To be honest, one of the hesitations I had in taking on the movie is that it was a little like writing about the Beatles—that there are so many people out there who know so much about him and who revere him that I just saw a minefield of disappointment. Frankly, that I was going to do something and that people who ... hopefully, when I'm done with my research, I'll be in the same ball park of knowledge about Steve Jobs that so many people in this room are.
The West Wing was honored with nine Primetime Emmy Awards for its debut season, making the series a record holder for most Emmys won by a series in a single season at the time. Following the ceremony, a dispute arose regarding the acceptance speech for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series. The West Wing episode "In Excelsis Deo" won, which was awarded to Sorkin and Rick Cleveland, while it was reported in a The New York Times article that Cleveland had been ushered off the stage by Sorkin without being given a chance to say a few words. The story behind The West Wing episode is based on Cleveland's father, a Korean war veteran who spent the last years of his life on the street, as Cleveland explains in his FreshYarn.com essay titled "I Was the Dumb Looking Guy with the Wire-Rimmed Glasses". A back and forth took place between Sorkin and Cleveland in a public web forum at Mighty Big TV where Sorkin explained that he gives his Writers "Story By" credit on a rotating basis "by way of a gratuity" and that he had thrown out Cleveland's script and started from scratch. In the end, Sorkin apologized to Cleveland. Cleveland and Sorkin also won the Writers Guild of America Award for Television: Episodic Drama at the 53rd Writer Guild of America Awards for "In Excelsis Deo".
In 1979, Sorkin attended Syracuse University. In his freshman year he failed a class that was a core requirement. It was a devastating setback because he wanted to be an actor, and the drama department did not allow students to take the stage until they completed all the core freshman classes. Determined to do better, he returned in his sophomore year, and graduated in 1983. Recalling the influence on him at college of drama Teacher Arthur Storch, Sorkin recalled, after Storch's death in March 2013, that "Arthur's reputation as a Director, and as a disciple of Lee Strasberg, was a big reason why a lot of us went to S.U. ... 'You have the capacity to be so much better than you are', he started saying to me in September of my senior year. He was still saying it in May. On the last day of classes, he said it again, and I said, 'How?', and he answered, 'Dare to fail'. I've been coming through on his admonition ever since".
After graduating from Syracuse University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Musical Theatre in 1983, Sorkin moved to New York City where he spent much of the 1980s as a struggling, sporadically-employed actor who also worked odd jobs, such as delivering singing telegrams, driving a limousine, touring Alabama with the children's theatre company Traveling Playhouse, handing out fliers promoting a hunting-and-fishing show, and bartending at Broadway's Palace Theatre. One weekend, while housesitting at a friend's place he found an IBM Selectric typewriter, started typing, and "felt a phenomenal confidence and a kind of joy that [he] had never experienced before in [his] life."
He continued writing and eventually put together his first play, Removing All Doubt, which he sent to his old Syracuse theatre Teacher, Arthur Storch, who was impressed. In 1984, Removing All Doubt was staged for drama students at his alma mater, Syracuse University. After that, he wrote Hidden in This Picture which debuted off-off-Broadway at Steve Olsen's West Bank Cafe Downstairs Theatre Bar in New York City in 1988. The contents of his first two plays got him a theatrical agent. Producer John A. McQuiggan saw the production of Hidden in This Picture and commissioned Sorkin to turn the one-act into a full-length play called Making Movies.
In 1988, Sorkin sold the film rights for A Few Good Men to Producer David Brown before it premiered, in a deal that was reportedly "well into six figures". Brown had read an article in The New York Times about Sorkin's one-act play Hidden in This Picture and found out Sorkin also had a play called A Few Good Men that was having Off Broadway readings. Brown produced A Few Good Men on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre. It starred Tom Hulce and was directed by Don Scardino. After opening in late 1989, it ran for 497 performances.
Sorkin did uncredited script Doctor work on several films in the 1990s. He wrote some quips for Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage in The Rock. He worked on Excess Baggage, a comedy about a girl who stages her own kidnapping to get her father's attention, and rewrote some of Will Smith's scenes in Enemy of the State.
Sorkin wrote several drafts of the script for A Few Good Men in his Manhattan apartment, learning the craft from a book about screenplay format. He then spent several months at the Los Angeles offices of Castle Rock, working on the script with Director Rob Reiner. william Goldman (who regularly worked under contract at Castle Rock) became his mentor and helped him to adapt his stageplay into a screenplay. The movie was directed by Reiner, starred Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore and Kevin Bacon, and was produced by Brown. A Few Good Men was released in 1992 and was a box office success.
