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'West Wing' speechwriter addresses celebrity politics

He may be best known as White House staffer and speechwriter Will Bailey on NBC's "The West Wing," but Joshua Malina has a second career as a speech maker.

On Monday, he'll address the annual United Jewish Fund Kick-off Community Dinner at the Hyatt Regency. Malina gives at least one speech a month. He began doing them regularly in 2001 (before he joined "West Wing") after his experience as one of three "celebrities" attending a Jewish Federation Rally in Los Angeles in support of Israel.

"Even the celebrity sign-in people didn't know who I was," said the self-deprecating Malina in a telephone interview. He wasn't offended but he was surprised to discover that he, the mayor of Los Angeles and musician Peter Himmelman, were the celebrities at the event.

"I thought, 'This is the best they can do in Hollywood with so many famous Jews?' "

When he told one of the event's organizers that, he was told: "When it has to do with Israel, nobody will show up."

"The impression I get is it is considered a controversial topic, and people don't feel comfortable coming out for Israel," Malina said. "The rally was completely apolitical. It was Israel has the right to exist. (For that) to be a controversial issue for Hollywood Jews, American Jews, to me is a disgrace. And it became a little bit of an obsession for me."

After he was interviewed by a small Jewish publication in Los Angeles, Malina started to get a flood of reaction, e-mails and invitations. He says he'll talk Monday about his Jewish background, his acting background and how the two recently started to intersect.

In the past, he had been disinclined to voice his political opinions because he didn't think anyone would or should care what an actor thinks.

"I started to realize for better or worse, that's the way it is. So if I can something positive on behalf of Israel, why not?"

Will Bailey even got into the act. Malina's character is fervently pro-Israel. The actor suspects that might have resulted from a conversation he had with writer-producer John Wells.

Bailey doesn't jump out as a Jewish-sounding name, nor is it supposed to. For that matter, neither does Malina. "Most people think I'm Latino," he said. "In fact, Malina is Polish for raspberry."

Malina remembers when his good friend, "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin, called him to join the cast. After describing Bailey and the story arc, Sorkin got very serious.

"He said, 'there is one thing I have to tell you,' " Malina said. " 'Will is not going to be Jewish.' " As if I was going stand up, storm out and say 'no deal.' I said, 'Aaron, I'm an actor. I can play non-Jews.' "

Sorkin has been employing Malina for two decades, first in the Broadway version of "A Few Good Men," then for the movie, "The American President" and the ABC series, "Sports Night."

Their friendship started over a twice-weekly poker game in the late 1980s at Sorkin's Manhattan residence. Malina has parlayed his love of poker into a third career as the co-creator and co-producer of Bravo's "Celebrity Poker Showdown."

Still, he won't give any odds on whether Republican Arnie Vinick (Alan Alda) or Democrat Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) will replace President Jeb Bartlet (Martin Sheen) on "West Wing."

"I think they've done a good job of writing two very viable candidates," said Malina. "Vinick is a Republican I could vote for, which would be a first for me. Nonetheless, I think I'd have to go with the young, idealist Latino."

Malina has heard the criticism that "West Wing" hasn't been the same since Wells took over for Sorkin three seasons ago.

"I can understand that kind of reaction," Malina said. "But I think people underestimated or were under uninformed about John Wells' background. Not only has he produced some great blockbuster shows, but he is a great writer."

"If you are an Aaron Sorkin fan, and I am, I understand always lamenting his departure. But I also think it is a tribute to Aaron that he created a situation and these great characters that are so solid that with good writers taking them over they still are viable and compelling."

From that answer, clearly Malina could have a fourth career as a diplomat.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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