Can West Wing Fly Without Spencer?

Can West Wing Fly Without Spencer?
John Spencer
20th Century FOX/ScreenScenes

12/19/2005 AT 08:00 AM EST

Friday's sudden death of The West Wing stalwart John Spencer, who was with the NBC White House drama since its 1999 debut, is sending the show's writers back to the drawing board, say reports.

Spencer died of a heart attack Friday at a Los Angeles hospital, his publicist, Ron Hofmann, told the Associated Press. He was 58.

Spencer's character is playing a pivotal part in the storyline this season, which may be the last for the series. As the former Bartlet administration chief of staff turned vice presidential candidate Leo McGarry, he became the running mate of fiery liberal Democratic congressman Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits, vying to succeed Martin Sheen's President Josiah Bartlet in the fictional Oval Office.

In an eerie life-meets-art parallel, Spencer's character suffered a heart attack last season but recovered quickly enough to take on a bruising presidential campaign.

West Wing isn't scheduled to air a new episode until January. Writers and producers for the series are expected to gather this week to decide how to handle the remainder of the season, a studio spokeswoman said.

Producer Lawrence O'Donnell tells The New York Times that he and members of the cast were stunned by their colleague's death.

"He was my brother; that is the most I can say," Sheen tells the paper. "I just adored him."

Spencer received an Emmy for his role on The West Wing in 2002, as well as a Golden Globe nomination.

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