May 28, 2001

A Troubled Genius

By OLIVER JONES
US Weekly

THE SEVEN DAYS LEADING UP to Sunday, April 15, were an intense, demanding and very typical week in the life of Aaron Sorkin, the Emmy Award-winning creator of The West Wing. The 39-year-old Sorkin, who is deeply involved in every aspect of the NBC series and has been known to put in 17-hour days, had been feverishly working on the last two episodes of the season at his office in Burbank California. When Sunday arrived, Sorkin had finished writing the script for the season finale, and he was more than ready for some R& R and so he made the short drive that morning from his home in the San Femando Valley, where he lives with his wife and infant daughter, to Burbank Airport to catch a 45-minute flight to Las Vegas for an overnight stay.

"There was nothing surprising about Aaron going to Vegas to play some blackjack," says Thomas Schlamme, who, as the executive producer and director of The West Wing is Sorkin's closest collaborator. "He is not a big gambler. He goes for 24 hours the way I go to a Lakers game: to unwind. The only thing surprising was getting a phone call that night and him telling me he was arrested."

Sorkin had been stopped by airport security when they could not identify the contents of a small container in his carry-on bag - which turned out to be hallucinogenic mushrooms, rock cocaine and marijuana. He was arrested, booked at Burbank police headquarters and released on $10,000 bail. On May 2, the man who was just beginning to be recognized as a genius of prime-time television was charged with two counts of felony drug possession and one misdemeanor.

A week later, Sorkin stood on the dais at New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel and accepted an award from the International Radio and Television Society. "When you feel stupid and embarrassed," he said, "facing a ballroom full of distinguished people in your industry is just what the doctor ordered."

Sorkin, who was honored with a Phoenix Rising Award in February for his work against substance abuse, had been viewed as a hero among Hollywood's recovering addicts. As well as maintaining a highly successful career, he had found personal fulfillment He and his wife, Julia Bingham, an attorney, have been married five years and had their first child, a daughter, last November. Now,"he's mortified," says Warren Beatty, a close friend of Sorkin's since hiring the writer to work on his 1998 movie Bulworth. "I know how appalled he is that he might be thought irresponsible to his work or, more important to him, his family".

Beatty, like many of Sorkin's friends, is convinced that the writer's slip was an isolated incident, not evidence of a complete relapse. "I think this was a momentary blip," says Beatty.

If Sorkin has been on edge recently, say coworkers, it was only evidence of an artist's temperament.

"Aaron is a phenomenally hard worker and an incredibly creative human being" says Schlamme. "There is an element of his personality that is difficult. When he is writing and taking risks, he is a little more difficult to approach. The last four episodes, he was taking bigger risks, and that creates a lot of anxiety. But that is just because of how deeply he cares."

On the set of The West Wing, the chainsmoking Sorkin spends hours at a stretch in a small den-like office filled with leather furniture and dusty shelves of books. "This is the most massive work commitment imaginable, and this guy has never missed a deadline," says Bradley Whitford, who plays Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman on the show.

The man who can't stop writing once never imagined he would start. Sorkin was raised in the wealthy New York suburb of Scarsdale, the son of a lawyer father and a teacher mother. He majored in musical theater at Syracuse University, but "I never thought about writing," he said last year. "Writing for me was just a chore to get through in English class." Sorkin knew, though, that he had a good ear dialogue and tried his hand at plays. In his twenties, he wrote A Few Good Men, which was inspired by the experiences of his sister, Deborah, a navy lawyer. The show became a hit on Broadway and the 1992 movie, which Sorkin also wrote, was nominated for a best picture Oscar.

While writing the script for The American President, the 1995 Michael Douglas movie that was the basis for The West Wing, Sorkin became addicted to cocaine. After he started missing his deadlines and his addiction became evident, Rob Reiner, the director of both A Few Good Men and The American President, urged Bingham, a lawyer at his production company and Sorkin's girlfriend at the time, to get the writer into rehab.

He soon entered the Hazelden Foundation in Minnesota. Five months later, he and Bingham married. Sorkin stayed clean and focused on creating The West Wing, which has been a runaway success. Still, the writer's friends dismiss the idea that the stress of it or more episodes each season contributed to his recent arrest "`The only thing that has changed Aaron or his approach to the show was the birth of his daughter," says Lawrence O'Donnell Jr., a West Wing writer, who notes that Sorkin often goes home before midnight now.

At the moment, Sorkin is lying low as he waits for his June 4 hearing. While he could face three years in prison, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles district attorney's office said that the D.A. will probably recommend that Sorkin, who has no criminal record, be given drug treatment in lieu of a prison sentence.

In the meantime, he has to live with himself.

When The West Wing was shooting in Washington, D.C., in the weeks following his arrest, the cast and crew were treated like visiting dignitaries and given a tour of the White House. Sorkin was noticeably absent from what could have been one of his finest hours. Says Schlamme: "He just didn't feel entitled to be enjoying his life right now."

Posted by Ryo at May 28, 2001 09:01 AM