John Spencer (December 20, 1946 – December 16, 2005) was an American actor best known for his role as Leo McGarry, the White House Chief of Staff, on the television drama series The West Wing, from 1999-2006.
Spencer was born John Speshock in New York City, and grew up in nearby Totowa. He was the son of blue-collar parents Mildred (née Bincarowski), a Ukrainian-American waitress, and John Speshock, an Irish American truck driver.
With his enrolment at the Professional Children's School in Manhattan at age 16, he found himself sharing classes with such fellow students as Liza Minnelli and violinist Pinchas Zukerman. Later he attended Fairleigh Dickinson University, but did not complete a degree.
He began his television career on The Patty Duke Show and played Harrison Ford's detective sidekick in the 1990 courtroom thriller Presumed Innocent.
From 1990 to 1994 he was a regular cast member on L.A. Law, playing the rumpled, pugnacious associate attorney Tommy Mullaney.
Later, he acted in the romantic comedy Forget Paris (1995) as a wisecracking co-worker to Billy Crystal's basketball referee.
Spencer played the role of Captain Hugh Paulsen in the 1995 FMV game Wing Commander IV; The Rock (1996) as FBI Director Womack, and the 2002 theatre production of The Exonerated.
Paralleling his character on The West Wing, he was a recovering alcoholic and divorcé. Spencer was the first actor cast in The West Wing.
He won an Obie Award for the 1981 off-Broadway production of "Still Life," about a Vietnam veteran, and received a Drama Desk nomination for "The Day Room."
After two previous nominations, Spencer won his first Emmy Award in 2002 for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for his portrayal of Leo McGarry on The West Wing.
The episodes Spencer submitted for judging by the Emmy voters were "Bartlet for America" (Season 3, Episode 10), in which Leo has to testify in front of a Congressional committee about the President's health and flashes back to his own medical lapse, and "We Killed Yamamoto" (Season 3, Episode 21).
Although not as visible as his co-star Martin Sheen, he believed and fought for many of the same causes. He was probably best known for his work for AIDS awareness.
He referred to himself as a "dyed-in-the-wool liberal" and described Franklin Delano Roosevelt as one of his heroes.
He died following a heart attack in a Los Angeles hospital on December 16, 2005, at the age of 58. He would have turned 59 in four days.
West Wing cast mate Stockard Channing was visiting Spencer at the time of his death. He is interred at Laurel Grove Memorial Park in Totowa, New Jersey.
At the time of his death, he had appeared in two of the five West Wing episodes then in post-production – "Running Mates" and "The Cold." His death was subsequently written into the show, as his character, vice presidential candidate McGarry, died of a heart attack on election night.
Coincidentally, his character had a disconcerting history of heart problems.
West Wing cast mate Kristin Chenoweth sang the musical number For Good from the hit Broadway musical Wicked, which she starred in, at his funeral.