Born Susan Stockard, she grew up on Park Avenue, attended Chapin, Madeira and Radcliffe, and spent many summers touring Europe with her father, a shipping executive. At 20, she married Harvard Business School student Walter Channing, the first of four husbands, and soon after discovered her calling, acting alongside Tommy Lee Jones, John Lithgow and James Woods in local productions. “I was living a double life: acting and trying to be the world’s youngest housewife,” she says. The marriage broke up not long after her graduation.
In tackling Ouisa, Channing drew on her mother, “who was a very charming and social being,” she says, adding that as the play progressed, “it became about dismantling that person. It was as if she stepped out of a shell and was born.” Guare points to her “enormous depths” as an actress. “She never makes the obvious choice,” says the playwright, who met Channing in 1971, when she made her Broadway debut in the chorus of Two Gentlemen of Verona, for which he penned the lyrics. “You always find yourself looking at a part through Stockard’s eyes.”
Channing was on a hiking trip in British Columbia in 1999 when she got word that Aaron Sorkin wanted her for his new show, The West Wing. Arriving on the Los Angeles set still in hiking gear, she promptly slipped into an evening gown and was directed to the top of a staircase, where she introduced herself to Martin Sheen just as the two were about to make their entrance at a state dinner. “I said to him, ‘Hello, we’ve never met, but I think we’ve been married for 35 years. Tell me a little bit about us,’” Channing recalls. Although Sorkin hadn’t planned much for her beyond that first episode, her intelligence and humor, he says, not to mention the obvious heat she generated with Sheen, convinced him to expand her role. “Everyone wanted to play scenes with her because they knew they’d be hitting some major-league pitching,” Sorkin says.
After four divorces—“No one gets married thinking they’re going to get divorced” is all she’ll say on the subject—Channing resides in Florida, Maine, L.A. and Manhattan with her partner of 22 years, cinematographer Dan Gillham. The pair like to entertain at home. She’s an avid cook and has even taken to bringing her own food to rehearsals. “I remember hearing that Carol Channing [no relation] used to make food and bring it with her, and I thought, How silly!” she says. “Now I’m doing it. I eat vegetables out of the Tupperware.” She catches herself, and then adds self-mockingly, “Allan Carr would be rolling in his grave!”