West Wing Actor John Spencer Dies

12/16/2005 at 06:00 PM EST

West Wing Actor John Spencer Dies
John Spencer
20th Century FOX/ScreenScenes
West Wing actor John Spencer died of a heart attack Friday. He was 58.

The actor passed away at a Los Angeles hospital, his publicist, Ron Hofmann, told the Associated Press.

Spencer, a veteran actor who appeared on The Patty Duke Show in the 1960s, received an Emmy for his role as White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry on The West Wing in 2002, as well as a Golden Globe nomination.

On the show, Spencer's character was a recovering alcoholic, an experience Spencer himself knew all too much about. Though he had been sober since 1989, for more than 20 years he was weighed down by his addiction to booze. He started drinking in high school and later he says he "experiment(ed) with everything: coke, booze, pot."

"I remember thinking I've got to get help before I change my mind," Spencer told PEOPLE in 2000 of his decision to get sober.

Raised in Totowa, N.J., Spencer was the only child of John Speshock, an Irish-Czech dump-truck driver, and Mildred, an occasional waitress. Captivated by theater at an early age, he left Totowa at 16 to pursue acting in New York City (where he adopted Spencer as his stage name) and landed a role later that year on The Patty Duke Show as Cathy's boyfriend Henry.

"I had big ears and was quite tall for the show, 5'6"," said Spencer. "I looked like a toothpick with ears."

He returned to New Jersey a few years later to attend Fairleigh Dickinson University but dropped out after two years to resume acting in New York.

After Spencer's first big post-rehab role, as Harrison Ford's buddy in 1990's Presumed Innocent, "my life changed overnight," he told PEOPLE. He joined L.A. Law later that year for a four-year run as street-smart lawyer Tommy Mullaney.

He continued his climb with parts in such films as The Rock and The Negotiator before starting The West Wing in 1999.

Spencer would have been 59 next week. Service and funeral arrangements are pending, his publicist said.

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