From the White House to the choir loft: Bradley Whitford looks back at his career in television

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By John Russell

Bradley Whitford couldn’t be less like Arthur Cochran, his character on NBC’s fall comedy Perfect Harmony (Thursdays) — especially in one major respect. “He has nothing. His career is over,” the three-time Emmy winner says. Whitford’s career, meanwhile, is going strong. Here, he looks back on how he became the go-to actor for believable, mentally nimble and (mostly) fundamentally decent characters.

The West Wing (NBC, 1999-2006) According to Whitford, landing the role of ambitious White House deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman on the Aaron Sorkin political drama was “the biggest thing” to ever happen to him professionally. But he had to persuade Sorkin not to cast him as deputy communications director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), who wound up in a relationship with a call girl. “‘I’m not the guy with the hooker; I’m the guy confronting the Christian right,'” Whitford says he told Sorkin.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (NBC, 2006-07) Whitford fondly recalls Sorkin’s drama set behind the scenes of a Saturday Night Live-type series, despite its one-season run. “It was an emotional roller coaster because it had a big buildup, and pretty quickly we realized it was a show that was not going to last.” One of his favorite parts about playing recovering-addict producer Danny Tripp? The character’s brotherly dynamic with Matthew Perry’s head writer Matt Albie.

Transparent (Amazon Prime Video, 2014-15) A guest role as cross-dresser Mark (a.k.a. Marcy) on the groundbreaking dramedy earned Whitford his second Emmy. (No. 1 came from The West Wing.) He returned in Season 2 during 1930s flashbacks, playing real-life German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, who was forced into exile after his life’s work was burned by Nazis. “There should be a whole show about Berlin [back then],” he says.

Valley of the Boom (National Geographic, 2019) “If I get punched in the street, it’s probably by James Barksdale,” Whitford jokes of the Netscape CEO, whom he portrayed on this docudrama
about the birth of the internet.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu, 2018-present) Spoiler alert: His morally ambiguous Commander Lawrence will be back for the dystopian drama’s upcoming fourth season, but Whitford is no closer to a verdict about whether Lawrence is a good guy or bad guy. “What’s confusing about him is his humanity peeks out and then it retreats,” Whitford says, adding, “I don’t care where his story goes, as long as he doesn’t go away!”

Perfect Harmony (NBC, Thursdays) His character, a disgraced music professor, is at the end of his rope when he meets the misfit members of a struggling small-town choir. “In the opening scene, I’m chugging bourbon with a bottle of pills in my hand on the afternoon of my wife’s funeral,” Whitford says. “Turns out it’s really fun to play a character [with] nothing to lose. There’s a lot of freedom in that.”