Goldman also approached Sorkin with a story premise, which Sorkin developed into the script for Malice. Goldman oversaw the project as creative consultant while Sorkin wrote the first two drafts. However, he had to leave the project to finish up the script for A Few Good Men, so Screenwriter Scott Frank stepped in and wrote two drafts of the Malice screenplay. When production on A Few Good Men wrapped up, Sorkin took over and resumed working on the Malice right through the final shooting script. Harold Becker directed the film, a medical thriller released in 1993, which starred Nicole Kidman and Alec Baldwin. Malice had mixed reviews. Vincent Canby in The New York Times described the film as "deviously entertaining from its start through its finish". Roger Ebert gave it 2 out of 4 stars, and Peter Travers in a 2000 Rolling Stone review summarized it as having "suspense but no staying power".
Sorkin married Julia Bingham in 1996 and divorced in 2005, with his workaholic habits and drug abuse reported to be a partial cause. Sorkin and Bingham have one daughter, Roxy. Sorkin was a dependent cocaine user for many years and, after a highly publicized arrest in 2001, he received treatment in a drug diversion program.
Sorkin conceived the political drama The West Wing in 1997 when he went unprepared to a lunch with Producer John Wells and in a panic pitched to Wells a series centered on the senior staff of the White House, using leftover ideas from his script for The American President. He told Wells about his visits to the White House while doing research for The American President, and they found themselves discussing public Service and the passion of the people who serve. Wells took the concept and pitched it to the NBC network, but was told to wait because the facts behind the Lewinsky scandal were breaking and there was concern that an audience would not be able to take a series about the White House seriously. When a year later some other networks started showing interest in The West Wing, NBC decided to greenlight the series despite their previous reluctance. The pilot debuted in the fall of 1999 and was produced by Warner Bros. Television.
Sorkin's nearly decade-long collaboration in television with Director Thomas Schlamme began in early 1998 when they found they shared Common creative ground on the soon to be produced Sports Night. Their successful partnership in television is one in which Sorkin focuses on writing the scripts while Schlamme executive produces and occasionally directs; they have worked together on Sports Night, The West Wing, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Schlamme will create the look of the shows, work with the other Directors, discuss the scripts with Sorkin as soon as they are turned in, make design and casting decisions, and attend the budget meetings; Sorkin tends to stick strictly to writing. In response to what he perceived as unfair criticism of The Newsroom, Jacob Drum of Digital Americana wrote, "The essential truth that the critics miss is that The Newsroom is Sorkin being Sorkin as he always has been and always will be: one part pioneer; one part self-conscious romantic; two parts actual Lewis & Clark-style pioneer, trapping his way across an old, old idea of an America that can always stand to raise its game—but most importantly, spinning a good yarn while he does so."
A consistent supporter of the Democratic Party, Sorkin has made substantial political campaign contributions to candidates between 1999 and 2011, according to CampaignMoney.com. During the 2004 US presidential election campaign, the liberal advocacy group MoveOn's political action committee enlisted Sorkin and Rob Reiner to create one of their anti-Bush campaign advertisements. In August 2008, Sorkin was involved in a Generation Obama event at the Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills, California, participating in a panel discussion subsequent to a screening of Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Despite this Sorkin does not consider himself a political activist: "I've met political Activists, and they're for real. I've never marched anyplace or done anything that takes more effort than writing a check in terms of activism".
In 1987, Sorkin started using marijuana and cocaine. He has said that in cocaine he found a drug that gave him relief from certain nervous tensions he deals with on a regular basis. In 1995, he checked into rehab at the Hazelden Institute in Minnesota, on the advice of his then girlfriend and soon to be wife Julia Bingham, to try to beat his addiction to cocaine. In 2001, Sorkin along with colleagues John Spencer and Martin Sheen received the Phoenix Rising Award for their personal victories over substance abuse. However, two months later on April 15, 2001, Sorkin was arrested when guards at a security checkpoint at the Burbank Airport found hallucinogenic mushrooms, marijuana, and crack cocaine in his carry-on bag when a metal crack pipe set off the gate's metal detector. He was ordered to a drug diversion program.
