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Take This Sabbath Day

Original Airdate 02-09-00 Rerun 07-05-00

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Bartlet spends the weekend deciding on whether or not to commute the sentence of a man convicted of drug-related murders.
From NBC:
After the Supreme Court refuses to stay the execution of a Federal prisoner convicted of killing two drug kingpins, President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) must decide whether or not to commute his sentence in less than 48 hours, so he calls upon his sagacious childhood priest (Karl Malden) for guidance. Meanwhile, even Toby (Richard Schiff) feels the heat over the controversial issue when he hears a sermon on capital punishment from his rabbi (David Proval). Elsewhere, a hearing-challenged, combative campaign manager (Marlee Matlin) demands an audience with the President when her Democratic congressional candidate has purposely been underfunded by his party before the upcoming election to unseat an incumbent.


Rob Lowe as Sam (Samuel Norman) Seaborn Deputy Communications Director
Moira Kelly as Mandy (Madeline) Hampton Public Relations Consultant
Dulé Hill as Charlie (Charles) Young Personal Aide to the President
Allison Janney as C.J. (Claudia Jean) Cregg Press Secretary
Richard Schiff as Toby (Tobias Zachary) Ziegler Communications Director
John Spencer as Leo Thomas McGarry Chief of Staff
Bradley Whitford as Josh (Joshua) Lyman Deputy Chief of Staff
Martin Sheen as
Jed (Josiah Edward) Bartlet President of the United States
Special Guest Star
Marlee Matlin as
Joey (Josephine) Lucas Bill O'Dwyer's Campaign Manager
Guest Starring    
Noah Emmerich as Bobby Zane Public Defender
Janel Moloney as Donna (Donnatella) Moss Assistant to Deputy Chief of Staff
Bill O'Brien as Kenny Thurman Sign Language Interpreter
David Proval as Rabbi Glassman Toby's Rabbi
Felton Perry as Jerry Public Defender
Herb Mitchell as Justice  
Renee Estevez as Nancy Mrs. Landingham's Assistant
Special Appearance By
Karl Malden as
Father Thomas (Tom) Cavanaugh Jed's Childhood Priest
Devika Parikh as Bonnie Communications' Aide
Ellen Sugarman as Cantor  
Melissa Fitzgerald as Carol Fitzpatrick (last name)
Assistant to the Press Secretary
Joe Cosgrove as Hayes Public Defender / Peter (first name)
Richard Gross as Bailiff  
Juan A. Riojas as Secret Service Agent  
Carmela Rioseco as Sophia Cruz Simon Cruz's Mother

Information Links

fjord - a narrow inlet of the sea between cliffs or steep slopes [fjord illustration]
Talmud - the authoritative body of Jewish tradition comprising the Mishnah and Gemara
shul - synagogue all from M-W.COM


Emmy Awards

Submitted for consideration after Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series Nomination by
Martin Sheen
Submitted for consideration for Outstanding Drama Series Win

Christopher Awards


Humanitas Prize

Win for
Lawrence O'Donnell Jr.
Paul Redford
Aaron Sorkin

WGA Awards

Episodic Drama Nomination for
Lawrence O'Donnell Jr.
Paul Redford
Aaron Sorkin

Wilbur Awards

Television Drama Episode Win

Media Quotes

The call is out for an actor, fluent in sign language, to play the translator of the candidate in question.

"Political Maneuvering"
by Marilyn Beck, Stacy Jenel Smith and Stephanie DuBois
December 29, 1999
San Jose Mercury News

Karl Malden returns to TV, at his old stamping grounds WB, playing Father Cavanaugh, a priest who comes to visit "The West Wing's" President (Martin Sheen) about the death penalty. In the scene, Malden takes out a Bible -- the one he used in "On the Waterfront."

"Archerd: "Cabaret" stars victims of major heist"
by Army Archerd
January 18, 2000
Daily Variety

"West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin was not aware of "The Sopranos" connection when he cast Proval. Sorkin says he just took a look at Proval's audition tape and said, "Fantastic."

