References to Georgetown University are scattered across pop culture, from hip-hop to television to the countless films set in and around the neighborhood. These allusions to the Hilltop are a mark of Georgetown’s influence, as well as a testament to the creative inspiration countless filmmakers and television writers have taken from our nation’s capital and its most storied university.
“I just got a call asking me if I wanted to comment on a story that’s going to run in the Georgetown Hoya tomorrow.” White House Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) says as he nervously paces around his boss — Toby Ziegler’s (Richard Schiff) — office. In the scene, Seaborn is reacting to concern about a Georgetown sociology professor teaching controversial material to a class in which the President’s daughter is enrolled.
This snippet from the critically acclaimed political drama “The West Wing” is just one of many mentions of Georgetown in Aaron Sorkin’s Emmy-winning series. In another episode of “The West Wing” — this time in its fourth season, filmed in 2002 — President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) walks into Healy Hall to deliver a speech to his daughter Zoey’s graduating class, which features actual Georgetown students as extras. Like any proud parent overtaken by emotion, the series’ typically eloquent speaker struggles to find the right words.
Bartlet, in full cap and gown, shares a laugh with Georgetown’s president: “Got my speech on some napkins in my pockets. Although, I just realized I don’t have access to them anymore. But, you know, what are you gonna do?”
Zoey Bartlet’s romantic interest, Oval Office aide Charlie Young, is also a fellow Hoya. A protege of the president and a close friend to most high-level staffers, this fictional alumnus sets a high bar.
In the spirit of Zoey and Charlie’s Georgetown–White House power coupledom, the CBS legal and political drama “The Good Wife” presents us with another fabulous pairing: Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) and Will Gardner (Josh Charles), the Georgetown University Law Center lovebirds. When co-creator and Executive Producer Michelle King was asked why the main characters were from Georgetown as opposed to Harvard or Yale, she told Georgetown Law she wanted to emphasize that smart, highly successful lawyers were just as likely to come from Georgetown as they did from any Ivy League school.
Even real-life figures from Georgetown make appearances in popular culture. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, one of Georgetown’s most distinguished faculty members, recently appeared in the CBS political drama “Madam Secretary,” where she gave Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) foreign policy pointers during a walk around campus. Elizabeth’s daughter, Stevie (Wallis Currie-Wood) eventually transfers to Georgetown, while her father, Henry McCord (Tim Daly) is a lauded theology professor, enabling them to have long family lunches near Dahlgren Chapel’s benches.
When the time comes for Stevie’s younger sister to select a college, Stevie tells her to consider Georgetown, since she is “incredibly happy there.” Shots of campus are never missing in “Madam Secretary,” whether it is Henry being dropped off by a CIA van on Prospect Street in order to make it on time to class or Stevie running around in a snowy day, overwhelmed by all her pre-law homework.
The Georgetown community is also represented in “Scandal,” with Olivia Pope’s (Kerry Washington) law degree coming courtesy of Georgetown Law. The series also uses footage of the hospital in episodes where the characters are being treated. The tormented yet brilliant Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) in “Homeland” is also a former graduate, as is President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) in “24.” Ben Gates (Nicholas Cage) of the “National Treasure” film series is also a graduate of our history department
The HBO new release “The Brink,” a comic tour de force led by Alex Talbot (Jack Black) and Walter Larson (Tim Robbins), is strongly connected to Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. Inspired by the satirical honesty of “Veep,” “The Brink” casts the overwhelming task of managing international turmoil in a humorous light. When Larson is asked to recommend someone to work at the State Department, he claims anyone from the SFS will do, “since all diplomats seem to come from Georgetown anyway.”
In the HBO crime drama “The Sopranos,” Carmela (Edie Falco), Tony Soprano’s wife, takes it upon herself to get her daughter Meadow into the university in season two. In order to gain an “admissions upper hand,” she asks Joan, a Georgetown graduate, to write her daughter a letter of recommendation. After Joan refuses, Carmela subtly implies that it is not wise to go against the wife of the biggest mob boss in Northern New Jersey. Even though her methods are devious — and illegal — there’s no denying her Hoya enthusiasm.
HBO’s “House of Cards” may have failed to disclose any Georgetown graduates working in Frank Underwood’s administration, but for Georgetown Law professor Katyal, it was the start of a small acting career as a Supreme Court advocate in the third season. Initially a consultant, Katyal was cast because of his naturally compelling performance.
The apex of Georgetown’s cinematic history remains the 1973 horror classic “The Exorcist,” and its climactic scene at the infamous “Exorcist steps” that has become an indelible part of horror pop culture. Georgetown alumnus William Peter Blatty (CAS ’50), the author of the book upon which the film was adapted, wrote Fr. Karras’ dramatic death into his novel after being inspired by a classmate who fell from the stairs after stealing a physics exam.
Since this scene was actually shot on location, several Georgetown students were rumored to have charged $10 for those who wanted to watch the shoot from nearby rooftops. William Friedkin’s film was based on Blatty’s novel, who recalled hearing about the exorcism of a boy in Maryland during a New Testament class in White-Gravenor Hall.
An emblematic depiction of Hoyas’ favorite haunt, The Tombs, can be found in Joel Schumacher’s film “St. Elmo’s Fire,” as a group of recent Georgetown graduates try to find their place in the post-grad world. Alec Newbary (Judd Nelson), former president of Georgetown College Democrats, is an aspiring public official who ends up working for a Republican senator. Alluring characters such as Billy (Rob Lowe) and Jules (Demi Moore) charmingly avoid all “grownup” responsibilities, while Kevin (Andrew McCarthy) seeks “the meaning of life” for his newspaper writings. All coming-of-age struggles seem to reach momentary truces at The Tombs, presented in all its mid-80’s glory.
MUSIC AND BOOKS
The most direct musical reference to the Hilltop is rapper Wale’s explicit reference to the Georgetown basketball team in his song “Georgetown Press,” focused on the contrast between notorious D.C. drug kingpin Rayful Edmond III’s notoriously close ties with the Georgetown basketball team in the 1980s and Coach John Thompson’s positive influence. “Georgetown Coach John Thompson made a personal appeal to Edmond to stay away from his players,” Wale says in the outro of the song.
In the novels by Robert Ludlum, Jason Bourne’s adventures include his tenure as Georgetown linguistics professor David Webb. While in both “The Bourne Legacy” and “The Bourne Sanction” he returns to a more conventional lifestyle as a faculty member, he soon drops Webb’s quiet teaching existence and returns once again to serve as a CIA special agent.
What is unique about the University’s portrayal in pop culture is how references to the Hilltop emerge in reference to the best and brightest the nation’s capital has to offer. Not only is this context relevant, but it is additive to the national and global perception of the University as a center of excellence in political and legal education. The University has uniquely defined itself curricularly, independent of its vivid social life and continued athletic success.