Whitford’s first TV gig, as a miscreant on the CBS drama, taught him a valuable lesson about how far to take one’s acting choices. “I made a discovery that it is never a good idea to make a choice that your character chews tobacco,” he says, adding that he thought the filthy habit would enhance his portrayal of “some sleazy rapist or something.” (If you want to put a fine point on it, Whitford’s Dillart was a thuggish killer and kidnapper, as well.) Anyone who’s ever accidentally downed some tobacco can attest to its nauseating powers – but, as the actor wryly points out, “You don’t have to swallow it to get sick.” To add insult to indigestion, Whitford notes, you can’t even tell he’s chewing it in the final cut.
“Norman Gardner” – Whitford’s recurring character on the ABC groundbreaker “was exposed,” the actor recalls… though that’s a bit of an understatement. “He was a reporter, and [the police] caught me wearing a red Speedo. They set me up, and I was [on video] spanking very attractive girls in schoolgirl outfits, wearing a red Speedo.” He recalls not doing much prep work for the role, save for constantly worrying that an awkward concern would rise to the fore. “When you’re slapping an attractive woman, you can imagine one fear, can’t you?” (For the record, Whitford escaped the scene without it happening.)
The second season episode “Firewalker” had Whitford playing the head of a volcanic research team infected by some bad-news spores. “I remember [my character] was very burned” and so he had to wear prosthetic makeup covered in fake gore. “They would put blood on it, and the blood had like corn syrup in it, so it was kind of sweet,” he recalls, jooking, “Strangely enough, that gave me a hard-on.”
“Love’s Labor Lost” was one of the most harrowing episodes of the NBC medical drama’s entire 15-season run, and Whitford was part of it, playing the husband of a first-time mother who dies while giving birth on Mark Greene’s watch. Executive producer Steven Spielberg was on set during shooting — “How am I supposed to act in front of Steven Spielberg?!” Whitford cries – and the whole endeavor “was really an emotional thing,” he says. “The end of that, where they cut out the sound, where Tony Edwards is coming to tell me that my wife has died and I’m holding the baby, it’s one of the smartest editing things I’ve ever seen… We shot a lot of up-close stuff, me falling and stuff, [but] it’s just so much more effective when it’s silent.” A lot of expectant women apparently felt the same way, according to Whitford’s sister, who worked at a birthing center at the time. “She said that that episode traumatized a generation of mothers.”
You won’t see Whitford’s face in any reruns of the Cheers spin-off, but you just might recognize the voice of a commitment-phobic caller to Crane’s radio show in Season 10. “That was as close as I ever got,” he says. His lines didn’t take long to record, “Which is too bad, because I look back, and that’s the show I wish I was on,” he adds. “I love that show.”
The West Wing
White House staffer Josh Lyman remains Whitford’s best-known role, and the Aaron Sorkin political drama remains one of his favorite jobs. “I was at the White House Correspondents Dinner, and this young guy came up to me and he goes, ‘Hey man, I just want you to know that West Wing‘s what got me into [politics]. I’m a staffer on the Hill.’ I said, ‘Oh wow, that’s great.’ He said, ‘Actually, you know what?'” Whitford says, laughing. “‘I’m really tired, I don’t make any money, and I’m never going to kiss Mary-Louise Parker.'”
The West Wing (Cont’d.)
Two more memories Whitford recalls quite clearly: “I remember when we all stopped shooting and watched some stuff when the Iraq war started,” he says. Whitford also remembers some fun behind the scenes of the Season 2 episode, “Noel.” “Yo-Yo Ma was in it, and it was an amazing day,” he says. “One of my favorite memories is Yo-Yo Ma playing cello while Dulé Hill tap-danced.”
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
Another Sorkin show, co-starring Whitford and Friends alum Matthew Perry as the team behind a SNL-like sketch series, and NBC’s entire publicity machine behind it? What could go wrong? “It actually made me realize something about television marketing,” he says. “The Sopranos, certainly West Wing, certainly Breaking Bad: These are all shows that did not have huge advertising campaigns before them. You know, West Wing was maybe not going to work, and all of a sudden people pick it up. Whereas, on Studio 60, we’re this hugely expensive show and we’re going, ‘This is going to be the greatest show ever!’… and people are like, ‘Not really.'” Studio lasted one season.
Whitford hadn’t seen an episode of the CBS procedural – but he was a fan of star Simon Baker – before the opportunity to play Red John imposter Timothy Carter came around. “My agent goes, ‘Yeah. It’s to play Red John,’ and I said, ‘Is it a pirate show?'” Whitford recalls, laughing. “I had no idea… but that was fun, and it was one of those great jobs that I was done by noon. It was a great child-rearing job.”
Parks and Recreation
If you think of Leslie Knope & Co. as a bunch of Josh Lyman wannabes, Whitford’s Season 4 turn as retiring Councilman Pillner acquires another layer of funny. “I think Amy Poehler’s fantastic,” Whitford says. “I didn’t even think of it, and then I got there and I realized, ‘Oh, it’s kind of a West Wing joke,'” he says. But the series’ behind-the-scenes process took some getting used to. “The main thing I felt was, ‘Oh God, they must think I’m terrible.’ I got really insecure, just because I wasn’t sure. After every take, there’s a huddle, kind of an autopsy of the take. I realized, subsequently, that’s just the way it is in comedies.”
“I go to the read-through, and I thought, ‘Should children be here?'” Whitford says, chuckling as he recalls playing gay political activist Abraham Paige on longtime pal William H. Macy’s gritty Showtime dramedy. “Then, I got to watch some pretty crazy stuff.”
This week’s episode of Whitford’s current series finds Kate wanting a re-do of her wedding to Pete – “even though we’re already married” — and there are plenty of guest stars on hand to help get the celebration going. They include: Nat Faxon (Ben and Kate), Merrin Dungey (Alias), Dennis Haysbert (24) and Megan Mulally (Will & Grace) – “She is hysterical,” he says, spreading the love to the rest of the comedy’s ensemble, too. “This show is such a sweet experience,” he says. “It’s a wonderful crew. It’s a very warm feeling.”