"He portrays rabbi as well as mobster"
by Virginia Rohan
February 9, 2000
Bergen Record

"See, I would disagree that this is a liberal show," ..."Bartlet is a Democrat, [but] we have seen him be very hawkish in response to a military attack, and [he didn't] commute the sentence of the first federal prisoner executed since 1963." - Aaron Sorkin


On a popsicle-cold, windy day near Washington, D.C., Martin Sheen, John Spencer, Allison Janney, and Dulé Hill, who plays the President's aide Charlie, are living out one of Sorkin's political scenarios. The actors and a crew that includes Wing executive producer and director Thomas Schlamme are standing on a tarmac at Dulles Airport, shooting a scene that aired Feb. 9, in which the President and his entourage emerge from Air Force One and scuttle into a limousine to be given an update from Spencer's Leo about a pending prison execution. Except the plane they're currently emerging from isn't Air Force One--it's a Virgin Atlantic 747 complete with a painting on its side called "Scarlet Lady"--a curvy pinup girl in a red dress that ultimately gets digitally removed in the editing room and replaced by a staid presidential seal. If they couldn't get Air Force One, why drag the cast from its usual studio in California to shoot in D.C.? "The actors' teeth wouldn't chatter as convincingly," says Schlamme, only half kidding. "And we usually do get Air Force One, by the way," he says.

The show films location shots in D.C. four times a year. In fact, Wing has inspired a mini-showbiz boom in the capital city. Walk over to an extra in a Virginia state trooper's uniform waiting to be filmed as part of the President's cavalcade and he'll tell you yes, he's a real trooper, named Matt Hanley. "I do this in my off-duty time," he says. And when he's on duty? "I escort President Clinton places." Like where? "Meetings. The golf course." Next, chat up a fellow in a black suit fiddling with a wire in his ear and muttering into his lapel and he'll tell you no, he's not a real Secret Service man--he's an actor named Scott Goodhue. He and other Washington-based actors are hired by the day to be extras; today, Goodhue is the agent who opens the limo door for Sheen and then slaps the roof of the car to signal the procession to move beyond camera range.


Back outside, there are endless, feet-numbing takes on this freezing January day, but Sheen seems to be having fun. After director Schlamme gets the shot he wants, Sheen, in a green peacoat and red plaid scarf--a Christmas tree of a President--stands at the head of the roll-away staircase at the open door of the airplane. He looks down at everyone arrayed around him, and suddenly he lifts his right arm and gives a big, swirling salute. Sonofagun: The self-described "Catholic radical" is doing Richard Nixon's famous post-resignation farewell gesture.

"Meet The Prez"
by Ken Tucker
February 25, 2000
Entertainment Weekly

While the top of his massive desk isn't shown in the episode in which Bartlet considers pardoning a death row killer, there are copies of The Science of Death and Death Row USA near his snowball collection to set the scene in the Oval Office.

"The Joy of Sets"
by Pat St. Germain
February 27, 2000
Winnipeg Sun

"I do get into it with Aaron when I think the young aides are getting too cheeky. Even with Bill Clinton, who is fairly casual and young, not your father's president, there still is a line. You just don't make flip remarks." [fjord comment] - Dee Dee Myers

"High-Stakes TV"
by Karin Lipson and Frank Lovece
February 27, 2000
New York Newsday

But attorney Joe Cosgrove, 43, makes a case for the other side. He was a teenager attending a small Catholic high school in Pennsylvania when he saw a 1974 television movie that profoundly affected him. The film, "The Execution of Private Slovik," was about the only U.S. soldier executed in World War II for desertion. Martin Sheen played the title role.

