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John Spencer, 58; acted in 'The West Wing'

LOS ANGELES -- John Spencer, who played a dedicated politico on ''The West Wing" who survived a serious illness to run for vice president, died of a heart attack yesterday, his publicist said.

Mr. Spencer, 58, died at a Los Angeles hospital, said publicist Ron Hofmann. He would have been 59 next week.

Spencer played Leo McGarry, the chief of staff to President Jeb Bartlet (Martin Sheen) through the first few seasons of the NBC series. In a sad parallel to life, his character suffered a heart attack that forced him to give up his White House job.

The character recovered and was picked as a running mate for Democratic presidential contender Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits; the campaign has been a central theme this season for the drama.

Mr. Spencer, who also starred on ''L.A. Law" as attorney Tommy Mullaney, received an Emmy Award for his performance on ''The West Wing" in 2002 and was nominated four other times for the drama.

The actor mirrored his character in several ways: Both were recovering alcoholics and both, Mr. Spencer once said, were driven.

''Like Leo, I've always been a workaholic, too," he said in a 2000 interview. ''Through good times and bad, acting has been my escape, my joy, my nourishment. The drug for me, even better than alcohol, was acting."

Mr. Spencer grew up in Paterson, N.J., the son of blue-collar parents. He attended the Professional Children's School in Manhattan, where his classmates included Liza Minnelli and budding violinist Pinchas Zukerman.

As a teenager, Mr. Spencer landed a recurring role on ''The Patty Duke Show" as the boyfriend of English twin Cathy. Stage and film work followed.

Then his big break: playing Harrison Ford's detective sidekick in the 1990 courtroom thriller ''Presumed Innocent." That role led to his hiring for the final four years of ''L.A. Law."

Service and funeral arrangements were pending, Hofmann said.

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