R.I.P. Kathryn Joosten and Mrs. Landingham
I’ll be writing about this more in a future post, but one of joys of watching movies, and TV shows, for me is the character introduction; when, thanks to the writer and actor playing it, a character, to quote Bull Durham, announces their presence with authority. In the pilot of his TV show The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin had plenty of these, from the opening scene with Rob Lowe as Sam Seaborn, the Deputy Communications Director, deflecting questions from a reporter (“Well, you could try 1-800-Bite Me”), to Richard Schiff as Communications Director Toby Ziegler wondering how his Radio Shack-bought cell phone could flummox the plane he’s in, and most famous of all, Martin Sheen as POTUS – or President of the United States Jed Bartlet – announcing to a room in the midst of a heated argument that the First Commandment said, “I am the Lord your God, and thou shalt have no other gods before me”. (“Boy, those were the days, huh?”) But Sorkin didn’t use all of those great introductory character flourishes up in the pilot. We get another one in the following episode “Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc”, where Toby and C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), then the Press Secretary, go to see the President about the Ryder Cup team snubbing the White House (“Because of the joke?”), and Toby finds himself in front of the President’s head secretary:
Toby: Mrs. Landingham, does the President have free time this morning?
Mrs. Landingham: The President has nothing but free time, Toby. Right now he’s in the residence eating Cheerios and enjoying Regis and Kathie Lee. Should I get him for you?
Toby: Sarcasm’s a disturbing thing coming from a woman your age, Mrs. Landingham.
Mrs. Landingham: What age would that be, Toby?
Toby: Late twenties?
Mrs. Landingham: Attaboy.
Toby: Can I have a cookie? (referring to the cookie jar on the desk)
Mrs. Landingham: No.
Now, this wasn’t the first time we’d seen Mrs. Landingham; she appeared briefly in the pilot, admonishing Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (the late, great John Spencer) not to call the President a klutz or a geek in the Oval Office, but she didn’t really make much of an impression there. However, while I obviously can’t do justice to the scene just by transcribing it (or, it must be said, to Schiff’s facial expressions throughout, which are very funny), this is the scene where Mrs. Landingham first really makes her presence felt, thanks to Sorkin’s writing, and to the great acting of Kathryn Joosten, who died today at 72.
According to the obituary and her profile page, she came to acting late; she started out as a psychiatric nurse, and when she decided, in her 40’s, to follow her dream of acting, she started out in theater. To make ends meet as she was starting out, she hung wallpaper and painted people’s houses, as well as worked in a Welcome Wagon (in his autobiographical novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers mentions Joosten hanging wallpaper in his bedroom). While she appeared in the occasional film (Grandview U.S.A. – which was her screen debut – and The Package among them), she did most of her work on TV, doing guest appearances on such shows as ER, Frasier, NYPD Blue, and Roseanne. While she appeared on many high-profile shows, it wasn’t until she got the part of Mrs. Landingham that she finally had a major recurring role.
In the season 2 finale, “Two Cathedrals”, we saw in flashbacks Mrs. Landingham (played then by Kirsten Nelson, best known today as the police chief on the show Psych) first met President Bartlet while he was at prep school (played then by Jason Widener) and she was a secretary there. She told him he needed a big sister, and Joosten played Mrs. Landingham as a combination big sister and den mother. She’d use humor to lightly scold or to take the edge off, as in later in “Post Hoc” when she denied the President his steaks because she felt he should watch his diet (“You are a cattle rustler, Mrs. Landingham”). But Joosten got to show another side in that season’s Christmas episode, “In Excelsis Deo”. We had already learned, in passing (in the fifth episode, “The Crackpots and These Women”), that Mrs. Landingham had lost both of her sons in Vietnam, but we don’t know why until Charlie (Dule Hill), the President’s aide, brings up the fact she looks kind of down for it being a holiday season. We learned her sons were twins and did everything together, including becoming doctors and going to Vietnam even though they were eligible for deferment (being in med school still) and even though she and her husband begged them not to go. She then relates they served as medics and were killed in Danang on Christmas Eve in 1970:
“You know, they were so young, Charlie, they were your age. It’s hard when that happens so far away, you know because, with the noises and the shooting, they had to be so scared. It’s hard not to think that right then they needed their mother… Anyway, I miss my boys.”
What made the scene all the more powerful was how restrained Joosten was in delivering that monologue; no crying, hardly looking at Charlie, just looking either straight ahead or at her computer. And it’s seems completely right that when Toby arranges an honor guard funeral for a homeless Vietnam veteran, it’s Mrs. Landingham who comes along with him to the funeral. Joosten was never listed in the opening credits as a guest star (though in the 17 episodes she appeared in that season, she was always listed first among additional guest stars in the end credits), but while she never had a moment as memorable as she did in that Christmas episode, she continued her share of good moments, from her asking the President if he wanted to read her the sex-ed report in “Take Out the Trash Day” (his reason for saying no; “Because I’d rather not be therapy for the rest of my life”), her claiming to be freaked out by Danny’s presence in the office in “The White House Pro-Am”, and best of all, her teasing the President about his desire to watch girls’ softball after his speech that night (when the President insists she’s not going to spoil his good time, she deadpans, “Oh, sir, I think we both know from experience that’s not true”) in the season finale “What Kind of Day has it Been?”.
