If 'The West Wing' Were Run By NBC Executives, It Would Have Become 'Schindler's List'

JOHN WELLS, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: I had a deal at NBC because they wanted me to continue to be involved in ER. So we developed West Wing there, but they didn’t want to do it right away. “The American audience isn’t interested in politics” and “there’s plenty of that on Sunday morning television” were some of the things I recall hearing. But I insisted on getting it made if I was going to stay with ER.

AARON SORKIN: Don Ohlmeyer and Warren Littlefield were running NBC at the time the pilot script was delivered. Sitting in a meeting in Warren’s office with John, my sense was that the network executives were respectfully underwhelmed. Referring to one of the stories in the pilot that was about Cuban refugees fleeing to America on inner tubes and should we or should we not send the Coast Guard out to help them, one of the execs suggested that it might be better if [Bradley Whitford’s character] Josh Lyman went out and saved them himself. I tried not to make it an awkward pause before I said, “You mean actually swim?” He said, “No, that would be ridiculous. I mean he rents a boat. A motor boat, a skiff, but the boat’s too small to get all the refugees on board and he has a moment like Oskar Schindler where he’s saying, ’I could have rented a bigger boat! I could have saved that guy over there and those kids over there!” It was hard to avoid the awkward pause then because I honestly didn’t know if I was being messed with or not, and I didn’t want to insult the executive or appear to be difficult to work with (even though I badly needed the network to pass because by this point ABC had ordered 13 episodes of Sports Night) so I said, “That’s worth thinking about.”

From The Hollywood Reporter’s oral history of “The West Wing.” Read more oral histories from the Longreads Archive.