"If you want to be an actor to become famous or important, it's the most absurd thing in the world you could do. You always have to remember that seven hundred million people in China will never know who you are.... and will never even care if they do."
---- Martin Sheen
America has no royalty; we invent our aristocracy out of celluloid, and our dynasties are the heros of Hollywood who successfully produce a next generation. From the Barrymores to the Fondas, our celebrities-by-birthright hold a special place in our imagination.
The Sheen family is outstanding even in this rarified genre. Martin Sheen is the "actor's actor," a lion among his own colleagues. Eldest son Emilio Estevez is the youngest writer/actor/director in film history, and one of it's most prolific. Charlie Sheen burst onto the screen with an impact and intensity that propelled him to overnight stardom. Not only that, Ramon and Renee Estevez have an ever growing list of credits to their names. And a new generation has already been born, destined to grow up in the California sun and the Hollywood spotlight...
What marked this family for greatness? How did a crippled kid from Dayton, Ohio, whose father barely spoke English, a kid whose education ended with high school and hasn't taken an acting class in his life, earn such a place in the Hollywood hierarchy? And what makes his children so rich in talent? Is this a genetic gift, some kind of hereditary acting bug? Or is it a richness of love and warmth and direction within the family? And where does the quiet one, Martin's wife and center -- Janet Templeton Estevez -- fit in?
The Estevez-Sheen clan is special, each member is unique. Martin said of his sons, "Charlie has the Nth degree of everything that's human; great anger, great passion, great love. Emilio.... is centered. He's always seemed to know what he wanted, and has gone after it in a concrete way."
And Martin? "I'm a working actor. Acting is the creative expression I have for all the other parts of me."
All these other parts -- father, lover, Catholic, activist, as he likes to define them -- coalesce as one of the most respected men in his industry. This, then, is an attept to define and intergrate these qualities, and search for a glimpse of the man behind the actor... and the remrkable legacy he has given.
Martin Sheen's start in life was hardly what one would consider the appropriate foundation for establishing a Hollywood acting dynasty. He had the start in life that usually leads to food stamps.
Born Ramon Estevez on August 3,1940 to an Irish mother and a Spanish father, he was the seventh son of ten children: nine boys and a girl. His mother, a first generation immigrant, endured twelve pregnancies from which these ten children survived. Ramon arrived small, weak, and defective; his left arm was three inches shorter than his right. "My arm was smashed with the forceps at birth, and it didn't quite develop," he explained in 1987, adding that his peers refered to him as the cripple. "it's still almost useless, but I'm glad I've got it."
The family of twelve lived in a three bedroom house, sleeping two to a bed. They were oppressively poor, but to the future Martin Sheen, the poverty was never oppressive. "There were bigger families in our parish," he said."There were kids from families of fourteen children -- and they were all poor." When Ramon was only eleven, his mother -- so devout a Catholic that she led the family in reciting the rosary every night after dinner -- died.
Mary Ann Phelan had come to this country in fear of her life, because her father and brothers were active in the Irish Republican Army. She spoke English with a heavy brogue, and loved to sing Irish folk songs for her children. She met her husband at a citizenship class for prospeective Americans.
Francesco Estevez had immigrated from Vigo, Spain, but because of hard feelings over the Spanish-American War, he arrived via Cuba. He had worked in the sugarcane feilds there for several years before eventually settling in Dayton, Ohio.
"I loved my father deeply," said Sheen. "He was the best man I ever knew... For him life was a mystery to be lived, rather than a series of problems to be solved. And he really lived his life that way."
Francesco was just a little, shy man who rarely even spoke outside his home because he was so self-conscious of his Spanish accent. He paid cash for everythinng, had an explosive temper, and was disappointed when Martin chose an acting career over college. Francesco worked as a drill press operator for the National Cash Registar Company for forty-seven years, most of his life.
