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Scribes face challenge in West Wing star's death

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The death on Friday of actor John Spencer, a cornerstone of the ensemble on The West Wing since its 1999 debut, is sure to send the show's writing team back to the drawing board for the second half of what could be the show's final season.

Spencer's character, former Bartlet administration chief of staff turned vice presidential candidate Leo McGarry, has played a key role in the election-year storyline of the Emmy-winning White House drama this season as McGarry became the running mate of fiery liberal Democratic congressman Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits, who was vying to succeed Martin Sheen's President Josiah Bartlet in the fictional Oval Office.

Spencer, who was 58, died on Friday after suffering a heart attack. (In an eerie life-meets-art parallel, Spencer's character suffered a heart attack last season but recovered quickly enough to take on a bruising presidential campaign.)

The West Wing was on a scheduled production hiatus for the holidays at the time of Spencer's death--the actor died less than a day after he checked into a Los Angeles hospital with a bad cold, according to his publicist. Writers and producers for the series are expected to gather this week to decide how to handle the remainder of the season, a studio spokeswoman said.

Spencer appeared in seven of the 14 episodes of The West Wing has completed for its seventh season as of last week, according to The West Wing producer Warner Bros. Television. Nine of those 14 episodes have already aired; The West Wing isn't scheduled to air a new episode until January.

At its peak, The West Wing ranked among prime-time's most-watched series, but the much-praised drama has struggled ratings-wise during the past few seasons. This fall, the show relocated from its longtime home on Wednesday to the Sunday 8 p.m. slot, where it has ranked 50th among network prime-time series with an average of 8.2 million viewers and a 2.3 rating/5 share in the adults 18-49 demographic. As such, The West Wing was already seen as a long shot to be renewed for an eighth year next fall.

The challenge now facing the The West Wing's creative team recalls the situation producers of The Sopranos dealt with in 2000 following the death of Nancy Marchand, who played the pivotal, villainous mob matriarch Livia Soprano. To wrap up her storyline, The Sopranos producers used old pieces of dialogue and CGI techniques to briefly insert Marchand's face on a body double.

In late December 2004, Law & Order veteran Jerry Orbach died shortly before the premiere of the NBC spin0off Law & Order: Trial by Jury. Producers and the network decided to air the episodes in which Orbach was featured, though the show ultimately proved short-lived.

Actor John Ritter died in September 2003 on the eve of the sophomore-season debut of his promising ABC comedy 8 Simple Rules. Producers decided to reflect real life by writing the lead character's shocking death into the storyline. 8 Simple Rules continued for two more seasons but never regained the ratings momentum it lost along with its star.

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