In the second season, Joosten didn’t appear as much on the show, as she was working elsewhere – she had a recurring role on the sitcom Dharma & Greg, and she made a memorable appearance on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a woman who was like the evil version of Mrs. Landingham (amazingly enough, I didn’t recognize Joosten the first time I watched the episode), a woman whose punishment of kids under her care at a Home for Children caused the place to become haunted later. On TWW, most of her interactions were with Charlie, whether she warns him about how particular the President is about carving knives in “Shibboleth” (“That’s one word for it.” “I heard that!”), talking with him about a mystery check the First Lady wrote in both “Bartlet’s Third State of the Union” and “The War at Home”, gushing over Dial “M” for Murder in “Ellie”, or pestering him to join glee club in “Bad Moon Rising”. She does get a good moment with the President, badgering him about his inability to use the intercom in “Shibboleth” (“Maybe after the (Thanksgiving) ceremony, you could get one of the fourth graders to come in and show you how to use the intercom”), and another one with Leo in “The Drop-In”, about the “preposterous contraption” he insists the President should sign off on (“Ah, sarcasm – the grumpy man’s wit.”)
I don’t know about anyone else, but I will never forget watching “18th and Potomac” for the first time. I was at my brother’s apartment (back when he lived in the city) watching, and since it was the episode where the staff was discussing how they were going to have the President break the news of his MS to the country (which he had been hiding), trying to evacuate American personnel from Haiti as well as the President-Elect during a coup, not to mention Josh’s dealings with the Justice Department and the Senate over Big Tobacco, it was a pretty heavy episode. The only lighthearted moments came with Charlie nagging Mrs. Landingham about what she should have with her new car purchase (like a tow package so they could go camping together, and wouldn’t you have liked to see that?), or why she shouldn’t have paid sticker price (Mrs. Landingham is a government employee, and they shouldn’t except gifts). Late in the ep, President Bartlet, who finds out about the latter (calling her “Bob Cratchit”), gets her to admit this is the first car she’s bought for herself, and that’s why she’s being a stickler about the whole thing. He also tells her to come back so he can tell her something (she doesn’t know he has MS). Unfortunately, as we all found out, she never came back; near the end of the episode, Charlie tells Leo that a drunk driver hit Mrs. Landingham at the corner of 18th and Potomac, and she was killed. I still remember tearing up at that moment, and feeling like I’d been punched in the gut. Later, of course, I was able to reflect on just how good an actor John Spencer was by the way Leo absorbed the news, but at the time, I was just too stunned. Apparently, Joosten had mentioned to Sorkin during a cigarette break she had received another offer and therefore wouldn’t be able to be on the show as much, and this was his reaction, leading to the joke that you shouldn’t go on a cigarette break with Sorkin. Of all the things I wish Sorkin hadn’t done on the show, killing off Mrs. Landingham was at the top of the list.
At the time, having Joosten play Mrs. Landingham’s ghost in the season finale “Two Cathedrals” was controversial in some quarters, but I think it works dramatically. After all, in flashbacks, we’ve seen the younger Mrs. Landingham trying to spur the young Jed Bartlet to live up to his potential as a leader, and the ghost appearance is just an extension of that, as well as a way for Bartlet to forgive God (in one of the ep’s most famous and powerful scenes, he rails against God because of Mrs. Landingham’s death) and himself. Sorkin does overdo it with the Sturm Und Drang of the heavy rain outside, but it’s still a powerful moment and a good send-off for Mrs. Landingham and Joosten (even if it was a little startling to hear her call Bartlet’s father a “prick”).
After that, Joosten moved on. Oh, she appeared in flashbacks as Mrs. Landingham in the 3rd season Christmas episode “Bartlet for America” (back when he was governor), as well as the 4th season episode “Debate Camp”, showing the early days of Bartlet’s administration, but that was it. Joosten landed another recurring gig as “Old Lady God” on the show Joan of Arcadia, and although she didn’t seem that different in attitude from Mrs. Landingham, that made it somehow comforting in a way. And she had guest appearances in other high profile shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, Monk and Scrubs, as well as occasionally appearing in movies (Wedding Crashers, The TV Set). But her most high-profile appearance post-TWW was on Desperate Housewives, the ABC comic soap opera (which I never watched), with a recurring role as Karen McCluskey, one of the neighbors of the housewives on Wisteria Lane. She won two Emmys for guest-starring on the show, and ironically, co-starred with Lily Tomlin (she played Joosten’s sister), who played Mrs. Landingham’s replacement on TWW. In real life, Joosten went public about her battles with lung cancer, and appeared to be well-liked by her colleagues, considering all of the nice tributes that have come from them. In her long and distinguished career, though, it’s her work as Mrs. Landingham that will always resonate with me. R.I.P., Ms. Joosten, and thanks for what you’ve given us.