After his wife's death, Francesco feared that he would be unable to keep the large family together. He was advised to put some of the children into foster homes, where they would be better cared for financially. But he could not bear to break-up the close-knit brood, no matter what the hardships. With the help and encouragement of the local parish, Holy Trinity, he stuggled and made ends meet. Where money ran short, love filled the gap.
The church remained a major component of the children's young lives and left an indelible impression on Ramon/Martin -- who would take his very name from a church leader. After a long lapse of faith, he today considers himself a steadfast Catholic.
During Ramon's childhood, church and family were inextricably intertwined in his life. Every morning before school, he would serve as an alter boy at a traditional Latin mass. The memorization and recitation of prayers; the glow of the candlelight and smell of incense; the colorful vestments and choreographed moves.... the setting was not so very different from an elaborate movie set. In retrospect, Martin noted, "Serving mass was really theatrical. We dressed up in costumes. It was a performance. At one point I considered the priesthood, but chose acting instead."
As a boy, Ramon believed in his church and his God. His older brother, Michael, liked to tell the story of the time he (Michael) was competing in a local golf tournament. Ramon stood at the sidelines, rosary in hand, and prayed for his victory. He promised God he would make a novena (a prescribbed series of prayers over a period of several days) if his brother won.
Michael won; Martin prayed.
Golf was more than a hobby in the Estevez household; it was a lifeline. out of necessity, all the boys took jobs at an early age, usually becoming junior breadwinners before they turned ten. One favored form of employment was caddying at the local country club -- it was here that young Ramon learned his first lessons in sociopolitical realities.
Martin caddied from the time he was nine until the age of eighteen. "It was there, at the country club," said Martin more than a decade later, "that I began to realize that the whole world wasn't poor. Some people had a great deal of money, as well as postion and power in the community. I resented some of them -- not for what they had, but for the way they used and abused it."
At the tender age of fifteen, Ramon -- or Ray, as his friends called him -- led his fellow caddies out on an unheard-of strike against the club because they were not being paid as much as caddies at a neighboring golf course. Staging the strike on a Tuesday was perfect timing. Many doctors and lawyers normally filled the links on Wednesdays, so the strike was brought to a speedy end in just one day.
Ramon, however, was not back on the greens that Thursday. His first public display of social activism got him summarily fired. Still, he managed to find another job at the rival country club.
Daily routine consisted of school, caddying eighteen holes, and looking for lost golf balls until dark. Evenings were spent with Francesco, who came home exhausted but never tried of spending time with his children.
School was parochial, run by the Sisters of Notre Dame. The sisters were experts at keeping their charges in line with doses of both vinegar and honey. "The nuns were strict disiplinarians. They'd beat the hell out of you and then slip you money under the table for something you really needed. They had charity and compassion," recalled Martin in 1979.
The family managed to stay together.
For pocket money, Ramon collected empty bottles to raise the fifteen cent admission for a Saturday movie matinee. The movies were magic, an escape, and a promise. "I was a young living more in my imagination than in reality," Martin mused later. "When I began to go to movies I realized that's what I was, that's what I wanted to do. I knew I was an actor."
During his years at Chaminade High School, taught by the Marinist fathers, Ramon became active in the parish teen club. He was it's first president, in fact, and his peers admired his ability to be serious, compassionate, and funny.
It was during the higgh school years that he began amateur acting work in a secular environment.
By the time Ramon was seventeen, he had progressed from staging plays without props and reciting poetry from milk crates and boasted a total of fourteen high school plays on his resume. The capper was an appearance on a local talent show, The Rising Generation, that was loosely based on The Ted Mack Amatuer Hour, where the winners were chosen by postcard votes sent in by the audience. Ramon Estevez closed out his scholastic career with a dramatic reading from the Book of Genesis and won the popularity poll. His prize: a trip to New York City and an audition at CBS television.
that trip was a turning point in Ramon estevez's life. As he told Rolling Sstone interviewer Jean Vallely, "My senior year was one of the best times of my life. I knew I was going to New York and I spent the entire year dreaming about it. I let my hair grow long, listened to a lot of music, and was very aware of the times. There were two big influences on me, James Dean and Elvis Presley, and no one who had that kind of effect on me came along until Bob Dylan... my patron saint."
