War Games was my first run-in with him: a single scene that's stayed with me ever since, with him and a near-unrecognizable Michael Madsen...as in, I saw the scene again just now, thought "Is that Michael Madsen?," decided "No, it's not," then looked up online and found that yep, it was him. (And by the way, know who almost got Madsen's part? Kevin Costner.) He goes from joking around and teaching Italian terms to preparing to launch those missiles that many, many, many of us thought were going to kill everybody, or at least lots of everybody, back in the Cold War. And finding he can't. (Not knowing, of course, that it's a drill.) I remember that era. Grew up with nuclear war-inspired dreams. Wondered how close I'd be to any potential strike sites. And that worry: neatly encapsulated in that one opening scene of a good film.
I probably didn't notice Spencer again until he joined L.A. Law in late 1990 -- during its last really good season -- as gruff cynic-with-a-conscience Tommy Mullaney. Backed up a bit and saw him in weary pot-bellied glory in the film version of Presumed Innocent (a film which I saw having known Whodunit. Not sure if I ever "bought" that ending, but I've never read the novel which maybe handles it better, but anyway). Perked up whenever I saw him somewhere else, like his both intense and kind of funny performance in The Rock. (Maybe the only time his appearance onscreen has been scored with guitars.) This reminds me I need to see Ravenous, in which he only appears briefly but c'mon, it's still John Spencer, and I've heard Ravenous is a good movie that would be my kind of disturbing. ("He was LICKING me!")
I watched plenty of The West Wing during its first two seasons, when I could -- but then I moved and went for four years without a TV or a way to watch DVDs, and fell out of following the show's ups and downs -- but The West Wing stayed on my radar, and I was sad when Spencer died suddenly, and then glad that the show found ways to pay tribute to both him and his character Leo McGarry.
Here's to one of the truly good character actors.