Richard Schiff’s West Wing costar Allison Janney isn’t joking when she calls his supporting actor Emmy win last September “the worst thing that could have happened to him.” It was bad enough that he beat costar and co-nominee John Spencer. But he also forgot to thank wife Sheila Kelley in his acceptance speech. Schiff quickly tucked away the statue behind a Softball trophy in his study. “It caused too many mixed emotions,” he says. Still, he receives little pity from three-time Emmy winner Martin Sheen, who plays President Josiah Bartlet. “If that’s the only grief he gets in his life,” says Sheen, “may he win an Emmy every year.”
He may not achieve that goal, but there is no question that as White House communications director Toby Ziegler, Schiff, 45, has thoroughly charmed viewers with his low-key manner and soulful looks. “It’s his quiet mystery,” says Janney (West Wing press secretary C.J. Cregg). “You wonder what’s going on under the surface.”
Actually, female fans claim to be drawn as much to that scruffy surface as to his mystique. “Most TV ensembles are good-looking guys who floss a lot,” says Bradley Whitford, a friend and fellow Winger (Josh Lyman). “But Richard is like an unmade bed. He doesn’t care.” Yet according to executive producer and creator Aaron Sorkin, who hired Rob Lowe to be the show’s resident hunk, “much of the mail we get points to Richard as the sex symbol.”
The adulation doesn’t surprise his wife, Sheila Kelley, 36, who says that Schiff “swooped me away” from her then-beau in 1990, just before she joined L.A. Law as lawyer Gwen Taylor. They moved in together later that year and married in 1996. But it took another life event for Schiff to get down to serious career business. “The minute we conceived is when I started getting interested in making money,” says Schiff, who became a father to Gus in 1994. Their daughter Ruby arrived last August.
Now that the money is rolling in, he’s making sure Kelley gets her fair share. When she was pole-dancing at a Hollywood men’s club as a way of researching her role as a stripper in the upcoming film Dancing at the Blue Iguana, Schiff was her best customer, forking over $50 for a private show. “It’s how we got pregnant with our second child,” says Schiff with a smile. But Kelley adds that the incident also represents a turning point. With the trials of fatherhood, her husband has found more humor in life. “Him coming into the club,” she says, “I don’t know if he could have done that earlier.”
In fact, Schiff was a quiet boy growing up in Manhattan as the middle child of Edward, a lawyer, and Charlotte, a homemaker who became a corporate executive and later a theater producer. “One day we had a family to come home to, then all of a sudden it stopped,” says Schiff, whose parents split when he was 12.
Schiff enrolled at New York’s City College in 1973 but dropped out two years later to spend time in Colorado and Europe. Returning to school in 1977, he took an acting class and found his calling. He began directing plays, founding the Manhattan Repertory Theater in 1982.
After a period of frustrating auditions, he started landing small but prime roles in TV (NYPD Blue, Relativity) and film (The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Dr. Dolittle) before The West Wing came his way in 1999. Yet Schiff refuses to become transfixed by the show’s soaring success. “We had the [same] situation when Sheila was on L.A. Law,” he says. “We know it’s temporary. We go to functions to support our cast members, but other than that we barely go out.”
With good reason: Now that they have moved into a new house in Los Angeles, Kelley is installing a stripper’s pole in Schiff’s home office so she can keep in shape. “I’ll be entertaining him at his desk,” she says. Beats your typical Hollywood shindig any day.
Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles