The Big Interview: Richard Schiff

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A few years ago, when he was still playing the hangdog, introverted and intense Toby Ziegler, White House director of communications in Aaron Sorkin’s hit TV show set in the West Wing, Richard Schiff received a letter from one Hillary Clinton.

The top line of this unexpected note from the then Senator from New York, later installed as President Obama’s Secretary of State, was: “Your welfare plan won’t work”. She went on to present him with 10 bullet-point reasons why the proposed “fix”, formulated by Ziegler in the show, was ill-conceived.

Richard Schiff pictured at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

Richard Schiff pictured at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

The anecdote does make the real-life politician sound rather dogmatic and humourless. But the fact that she could not resist sticking her oar in, reprimanding an actor playing a part in a story about an idealised version of a Democratic White House, underscores the awe and admiration with which many highly-educated Americans viewed the show.

Its influence was immense during the seven seasons it was shown in US prime-time slots between 1999 and 2006 and on Channel 4 in the UK.

Former White House staffers were script consultants, other former staff praised its accuracy on many levels; its millions of fans sighed and wished real politics had the same heart and integrity.

Daily tussles with morality, whether over domestic policy or diplomacy in sticky Middle Eastern situations, were the heartbeat of the series.

It examined how hard it can sometimes be to Do The Right Thing – but generally President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his team found a way – albeit sometimes after an almighty row with the Republican Speaker of the House and with casualties along the way.

Many a senator or member of Congress marvelled at how Hollywood could explain a complicated piece of legislation by putting 45 seconds of quick-fire dialogue into the mouths of two characters as they walked the short distance between the Roosevelt Room and the Oval Office.

But in the final couple of series, audiences were waning, the original writers had mostly moved on and the NBC network wanted to cut costs and maximise profit and Schiff’s character was given a shocking exit storyline.

Toby Ziegler – a man with a lion’s heart, arguably the most loyal of all – was indicted for leaking classified information and banished from the White House.

To viewers this jarred, and it certainly sat terribly with Schiff, whose portrayal of Ziegler had earned him one of the 26 Emmys (and three Golden Globes) heaped upon the show. He argued with producers that his man would never have betrayed the president.

In the event, once Schiff fully realised what was in store for Toby, he took a stand and said he would not admit on screen that he was the one who’d leaked. “I made up my own storyline, that he was covering up for someone else... and I managed to stick to that, without ever revealing who he was protecting.”

Schiff’s appearances towards the end were few, and he was free to go back to his original love in theatre, where he says “I cleansed myself” by performing Underneath The Lintel, a hit one-man show that began life in New Jersey and later found its way to London.

Richard Schiff is in Sheffield as one of the judges of the International Student Drama Festival, and he’s in his element watching young groups from as far afield as Iran and Israel as well as more local talent.

“It’s been fantastic, and reminds me of the days when integrity was possible. There’s an openness here – they don’t sit around judging each other. They’re very appreciative of each other. Everything I’ve seen has been gripping, even the pieces that are not yet successfully realised.”

He’s here with his son Gus, who’s visiting UK universities. They’re about to catch up with Schiff’s wife (the actress Sheila Kelley) and daughter Ruby, to explore Kelley’s Irish roots in Antrim. He fits in a round of golf wherever he can – the bandage around his wrist testifies to some bizarre encounter with a nine iron.

The middle son of Edward, a real estate lawyer and Charlotte, a housewife who later became a heavyweight TV and Broadway producer, feminist and political activist, Richard Schiff grew up in the New York of West Side Story.

His parents divorced and his mother later married Clarence Jones, who happened to be Martin Luther King’s lawyer. Young Richard and a friend ran an alternative high school newspaper called Spark (after Lenin’s newspaper of the same name). He found himself as the only white boy at an early Black Panther march.

At that point acting wasn’t on the radar, and there was no particular plan, except “I dreamt and still dream of playing centre field for the Yankees. I think it’ll happen...”

A confused teen (“a common denominator between people who end up in theatre, I think”), he dropped out of college but later studied directing. What motivated him was the way certain films and plays had the power to move and mesmerise him.

“I was deeply curious about how they got me into an altered state of consciousness. I loved 1970s movies, especially New York films like Serpico and Mean Streets. Earlier films by Frank Capra were also magical to me, as was Jimmy Cagney. Those older ones had stopped me from going crazy as a teenager.”

Early on, Schiff regularly had to drive a taxi to help finance a play, but he went on to direct many successful shows off Broadway, including Antigone, starring the newly-graduated Angela Bassett, in 1983.

It wasn’t until his early 30s that he was persuaded to have a go at acting, but when he did things happened fairly quickly. Steven Spielberg spotted Schiff in an episode of TV drama High Incident and cast him in The Lost World: Jurassic Park.

A string of films then came his way, including well-received appearances alongside his own idol Al Pacino in City Hall and People I Know. He saw his future in film, and says that when The West Wing came along he was resisting years of stifling commitment to TV projects by setting his price high.

“With The West Wing I knew straight away it was going to be very successful, and would probably last seven or eight years – which was not how I wanted my life to go. But... I saw that the writing was tremendous and Allison Janney was involved. I was a big fan of hers.

“For years it was a phenomenal piece of work. I am very proud of the fact that every week we had the potential for brilliance. Aaron Sorkin’s writing was fantastic, although over all it was a mixed bag.”

He admits now that what kept him on TWW “too long” was the pay cheque.

“The money was outrageously obscene. I knew I’d never see that kind of money again, and it was a reward for the hard work we did together, I guess. You buy into the paradigm of the society you live in to a certain extent, and no matter how much you think you have integrity, you really don’t in the end.”

He says that at the time he denied the series had any influence on real politics. However, he concedes now that it was much more than a bunch of well-lit people saying things we wish politicians would say. “It’s responsible for Obama being president. During the 2008 campaign, during which I went and worked for Joe Biden early on, I would travel and meet armies of volunteers, who would say, ‘You’re the reason we’re here’.

“It didn’t hurt either that we had pre-dated the election with our storyline of Santos (the Democrat successor to Bartlet, who’s of Latino heritage) being elected. He was literally based on Barack Obama and his opponent was based on John McCain. So we ran the election and had the discussions before it happened in real life.”

And what does the idealistic Democrat Schiff now make of Obama’s record?

“There’s nothing progressive about him – he’s what we could get elected. The fact that he’s half African American has nothing to do with anything, so far as I’m concerned, except that it ended the Civil War. For for that reason it was monumental.”

Schiff, who’s hoping to hear news of a juicy Broadway part when we meet, believes the coming US election will be a very close-run thing, not least because it will be the first time a serving president’s campaign fund is exceeded by that of the opposition. But if Obama wins, he thinks there is hope. “I really thought he stepped up at the end of the last campaign and I saw someone who was willing to fight – but that went away very quickly after he took office. Maybe it’ll come back in this campaign and in the second term, which most politicians say is when you can get some work done.”

Schiff says Obama has done all he set out to do and suffered from messianic expectations.

“One of the things he is good at and I give him a whole lot of credit for, has to do with economic policy – such as it is. He was handed a hot grenade with the pin taken out, and he’s managed to put that pin back in. We’re not rioting in the streets.”

Is Schiff sure he doesn’t want to go into politics himself? “No, it’s not for me. I will probably write about the election and help Senator Sherrod Brown in Ohio – a wonderful man with a heart and a brain who is going to be eradicated by the millions and millions donated to eliminate him. That said, I’m not really so sure about the value of Hollywood to election campaigns.” You could well be wrong there, Richard.

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