"It was a strange case," Cosgrove recalls today. "Most people would probably now say he should not have been executed. Slovik was not very bright. He was shipped off to Europe. He panicked . . . I had more intellectual development to do on these issues, but there was a dramatic impact upon me to see the premeditation, the coolness, the calculation of killing someone at the hands of the state. That seemed so wrong. I was so moved by the injustice that was clear in this presentation that at that moment I said, 'This is wrong.' And I decided to become a lawyer."

Cosgrove has spent his career defending people accused of capital crimes. Over the years, he has become friends with Martin Sheen, himself a liberal political activist who plays the president on NBC's "West Wing." Sheen invited Cosgrove to play himself on a recent episode in which the president grappled with commuting the death sentence of a federal prisoner scheduled to die.

That episode--the brainchild of two writers on the show, one a former aide to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan--also sparked heated debates on the set, especially among producer Aaron Sorkin, director Tommy Schlamme and Sheen. The actor desperately wanted the episode to end with the president commuting the execution; Sorkin and Schlamme were adamant that he see it through. They won; the final scene shows President Josiah Bartlet giving confession to his priest after the convict's execution.

And Cosgrove told Sheen that the story line was stronger that way. "Maybe there's some kid in law school who'll watch it and learn the right message--they won't think they can rely on the president to save someone," he told him.

"Hollywood Pleads Its Case"
by Sharon Waxman
May 7, 2000
Washington Post

"He [Bartlet] had the chance to save a guy's life," says [Martin] Sheen almost accusingly. "He knew it was sinful - to kill anyone is sinful - and out of political expedience, he chose not to save him."

But not without remorse. In the final scene, Bartlet receives his boyhood priest in the Oval Office, who gives him a stern talking to, then hears his confession.

"Our president on 'The West Wing' is not Catholic by accident," says Sheen. "We added that (element) so that he would have a moral frame of reference, and take personal responsibility for sin."

"Hail to the Chief of The West Wing"
by Frazier Moore
May 8, 2000
Associated Press

Aaron turned to writing about the death penalty, and how he didn't want to do it at first because "They'd suggest the death penalty and I thought of prisoners clanging tin cups on prison bars, I didn't know how to do it. The I said let's see them over the weekend, let's see them in sweaters and jeans...that was my idea for the day." Then someone said that they don't execute people on the Sabbath, and the episode was born. Aaron then calls Toby, his own character mind you, "Tony" by accident. "Oops." Perhaps sensing revolt among the fanatic masses he quickly explains why he said Tony, which was a story so entertaining that we forgave him. Apparently the Rabbi in that episode who gave the speech that "vengeance is not Jewish" also played a hit man on The one of the West Wing editors made a tape with him giving this flowing speech against violence and murder, and him saying "vengeance is not Jewish, and then it cuts to him slashing people as a hit man." (Aaron demonstrates this to us, jumping up and down.)

Posted at
by Jenn
September 26, 2000
Message 6797
Notes from the Harvard Law School Forum with Aaron Sorkin

"I think it's a good idea to notice that "The West Wing" is a show that has no gratuitous violence, no gratuitous sex. It has featured the character of the president of the United States kneeling on the floor of the Oval Office and praying. This, I would think, would be exactly what conservative Republicans would want to see on television." - Aaron Sorkin

"Popular Politics"
by Terence Smith
September 27, 2000
Online NewsHour with Jim Lehrer

And Sorkin's own favorite moment from the first season had nothing to do with anything he wrote. In "Take This Sabbath Day," in which the president is asked to commute the death sentence of a federal prisoner, he looks out the window as snow falls. "Just for a moment, we see the guy who's about to be executed," Sorkin recalled last summer at a lunch with TV critics. "We see his mother praying over the table he's being strapped to. Just for a second, it flashes like a reflection in the window. It's almost - did I see what I just saw?"

Sorkin credits Tommy Schlamme, who won an Emmy for one of the many episodes he directed last season, with creating that moment.

"Hail to "The West Wing""
by Gail Pennington
October 4, 2000
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

[Paul] Redford is most proud of his co-writing credit for "Take This Sabbath Day," the Humanitas Prize-winning "West Wing" episode in which the president (Martin Sheen) has to decide whether to let an execution proceed.

