‘West Wing’ to West End
Richard Schiff is known to millions of TV viewers as Toby, the deadpan presidential aide of ‘The West Wing.’ He talks to John Nathan about his gangster grandfather, his new London stage show, and his relief at quitting the White House
There is an episode of “The West Wing” which begins in flashback with three mysterious men in a car. It is a cold, wet night and a caption informs us that we are in Brooklyn on Christmas eve, 1954.
The men are speaking Yiddish. The one in the back is in talkative mood following the birth of his first son. But the man behind the wheel is more concerned about the business at hand, which is to kill someone. The three are Jewish gangsters working for Murder Inc.
For “West Wing” aficionados — and there are millions of them — this is episode 11 of series 4 of the US political-drama series. The talkative gangster is revealed as the father of Toby Ziegler, the Jewish, highly principled, deadpan White House communications director, played by the Emmy Award-winning Richard Schiff.
It is one of “West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin’s most compelling storylines. The 50-year-old Toby finally confronts the dad he disowned because of his gangster past. But more compelling still is where Sorkin got the idea. “My grandfather was a gangster,” Schiff admits.. “He was a member of Murder Inc.”
Schiff is about to make his West End stage debut in “Underneath the Lintel,” Glen Berger’s one-man play which draws on the myth of the wandering Jew. In the play, Schiff is a punctilious Dutch librarian whose world is rocked with the return of an overdue book. Overdue, that is, by 113 years.
Sitting in jeans and sweatshirt, Schiff cuts a friendlier figure than the austere Toby, who, of “The West Wing” characters, stands out as being the most intellectually intimidating, the most cerebral and the most bald.
But like Toby, Schiff has a watchful air about him. And he talks at a low volume — not conspiratorially low, but with an intimacy that draws you into the conversation, which is also rather Toby-like.
What sparked the “gangster father” episode was that Schiff pitched an idea about his character to Sorkin. It involved Toby meeting his estranged father. “I was thinking of a Roy Cohn kind of character,” says Schiff (Cohn was a prominent New York lawyer and influential figure in the Democratic Party who was disbarred for professional misconduct). But Sorkin remembered an earlier story Schiff had told him about his maternal grandfather, Maurice.
When Schiff was a kid, he would often hang out with Maurice at New York’s Rockaway beach. “He’d do tefillin every morning,” remembers Schiff. “He was serious Orthodox. And I would sit in silence until he was done. And after the beach, we’d take showers and he had this big scar on his massive calf.”
Maurice was a big man, a one-time prizefighter who came from what Schiff describes as “massive Russian stock”. “I’m the runt of the family,” he says. He is neither particularly tall nor small. “My brother’s six-foot-three and my cousin was a 240-pound linebacker for UCLA [American] football team,” he adds by way of putting his medium build in perspective.
“After my grandfather died, we held shivah at my apartment in Manhattan. And I’ll always remember these guys in pinstripe suits showing up, telling stories about ‘Moey’.” Imitating the men in pinstripes, Schiff ’s cultured tone switches to a Brooklyn brogue that is more “Sopranos” than “West Wing”.
“‘Even if Moey was down to his last dime, he’d give you half,’ one of the pinstripes had said. And then another said: ‘Remember the time when Moey got shot?’”
At that, Schiff remembers how the family gathered round and listened to the story about how Moey was “running rum” during Prohibition and how his truck “was busted by the cops”. “He ran and the police shot him in the leg,” says Schiff. “He escaped, and I realised that that was the scar.”
When Schiff talks about his grandfather — “he wasn’t a hitman, he was a runner” — there is an evident fascination, but no admiration. “He was the black sheep. We had people in the family who were kind of serious Jews, religious and ethical and believed in things like education. But my grandfather was a thug.”
Still, Maurice at least inspired one of the best episodes in the most award-laden television series since “Hill Street Blues”. Yet despite the success — or perhaps because of it — Schiff admits to being relieved that “The West Wing” is behind him.
“I don’t think they’d be offended if I said that. It was seven years of a character, and there does come a point in television where it’s basically cut and slab and putting it on a conveyor belt. And you try to find a way to make the slab as interesting and challenging as possible and keep the spark going. But you still get itchy to move on. And no matter how many commas and zeroes they through at you — and it’s a lot — you want to move on.”
In some ways, though, Schiff is moving back. His big break came in 1997 when Spielberg cast him in “Jurassic Park”. But like many Hollywood actors, he learned his trade in the theatre, often directing off-Broadway productions.
Before that, he opted out in a mid-’70s posthippy kind of way by working as a firewoodcutter in Colorado. There is a hint of hippy romanticism in the way he talks about his work and personal life.
To take “Underneath the Lintel” in London, Schiff had to turn turned down a new play by Sorkin because “every time I asked my [the Chinese concept of life force] or my soul what I should do, it said ‘London.’” And his 10-yearold marriage — he and actress Sheila Kelly live in Los Angeles with their two small children — is “just reaching a new level”.
But taking a one-man show to the West End is no easy option. Especially for an actor with a well-documented fear of stepping on to the stage. To help confront that fear, Schiff had regular “conversations” with fellow “West Wing” star John Spencer (he played Leo, the White House chief of staff), who died a year ago. Everyone on the show thought Schiff was crazy to take on the high risk and low pay of a oneman show. But not Spencer, who encouraged Schiff to try out the play in New Jersey.
“He died while I was rehearsing. He never saw me onstage,” says Schiff. “But he was there with me in spirit, backstage while I was trembling. And I would literally talk to him, and he’d tell me to get out there and kill ’em.”
Richard Schiff in London: “There does come a point in television where it’s basically putting it on a conveyor belt. You get itchy and want to move on”