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Rob Lowe Compares Being on "The West Wing" to an "Abusive Relationship"

He left the hit political drama in the middle of its run.

Rob Lowe starred on The West Wing from the political drama's premiere in 1999 to the middle of the fourth season, his final episode as a regular cast member airing in early 2003. Though playing White House Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn on the Aaron Sorkin show brought him acclaim and an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor, it was Lowe's choice to leave.

Much has been reported over the years about why one of its most famous stars decided to walk away from a hit series in the middle of its run, and in a new interview, Lowe explained his reasoning. The now 59-year-old actor compared his time on The West Wing to "being in a relationship that was abusive" and said that his kids played a role in his decision. Read on to find out more.

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Lowe played the role for almost four seasons.

Lowe began his career as a teen heartthrob, making his big screen debut in 1983's The Outsiders and then becoming a member of Hollywood's Brat Pack, starring with other young power players like Demi Moore and Andrew McCarthy in movies including St. Elmo's Fire and About Last Night. A sex tape scandal and battle with alcoholism derailed his career only briefly; in the '90s, Lowe appeared in a mix of theatrical releases (including the comedies Wayne's World, Tommy Boy, and Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery) and direct-to-video movies.

But many would call The West Wing the mark of his true comeback. Starring Lowe, Bradley Whitford, Allison JanneyRichard Schiff, and more, the series revolved around the staff of a fictional U.S. president played by Martin Sheen. Creator Sorkin reportedly originally intended Lowe's Sam to be the main character of the series, but it quickly became more of an ensemble drama.

He was written off in Season 4.

Janel Moloney, Richard Schiff, Dule Hill, Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe, Allison Janney, and Bradley Whitford at the 2001 Golden Globes

In the fourth season of the show, Sam decides to run for Congress and is written off in the midst of his campaign. Lowe's final episode as a main cast member was Episode 17, "Red Haven's on Fire."

Per a Washington Post article from that time, Lowe spilled the beans about his impending departure during NBC's Summer Press Tour panel in 2002, ahead of the season premiere. Sources told the newspaper that the actor was displeased that some of his co-stars were able to negotiate higher salaries, which put them on par with what he had been earning since the beginning, while he could not secure a raise himself.

In 2015, the actor told GQ, "In the end, I could have lived with the fact that everyone on the show had gotten a raise but me—if I felt that we really knew what the storylines were going to be," and claimed that a writer was told that he could work on a story "for anybody but [Sam]."

Sorkin also left the show after Season 4, following his own issues with the network. Per Collider, John Wells, who took over as showrunner for The West Wing for the rest of its run, said that "the network was very unhappy that Rob was leaving and wanted Aaron to craft larger stories for him to convince him to stay."

Sorkin reportedly didn't want to shift the focus of the show and was also dealing with burnout and his own salary complaints.

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Lowe said his relationship with The West Wing was "super-unhealthy."

Matthew Edward Lowe, John Owen Lowe, Rob Lowe, and Sheryl Berkoff in 2023
Gregg DeGuire/FilmMagic

In the most recently released episode of the podcast Podcrushed, Lowe looked back on his decision to leave the successful series.

The actor indicated that he has anecdotes about on-set relationships that he didn't want to write about in his 2012 memoir, Stories I Only Tell My Friends.

"They would make your hair stand up, and there's some of them I wrote," he said, via Entertainment Weekly. "I shared some of them in my book, but I purposely didn't share half of the other ones because it would make the people involved look so bad that I didn't want to do it to them. So, I did not have a good experience."

Lowe and his wife Sheryl Berkoff welcomed two sons in the '90s: Matthew Edward in 1993 and John Owen in 1995. The actor told Podcrushed hosts Penn Badgley, Sophie Ansari, and Nava Kavelin that it was watching his kids grow up that helped convince him that he didn't have to stay in a job where he was unhappy.

"What happened was my kids were getting to a certain age where I could see them having first girlfriends or friends and being in a relationship that was abusive and taking it," Lowe said. "She's the popular girl, everybody likes her, she's beautiful, it must be great'—all the things that people would say about making The West Wing to me. 'It's so popular, it's so amazing, it must be amazing.' But I know what it's like, and if I couldn't walk away from it, then how could I empower my kids to walk away from it?"

Reiterating that it was a "super-unhealthy relationship" for him, the Parks and Recreation actor called leaving The West Wing "the best thing [he] ever did."

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He returned to the role of Sam.

Rob Lowe in The West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote

Still, Lowe would play Sam Seaborn a couple more times. He returned for two episodes of Season 7, The West Wing's final season, in 2006. And in 2020, he joined his former co-stars in a staged version of a Season 3 episode in the HBO Max special, A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote.

In the same 2015 GQ profile, Lowe dispelled any rumors that he was holding a grudge against Sorkin.

"Listen, I never had any issues with Aaron. To his credit, Aaron writes what he wants to write, and he's not telling anybody, 'I'm going to guarantee you two great [storylines].' And I loved The West Wing. But man, it was grueling," the actor said. "We shot near the Friends stage, and we would roll in at, like, six in the morning, and the Friends would come in, in their Ferraris and Lamborghinis, like, at 11:30 a.m., and by midnight they would have shot their show. They'd be gone and we'd be there until six in the morning. The sun would rise. That would never happen in TV today."

Sage Young
Sage Young is the Deputy Entertainment Editor at Best Life, expanding and honing our coverage in this vertical by managing a team of industry-obsessed writers. Read more
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