"It was a tough issue to dramatize," he said. "It was balanced. It led to a terrific episode that wasn't overtly preachy about the powers of the president."

"From Shawnee Mission East to 'The West Wing'"
by Brian McTavish
October 6, 2000
Kansas City Star

"We did an episode on dealing with the death penalty; I was in favor of having my character be staunchly in favor of it, just to create conflict. And I think it's possible that someone who might be a little bit on the left might take a very extreme so-called right-wing view on the subject. But I think Aaron is ultimately interested in the emotional involvement of the story lines." - Richard Schiff

October 22, 2000
The O'Reilly Factor

[Aaron] Sorkin consulted with Rabbi Steven Leder at Los Angeles' Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

In a sermon Leder had written and delivered on the subject a few years earlier, Sorkin found a phrase he liked: "Vengeance is not Jewish." He worked it into the episode, and made sure Leder received a small fee and a special credit at the end of the show.

"'Wing' Uses Net Asset"
by Eric Mink
October 25, 2000
New York Daily News

"To see the most powerful man in the world get down on the floor of the Oval Office and ask forgiveness for his sins - finally I got to do something personal." - Martin Sheen

"The President Acting"
by Tom Dunphy
October /November 2000
Irish America

... a tormented President Bartlet decided not to commute the execution of a federal prisoner. This summer, Clinton went the other way - choosing to postpone the execution of federal prisoner Juan Raul Garza, on whose case the episode was based.

"Inside The West Wing's New World"
by Sharon Waxman
November 2000
George Magazine

"My only input was that I insisted the character of Bartlet be Catholic, and that he would have a degree from Notre Dame," he says. "And I got both of those things. I'm a Catholic, and I wanted this president to have to deal in the moral frame of reference of these issues. I'm personally opposed to the death penalty, but as the president in the show, at least on one occasion I had to allow a man to die. So I knelt on this presidential seal and asked for forgiveness. If the president wasn't Catholic, he couldn't do that." - Martin Sheen

"Corridors of Power"
by Andrew Ryan
December 16, 2000
The Globe and Mail

Sheen also recounted a "terrible situation" when his "West Wing" character had to enforce the death penalty. An opponent of lethal punishment, Sheen said he could not do something that countered his beliefs. He even asked that two endings be shot, one with him pardoning the inmate and another with the execution going forward.

In the end, a close friend told Sheen that he would have more of an impact, and added credibility, if President Bartlet did not let the criminal off the hook. The scene allowed his character, a Catholic, to fully grapple with the effects of the death penalty, Sheen said.

After the penalty is enforced, "you see the most powerful man get on his knees (at confession)," he said. "That was worth more than any preaching about the death penalty."

"'President' Sheen Says he is Not Ready for Real 'West Wing'"
by Norman Weiss
February 12, 2001
The Daily Californian

Sorkin relies on an informal network of consultants to help him flesh out religious arguments and find the language of faith. When, last season, the Bartlet White House wrestled with whether to stay an execution, Sorkin e-mailed his own rabbi.

"I said, 'This is what I'm writing about right now. Do you have any thoughts?' And oh, boy, did he." The result was a passionate speech by a rabbi to Toby Ziegler, Bartlet's communications director (played by Richard Schiff). For that same episode, Sorkin talked to a Catholic priest, a Baptist minister and a Quaker.

"A true believer in 'The West Wing'"
by Nancy Haught - Religion News Service
March 31, 2001
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

... Paul [Redford] once again with, "Did you know we don't execute people on the Sabbath?"... - Aaron "Benjamin" Sorkin

Posted at Forum
by Aaron "Benjamin" Sorkin
July 22, 2001

He's at ease with topics like censorship in television, arguing that broadcast networks -- which are competing with cable fare like "The Sopranos," "Sex & the City" and "The Shield" -- need to break out of their "1950s" mentality regarding the use of adult situations and prohibited language. "The only way I've been able to get away with stuff on 'West Wing' is if Marlee Matlin signs it," he [Aaron Sorkin] laughs.

"'West Wing' wizard"
by Heather Salerno
October 6, 2002
Journal News

... with television, you are limited to a certain number of minutes and his scripts, besides being handed in late would also be longer than they needed to be. So the editor would sometimes give them a cut that was three minutes over. He said three minutes over was not a bit deal, you made small cuts here and there. Sometimes, the episode would be six minutes over and then you'd have to cut a scene. Sometimes, the episode would be eleven minutes over and then entire storylines would have to be cut. He said those were the times that Tommy Schlamme ... would start his sentences with "Okay, it's not as bad as you think." He said, and this will come as no surprise to anyone on this board, that when storylines had to be cut, they were usually Donna or Charlie storylines.

The next question, asked by our own USCJCF, was "What was the episode that had the 11 minutes cut from it." Apparently, there was more than one, since Sorkin had to think about it and then said, "As an example, from Season 1, 'Take This Sabbath Day' had a lot cut from it."

Posted at Forum
by mjforty
January 29, 2004
Notes from a second L.A. book signing with Aaron Sorkin

As for television, he says "West Wing" is one of the few shows he [Karl Malden] watches. He even agreed to do a cameo role in an episode in 2000.

"Martin Sheen called me and said that even though everyone told him I wouldn't agree to do a TV role, he wanted to convince me," Malden said.

"After I read the episode script, it didn't take much to convince me. It just took one day on the set and I played a priest helping the president sort through his moral dilemmas when deciding about an execution. It was good television. I like to think I support the arts and entertainment of today that my parents would be proud of."

"Hometown Hollywood hero"
by Philip Potempa
February 16, 2004
Northwest Indiana News

These days, Malden is seldom seen on screen, although he has been lured back to work, most recently in 1999, playing a priest on The West Wing.

"It was a pleasure doing that spot with Martin Sheen," he said. "He did some things on Streets, and when I was asked to do it, I said I'd do it for Martin. I didn't retire. I just woke up one morning and said, 'I quit.' That was it. I'd had it. How many faces does an actor have? I'm 90-something years old, that's it, I'm finished. And when I got the call from him and saw what it was, we did it, and I had a great time doing it."

It's a part, incidentally, he could be persuaded to reprise.

"Listen, if he ever wants a confession again, I'll be there. And in case you want one, I have a little corner in my room here. I'll let you use it."

"A wonder on and off the screen"
by Mike McDaniel
February 19, 2004
Houston Chronicle

"I hope they were taking some behavior or lessons from it," [Lawrence] O'Donnell said. "It was very peculiar for me the first time I had to type 'interior Oval Office, day' because in our show, this was inhabited by a good and decent person. And that had not been my experience."

"Term limits"
by Scott D. Pierce
May 12, 2006
Deseret Morning News

Such as the time the president signs a death warrant? "Yeah, exactly - I'm opposed to capital punishment, I'm on the record as such, and when I got to the episode about the death penalty, when Bartlet is faced with the choice of commuting it or allowing the guy to be executed, I told my attorney - he's a young public defender from Pennsylvania, a national spokesman against the death penalty - 'I can't do it.' He said, 'You have no choice. You'll lose all credibility as Bartlet if you press for a stay of execution.'" Sheen's face is full of pain as he wrestles with his true and his screen identities. "I love the fact that Bartlet works from a political as much as from a moral frame of reference. Now me, as Martin Sheen, I would object and wish that I could be heroic and let everyone live and not be the cause of anyone's life ending; but [as an actor] I just didn't have that luxury."

"The method and the madness of Martin Sheen"
by John Walsh
January 16, 2007
Belfast Telegraph

For more information about this episode:
Continuity Guide to "The West Wing"
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