 11, 1999, p. 80.
New Yorker, March 4, 2002, p. 30.
New York Times, September 23, 2002, p. E1; October 21, 2002, p. C1; October 23, 2002, Caryn James, "Shark's Pearly Teeth Gnash Near The West Wing," p. E2; May 14, 2003, Alessandra Stanley, "A Whiff of Camelot as West Wing Ends an Era," p. E1.
New York Times Magazine, October 28, 2001, Peter de Jonge, "Aaron Sorkin Works His Way through the Crisis," pp. 42, 44-47.
People, December 14, 1992, Ralph Novak, review of A Few Good Men (film), p. 17; November 20, 1995, Ralph Novak, review of The American President, p. 19.
Progressive, May, 2000, p. 39.
Time, November 27, 1989, William A. Henry III, review of A Few Good Men (play), p. 88; December 14, 1992, Richard Schickel, review of A Few Good Men (film), p. 70; November 20, 1995, Richard Corliss, review of The American President, p. 117; November 9, 1998, review of Sports Night, p. 110.
U.S. News & World Report, October 7, 2002, p. 56.
Wall Street Journal, November 17, 1989, Edwin Wilson, "Crackling Courtroom Drama," p. 1.
Washington Post, October 1, 1989, Megan Rosenfeld, "Aaron Sorkin's Basic Training," p. 1; March 8, 2000, Sharon Waxman, "Art Meets Politics," p. C1; April 17, 2002, p. C7; May 2, 2003, Lia de Morales, "West Wing Creator Aaron Sorkin Quits Ailing Series," p. C1.
Online NewsHour,http://www.pbs.org/newshour/ (September 27, 2000), Terence Smith, "Aaron Sorkin."
Peabody Awards,http://www.peabody.uga.edu/ (September 9, 2003), "The West Wing.
" Screenwriter,http://www.nyscreenwriter.com/ (January, 1995), "Aaron Sorkin, Screenwriter/Showrunner."*