In 2002, Sorkin criticized NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw's TV special about a day in the life of a President, "The Bush White House: Inside the Real West Wing", comparing it to the act of sending a valentine to President George W. Bush instead of real news reporting. Sorkin's TV series The West Wing aired on the same network, and so at the request of NBC's Entertainment President Jeff Zucker he apologized, but would later say "there should be a difference between what NBC News does and what The West Wing TV series does."
In 2003, Sorkin was writing a screenplay on spec about the story of Inventor and television pioneer Philo Farnsworth, a topic he had first become familiar with back in the early 1990s when Producer Fred Zollo approached him with the idea of adapting a memoir by Elma Farnsworth into a biopic. The next year he completed the screenplay under the title "The Farnsworth Invention", and it was picked up by New Line Cinema with Thomas Schlamme signed on to direct. The story is about the patent battle between Inventor Philo Farnsworth and RCA tycoon David Sarnoff for the Technology that allowed the first television transmissions in the United States.
In 2005, Sorkin revised his play A Few Good Men for a revival at the London West End theatre, the Haymarket. The play opened at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in the fall of the same year and was directed by David Esbjornson, with Rob Lowe of The West Wing in the lead role.
On September 18, 2006, the pilot for Studio 60 aired on NBC, directed by Schlamme. The pilot was critically acclaimed and viewed by over 12 million people, but Studio 60 experienced a significant drop in audience by mid-season. The seething anticipation that preceded the début was followed up by a large amount of thoughtful and scrupulous criticism in the press, as well as largely negative analysis in the blogosphere. In January 2007, Sorkin spoke out against the press for focusing too heavily on the ratings slide and for using blogs and unemployed comedy Writers as sources. After two months on hiatus, Studio 60 resumed to air the last episodes of season one, which would be its only season.
On July 12, 2007, Variety reported that Sorkin had signed a deal with DreamWorks to write three scripts. The first script is titled The Trial of the Chicago 7, which Sorkin was already developing with Steven Spielberg and producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald. In March 2010, Sorkin's agent, Ari Emanuel, was reported as saying that the project was proving "tough to get together". However, in late July 2013, it was announced that Academy Award nominated Director Paul Greengrass was in final talks to direct Sorkin's script and that Steven Spielberg had previously been attached.
A New York Times article by Peter De Jonge explained that "The West Wing is never plotted out for more than a few weeks ahead and has no major story lines", which De Jonge believed was because "with characters who have no flaws, it is impossible to give them significant arcs". Sorkin has stated: "I seldom plan ahead, not because I don't think it's good to plan ahead, there just isn't time." Sorkin has also said, "As a Writer, I don't like to answer questions until the very moment that I have to." The Seattle Post-Intelligencer's TV critic John Levesque has commented that Sorkin's writing process "can make for ill-advised plot developments". Further complicating the matter, in television, Sorkin will have a hand in writing every episode, rarely letting other Writers earn full credit on a script. Peter De Jonge has reported that ex-writers of The West Wing have claimed that "even by the spotlight-hogging standards of Hollywood, Sorkin has been exceptionally ungenerous in his sharing of writing credit". In a comment to GQ magazine in 2008, Sorkin said, "I'm helped by a staff of people who have great ideas, but the scripts aren't written by committee."
In November 2010, it was reported that Sorkin would be writing a musical based on the life of Houdini, with music by Danny Elfman. In January 2012, Stephen Schwartz was reported to be writing the music and lyrics, with Sorkin making his debut as a librettist. The musical was expected to come out in 2013–14, with Sorkin saying "The chance to collaborate with Stephen Schwartz, (the director) Jack O'Brien, and Hugh Jackman on a new Broadway musical is a huge gift." In January 2013, he dropped out of the project, citing film and TV commitments.
Sorkin continued working on The West Wing amidst his drug abuse. In his commencement speech for Syracuse University on May 13, 2012, Sorkin declared that he had not used cocaine for eleven years.
In September 2015, it was reported that Sorkin is writing a biopic that will focus on the twenty year marriage of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and their work together on I Love Lucy and The Lucy–Desi Comedy Hour. Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett is set to star as Ball, while the role of Arnaz is yet to be determined. Two years later, Amazon Studios acquired the rights to the film.
In 2016, after the election of Donald Trump, Sorkin wrote an open letter to his 15-year-old daughter Roxy and her mother Julia Sorkin.