Sun-tanned and smiling, actor Martin Sheen strolled up Duke of Gloucester Street in Annapolis yesterday, causing something akin to mild hysteria in the historic waterfront city.
"Omigod, there he is," screamed a gaggle of teen-age girls, snapping photographs of Sheen as he made his way toward Church Circle, where more than 100 cast and crew members of the NBC show The West Wing descended for the day to film next season's opening episode.
Sheen stopped frequently on his way up the street - glad-handing with star-gazers, signing autographs, even cradling one woman's baby in his arms and cooing, "Aren't you beautiful?"
Followed by several burly men wearing all black and murmuring into walkie-talkies, it seemed for a moment as if the actor - who portrays President Jed Bartlet on The West Wing - was performing his part off-camera.
"Martin eats all that up," said Neal Ahern, the show's producer, referring to the crowds of fervent fans who gathered around St. Anne's Episcopal Church in the midday heat to catch a glimpse of Sheen.
"He seems really friendly," said Lisa Granados, who spotted the actor - dressed in a three-piece suit - standing outside the church, waving to the audience. "Everyone who's seen him is saying that he's much shorter than they thought he'd be."
Granados and her husband, Chris, spent their day off ogling the cast and crew as they painstakingly acted out a funeral scene at the church, which sits in the middle of the busy circle. The couple, who snapped photographs through the fence that encircles the 19th-century brick church, said they have not missed an episode of The West Wing since it first aired in 1999.
"If we miss it, we tape it," Granados said. "And I call my mother during all the commercials to talk about it."
For 6-year-old Taylor Wimbrey of Baltimore, the show's Annapolis shoot meant the opportunity to appear as an extra on the award-winning drama, playing a granddaughter of the character who is killed off in the season finale, which airs May 19.
"I want to sing and dance and be an actress," said the tiny girl, dressed for a funeral in a black dress, crisp white socks and patent-leather shoes.
For the St. Anne's segment of the show, which will run about 12 minutes, producers cast more than 150 extras, 85 of them from the parish. Also cast were Annapolis and Anne Arundel County police, who appear in a motorcade scene, and at least a dozen Navy and Army officers. After filming at St. Anne's, the cast and crew moved to the city's Quiet Waters Park, where one of the actors was filmed shooting skeet.
Although most episodes are filmed in Los Angeles, a location manager said the show's cast and crew travel to Washington at least three times a year to film segments around the capital. Because the show's season premiere will center on the funeral of a naval officer, Ahern said he and his co-producers settled on Annapolis.
"The connection to the Naval Academy made sense," he said. "But it's also quaint and beautiful."
Construction crews are digging up a nearby stretch of West Street, but producers struck a deal with workers to turn off the jackhammers when filming began.
For actor Dule Hill, who plays President Bartlett's personal aide Charlie Young, the city was a welcome change from the Los Angeles set.
"It's a quaint, intimate town and I like it," he said, adding, "I heard I've got to get down to the harbor when I finish work."
To film the $2.2 million episode, Ahern said the cast and crew will spend nine days on location in Maryland.
Despite complaints about the traffic, which was backed up on every corridor leading into Church Circle, Ahern called Annapolis one of the most friendly cities the show has filmed in.
"This place is a love fest," he said, gazing across the street at a crowd of more than 200 fans, who kept snapping pictures and shouting out the occasional "Mar-tin!" late into the afternoon.