In a celebrated contract dispute, the actor couldn't come to financial terms for another season.
This fall, Lowe returns to prime time as another idealistic attorney in Washington. As main character of NBC's The Lyon's Den (Sundays at 10 p.m. beginning in September), Jack Turner is the son of an American political dynasty caught in a web of intrigue and deceit within his law firm Lyon, LaCrosse and Levine. "I think that this show has the ability to do so many things that The West Wing just chooses not to do, for whatever reason," says Lowe, 39.
"I felt like I had a lot of unfinished business on The West Wing," Lowe says. "I felt there were things that I didn't get to accomplish. And in this show I get to deal with some of those themes that I love. And that's what drew me probably to Washington; what drew me to playing a true believer; what drew me to themes that have some majesty and some heft to them."
Though The West Wing began with Lowe as the undisputed star, he began to be pushed aside as the rest of the ensemble cast became more emphasized, particularly Martin Sheen, whose President Bartlet took an increasingly larger role after first being contracted to play four shows a year.
"I found that Sam was having less and less to do with the stories on the show that were really important," Lowe says. "It was never about screen time. I just want to be involved in stories with some teeth."
As others rushed around to talk about the future of the republic, Lowe's Seaborn would pop in to discuss his theories about the elimination of pennies.
"I had a story line once where I was trying to get people to wear seat belts," Lowe says. "It was hilarious and really funny but at the end of the day, I wanted Sam to have the president's ear. I wanted Sam to be involved in the big story lines, not just shuffled in and out for relief."
Of his new show, which also stars Matt Craven, Kyle Chandler, Elizabeth Mitchell and Rip Torn, he says, "I'm getting a chance in this to do themes that are important to me - themes that have some resonance, and they're not just light. Every week on this show, I'm going to be involved in a story with some real heft to it."
The show, he says, "wasn't in place at all," when he was leaving The West Wing in its fourth season.
"I had no idea what I wanted to do next," Lowe says. But, he adds, "It was convenient that I ended up back on NBC."
But when news of his leaving the series got out, "various people came to me and pitched me shows," he said. "One of the first of which was Mr. Remi Aubuchon."
Aubuchon, former co-executive producer for 24, says he had to sneak onto The West Wing set to pitch the idea to Lowe.
"I kept getting shuttled around from one place to another to make sure that nobody knew I was actually there," Aubuchon said. "I thought the next trip would be under a rock somewhere talking to Rob. But it was pretty funny."
The firm in The Lyon's Den "is not a bankrupt, utterly evil place," Lowe said. "It is a place that's fighting for its soul. And there are soldiers on both sides, which I think makes it more interesting, because it leaves open the question who is going to win."
Lowe's departure from The West Wing was just part of the Emmy-winning show's problems last season, when 26 percent of its viewership dropped when it was put up against shows like The Bachelorette. And creator Aaron Sorkin and director Thomas Schlamme left the show at the end of the season.
"I felt the show definitely had changed course without a question," Lowe said. "It's like being a crew member on a big ship. You know the ship is changing course probably before the passengers do. And I think it continues on that course. It just wasn't for me."
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