A legend of regional theatre long before he first appeared on television, talented character actor John Spencer was first renowned in New York circles for his electrifying performances onstage throughout the 1970's and 1980's - even winning the coveted Obie Award for his work in the 1981 off-Broadway production of "Still Life. " But it was not until he made his on-screen debut in 1983's sci-fi thriller "WarGames" that landed on Hollywood's radar, culminating in a long career as a go-to TV series actor - most famously as White House chief of staff Leo McGarry on "The West Wing" (NBC, 1999-2006).
Born John Speshock on Dec. 20, 1946, Spencer was the only child of Ukrainian and Irish-American parents. Raised in a blue-collar Roman- Catholic home, Spencer was "weaned on television," but fell in love with live theatre as a young boy. By grade school, Spencer's career path was already set - at the age of 12, he directed and starred in his own production of "My Fair Lady." In 1962, Spencer enrolled at the Professional Children's School in Manhattan, where he studied alongside classmate Liza Minnelli. Spencer's first major television role was as recurring character Henry Anderson, the lovestruck boyfriend of Cousin Kathy on "The Patty Duke Show", (ABC, 1963-66). Spencer left Hollywood in 1968, however, to return to New York and his first great love - the live stage.
Starting in regional theatre in the early 1970's, Spencer gained a solid reputation as a fearless actor. Between 1974 and 1980, Spencer performed in such stage works as Tennessee Williams's "The Glass Menagerie," Don Delillo's "The Day Room" and David Mamet's "Lakeboat." Spencer was most celebrated, however, for his 1981 Obie Award-winning performance as a haunted Vietnam vet in Emily Mann's "Still Life," for which he was honored as Best Actor. When "Still Life" came to the Los Angeles stage in 1983, Spencer was personally tapped by director John Badham to star in the minor role of Jerry Lawson in his upcoming project, "War Games." The Matthew Broderick thriller benefited greatly from the political climate at the time - with the U.S.S.R. still a viable nuclear threat to the States - all of which helped make the film a huge summer hit.
Throughout the 1980's, Spencer landed a number of small roles in such films as "Hiding Out" (1987), "Sea of Love" (1989) and "Black Rain" (1989), but his watershed role came in 1990, in the courtroom thriller "Presumed Innocent" directed by Alan J. Pakula. In it, Spencer played Dan Lipranzer, a detective and loyal friend to Assistant D.A. Rusty Sabich, played by Harrison Ford. The success of the film and acclaim "Presumed Innocent" brought the supporting actor, would lead to his next gig and a return to the small screen.
In 1990, Spencer was hired by producer David E. Kelley for the recurring role of scrappy, street-smart defense attorney, Tommy Mullaney, on the long-running legal drama, "L.A. Law" (NBC, 1986-1994). Spencer's character proved popular enough that he eventually joined the cast as a series regular starting in 1991.
Spencer's most famous television role, however, would be his last. In 1999, the acclaimed actor landed the role of White House chief of staff Leo McGarry on "The West Wing." A recovering alcoholic like Spencer, himself, the curmudgeonly, but compassionate McGarry became a much-loved character who often served as the show's moral compass. In 2002, Spencer received an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor for his signature role.
To the surprise of family and friends - and the shock of his 'West Wing" co-workers who were in the process of wrapping up the show's final season - Spencer suffered a fatal heart attack and died at a Los Angeles hospital on Dec. 16, 2005, just four days shy of his 59th birthday. At the time of his unexpected death, the actor had already appeared in two of the five "West Wing" episodes in post-production. Spencer's death was subsequently written into the show by having McGarry (who, by then, had become the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate) die of a heart attack on the eve of election night.