07/10/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
John Spencer sits on the patio of a Beverly Hills restaurant on Memorial Day, savoring the steamy aroma of black coffee. It's a far cry from his beverage du jour on the same holiday 11 years ago, when he downed vodka by the quart. "It was 11 in the morning, and already I was sick to my stomach," he recalls of his final day off the wagon in 1989. "I was disgusted with myself. I thought, 'How can I stop this ride? How can I get off?' Suicide started to seem like some kind of option—that's how bad it was."
Sober since that day, Spencer, 53, is on another kind of wild ride: His hit drama The West Wing has been streaking up the Nielsens all year, thanks in part to his character, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, a recovering alcoholic himself, who advises President Bartlet (Martin Sheen). Spencer's portrayal has even won praise from his real-life counterpart, John Podesta. "John plays this role in a calm, thoughtful, kind-hearted and loyal manner," says Podesta, 51. "I think they call that artistic license." Adds costar Allison Janney, who plays press secretary C.J. Cregg: "He's the anchor for our cast."
But for more than 20 years he was weighed down by booze. Both his grandfathers were alcoholics, says Spencer, "and I was well on my way by the time I was in high school." By the late '80s his addictions had intensified—"I was experimenting with everything: coke, booze, pot"—until he bottomed out that Memorial Day. "I remember thinking," he says, " 'I've got to get help before I change my mind.' "
That day, Spencer called his cousin Eileen Kearney, who had weaned herself off alcohol a couple of years earlier. "John was so thin, he looked older than he ever has in his life," says Kearney, 39, now a professional bassist in the New York City area. When Kearney arrived at Spencer's Manhattan apartment to drive him to a New Jersey rehab facility, she says, "he was calling me Christine Cagney—you know, the TV cop?—because he said I'd come to rescue him."
Soon after a successful five-week rehab, Spencer's love life also began to improve. For the past nine years he has been happily involved with actress-choreographer Patti Mariano, 55, a friend since high school. "This is the most stable relationship I ever had," says Spencer, who was married in the '70s to an actress he refuses to name (they had no children). While Spencer and Mariano, who shares his Spanish two-bed-room Beverly Hills home, once discussed marriage, "it seems like we never had the time or were both in the same place," she says.
Indeed, Spencer has always been difficult to pin down. Raised in Totowa, N.J., he 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"," says Spencer. "I looked like a toothpick with ears."
Spencer 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. Years of theater and occasional TV parts—and plenty of heavy drinking—followed before he cleaned himself up in 1989.
After Spencer's first big post-rehab role, as Harrison Ford's buddy in 1990's Presumed Innocent, "my life changed overnight," he says. He joined L.A. Law later that year for a four-year run as street-smart lawyer Tommy Mullaney. "I immediately responded to his warmth," says Law castmate—and former AA member—Michael Tucker, who played Stuart Markowitz. "He supported me by being honest about his situation. I needed to hear how low you can go, and he'd been at the bottom."
He continued his climb with parts in such films as The Rock and The Negotiator before starting The West Wing last year. "People say, 'Oh, you got successful because you got sober?' " says Spencer. "I tell 'em, 'No, I'm alive because I got sober.' Quitting was the single best gift I ever gave myself—life."
Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles