John Spencer’s Cause of Death: How Did ‘The West Wing’ Actor Die?

Actor John Spencer attends the 10th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on February 22, 2004 at the Shrine Auditorium, in Los Angeles, California.

Getty Actor John Spencer attends the 10th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on February 22, 2004 at the Shrine Auditorium, in Los Angeles, California.

John Spencer was an Emmy-winning actor best known for playing Chief of Staff Leo McGarry on The West Wing from 1999 to 2005. Ahead of the West Wing special reunion episode on HBO Max, here’s what you need to know about how he died and what they did on the show when it happened.

John Spencer’s Cause of Death Was a Heart Attack

On December 18, 2005, four days before his 59th birthday, Spencer died of a heart attack at the Olympia Medical Center in Los Angeles, his publicist told the New York Times.

According to his obituary, Spencer was born John Speshock Jr. and grew up in Totowa, New Jersey. He left home at the age of 16 to attend the Professional Children’s School in New York City and shortly thereafter landed a recurring role on The Patty Duke Show in 1963. He would go on to appear in small roles in films and on TV until he finally had a breakout role in the 1990 film Presumed Innocent opposite Harrison Ford. That led to a series regular role on L.A. Law, both of which caught West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin’s eye.

When Spencer died, Sorkin told the New York Times that when he was casting The West Wing, he said to the casting director, “We need someone like John Spencer,” and the casting director suggested they just get Spencer and Sorkin said, “We will never get John Spencer.” But he said yes and the rest was history.

Spencer earned one Golden Globe nomination and five Emmy Nominations for his work on The West Wing, earning a win in 2002 for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series.

The Show Wrote His Death Into the Plot

In the seventh and final season of The West Wing, McGarry was the running mate of presidential candidate Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), so writing his character out of the show would have been extraordinarily hard. At the time of his death, he had completed a few episodes that were in post-production, so they aired as planned. His final appearance was in “The Cold,” the 13th episode of the final season, which aired on March 12, 2006.

Then Leo was only mentioned for several episodes. In the first half of the two-part election night episode, “Election Day Part I,” Annabeth Schott (Kristin Chenoweth) finds Leo in his hotel room having suffered a heart attack on the night of the presidential election. Everyone finds out in part II of the episode that he has died. There were five more episodes that aired to close out the series.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune when Spencer died, executive producer John Wells said it was incredibly hard to continue on without the late actor.

“John was so central to how we did the show, he sort of was the glue who held it all together,” Wells said. “It was very difficult to continue without him, but at the same time, I think he would have been angry with us if we hadn’t. There were moments during the Christmas holiday when we thought about calling it a day, but we decided to finish it up.”

The West Wing reunion episode is out now on HBO Max. It is a theatrical staging of the season three episode “Hartsfield’s Landing.” Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown stepped into the role of Leo for the production.

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