01/23/2006 at 08:00 AM EST
As if the Dec. 16 death of its veteran cast member John Spencer was not enough of a shock this season, the cast and crew of NBC's The West Wing – as well as TV viewers – came in for a surprise on Sunday. The network announced that the award-winning White House drama will conclude its 7-year run with a finale scheduled to air this May 14.
Kevin Reilly, beleaguered president of NBC Entertainment, rang the death knell at a gathering of TV writers. "The decisions of making this the final year were kind of determined before (Spencer's death)," said Reilly. "It's no secret that the ratings have been tough for the last couple of seasons. I think the most frustrating thing is that the work has just been so outstanding, and I just wish more people got to see it."
He added, "You know, there's a point where you want to send a show off with dignity and with some semblance of success. ... There's a point where you look at the ratings and you say, 'Feels like it's time.'"
John Wells, one of the show's creators, went on to explain that Spencer's death makes the demise of the show sadly well-timed. "John's passing happened and it changed things," he said. "When he died, we had shot five episodes with John, three in which he was very heavily (involved). We had discussions about what was appropriate ... should we even continue the show. We wondered if we were coming to a natural end."
But, ultimately, the decision was made to end the series with a bow to the United States Constitution. As West Wing President Martin Sheen told PEOPLE on Sunday: "Constitutionally, within the context of the show, I knew I was done."
Sheen also said that he would like his last lines on the show to be uttered in Latin. "I'd like to go out with something from the Book of Isaiah," said Sheen whose chief executive, like the actor who portrays him, is a classics scholar and devout Catholic.