'West Wing' shoots finale in New York

— "The West Wing" was almost ready to wrap for the season. A welcome break lay ahead before filming for next fall would begin.

But first: one long night spent shooting location exteriors 3,000 miles from the show's Los Angeles home. Just 10 days remained before the third-season finale, airing at 8 p.m. today on NBC.

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AP Photo

In this scene from the upcoming season finale of "The West Wing," communications director Toby Ziegler played by Richard Schiff, second from right, and his deputy, Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe, right, work the gaggle of reporters in front of the Booth Theater in New York. The show's third season finale is airing at 8 p.m. today on NBC.

As "West Wing" viewers know, President Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) has been planning to attend a Catholic charities fund-raiser at a Broadway theater.

Among the scenes to be filmed on this dank night: Bartlet's motorcade roaring through Times Square, he and his aides entering and leaving the Booth Theater on 45th Street.

Communications director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and his deputy, Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), work the gaggle of reporters in front of the theater during intermission. Sam is tickled to hear from one of them that Bartlet's Republican challenger, also expected at the fund-raiser, is running late.

"If 90 percent of success is showing up," Sam glibly says, "we're just happy there's someone standing up for the other 10."

Unfortunately, by this time the night has turned rainy, which wasn't in the script.

Here at the Booth, extras in evening wear mingle in the background, acting as if they're dry while they get soaked. Tuxedoed Schiff and Lowe aren't much better off as they shoot the scene over and over: The canopy erected to protect them is leaking.

Now it may seem risky to you to schedule an ambitious location shoot, especially one subject to the vagaries of weather, so close to the intended airdate.

But such a thing is no big deal for "The West Wing," which the night before had played even closer to the edge.

That scene found press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), who the last few weeks has received threats from a stalker, being escorted home by her cutie-pie bodyguard (guest star Mark Harmon).

Filmed on a townhouse-lined block of Greenwich Village that doubled for a Georgetown street in the nation's capital, the scene was part of the episode that aired last Wednesday � just three days after it was shot!

'Still knocking 'em out'

"Oh, that's typical," says Schiff with a world-weary scoff. "We've shot scenes on a Monday for that Wednesday's show."

Between camera setups, he chats with a reporter and, summoning his deadpan, adds: "Every other show in the world is wrapped for the season. 'The Today Show' is wrapped for the season! We're the only ones still knocking 'em out.

"But it's a very creative bunch, and so a lot of us need to take time, including Aaron � first and foremost, Aaron."

That's "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin, who is also its inspired, prolific, deadline-taunting writer.

"So the next thing you know," Schiff continues drolly, "we're behind a day or two. You add it all up, and now we're behind a month or two."

"The West Wing" began the season with a burst of adrenaline when, in the days after Sept. 11, Sorkin sat down and wrote a dramatic response to the real-life terrorist attacks. That stand-alone episode aired as the season premiere Oct. 3.

Like so many people in the aftermath of 9-11, the "West Wing" principals wrestled with doubts about the series' relevance, and continued acceptance, in a changed world.

The concern is understandable. While President Bartlet is leader of a make-believe United States, the land he governs, and the issues he struggles with, must stay recognizable. And current.

More than for other drama series, even a hiccup in the national ethos has an impact on "The West Wing." The change in real-life presidents during its second season was thought, at least by some observers, to have thrown the show a curve. And maybe it did. But "The West Wing" adjusted.

It keeps on adjusting. Which is part of its brilliance. Which helps explain its sky-high critical standing and also, maybe, its top 10 ratings.

All this is why "The West Wing" got to come to New York for expensive location shooting just days before air, and why Schiff got to stand in cold rain.

"We're lucky," he says, "that people are telling us that what we do is exceptional."

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