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‘West Wing’ writers face actor’s death

From wire reports

And now “The West Wing” goes into mourning.

John Spencer, who played former White House chief of staff and now vice presidential candidate Leo McGarry in the Emmy-winning political drama, died of a heart attack Friday at age 58.

“West Wing” writers aren’t expected to begin grappling with how to deal with Spencer’s death until after the holidays – and the production and program schedule affords them extra time to do so.

Five unaired episodes of the Emmy-winning drama already have been filmed. They don’t resume again until Jan. 8, with the last of the five not scheduled for broadcast until March 19, because of the Winter Olympics and other specials.

Spencer is featured in two of the unaired episodes, with the Jan. 8 show centering around a debate between the vice presidential candidates.

The episode, titled “Running Mates,” is considered a pivotal one because the recent live debate between the candidates for president, Democrat Matt Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) and Republican Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda), gave Smits’ character a boost in the polls.

It’s unclear when the show’s fictional election will take place; speculation on the Web has centered on March, though an NBC spokesman Monday said that was inaccurate.

The network hasn’t announced a decision on whether “The West Wing” will return after this season. Given declining ratings since its move to Sunday nights, its prospects are not promising, particularly with the loss of a key player.

The lives of actor Spencer and character McGarry had odd similarities. Both were recovering alcoholics; McGarry was forced to give up his White House job because of a heart attack.

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