As it turned out, Ramon couldn't wait to fly away to the Big Apple. In fact, he admitted later, "I didn't give a damn about school. I made up my mind in senior year that I was going to be an actor... I never thought of myself as anything but an actor."
With some extra cash in his pocket from selling Christmas trees and a loan from the parish priest, Martin arrived in New York City on February 1,1959 -- the day before buddy Holly died inn a plane crash. That day "was the start of my adult life," said Sheen He worked as a night-shift stockboy at American Express for forty dollars a week, while running to auditions during the day.
It was during this period that Ramon Estevez changed his name. Not only did he not look particularly Hispanic, but he feared that his real Latino monicker would be a distinct handicap in an acting career. Even today, ethnic pigeon-holes are hard to escape in film and television.
The name "Martin Sheen" had a dual genesis. The first half honored a man named Robert Dale Martin, the casting director at CBS who encouraged young Ramon when he arrived for that first audition. "Sheen" was actually a tribute to Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, a greatly admired church leader at the time and a man young Estevez considered "an extraordinary actor" in his own right.
While most articles written about Martin Sheen credit the bishop for inspiring his stage name, later ones often didn't mention it. Somewhere along the way, Martin's fame outreached the bishop's, and it became too difficult to explain the nomenclature. Martin told a Sunday Woman magazine reporter in 1979, "It's Irish and I look Irish, annd it's short and easy to spell." A year later he told Cosmopolitan magazine, "I just liked the way it sounded." To this day, however, Ramon G. Estevez is the name on all of Martin Sheen's official documents -- even his driver's license.
Bishop Sheen was only one of Martin Sheen's early idols. Along with James Cagney, Frank Sinatra, and Bob Dylan, Martin has said, "I worshipped James Dean. He was to my generation what Dylan is to the present. The brief time that he was alive, he was something to reach for, a grand, noble actor.
"I loved him but, very early in my career, I also learned that to imitate the living was mockery and to imitate the dead was robbery, Do you remember that quote?" he asked the reporter he was conversing with. "It's what Johnny Cash said about Bob Dylan on the back of the record album Nashville Skyline."
In New York, Martin became the quintessential starving young actor. Without the funds for acting lessons, Sheen and some friends formed a group called the Actor's Co-Op under the guidence of Vasek Simek; they performed in showcase presentations in a loft near the old Madison Square Garrden building. Another struggling young actor in the group was named Barbra Streisand, a "sweet kid from Brooklyn, very shy and funny," as Martin remembered her. "No one knew she could sing. And then, lo and behold, she was on Broadway as a star."
It was while Streisand starred in Funny Girl that Sheen was fired by American Express ("They should have fired me months earlier; I was never there!) and began work as a stagehand/prop-master for a repertory group. Julian Beck and Judithh Malina's Living Theater was an avant-garde off-off-Broadway troupe, later referred to as a "prototype of some of the hippie communes of the late 1960's." It was there that Martin met another struggling actor destined to be somebody, Al Pacino.
"We worked together, cleaning toilets, sweeping, painting," remembered Martin. "We moved props for Allen Ginsberg and John Cage... I met Larry Rivers... and I got paid for acting in a play, Purgatory by William Butler Yeats. I got five dollars."
These days were heady times, John F. Kennedy was running forr Presidnet. Camelot and Bob Dylan were in the air -- along with maijuana smoke, which the young adults were not above experimenting with. "I used to take the stuff," Sheen told US magazine in 1980, "a long time before it was even fashionable." Martin also started hanging out around thhe Catholic Worker, a group of political activists.
It was in 1961 that Martin met Janet Templeton, a student at the New School for Social Research in New York, through a mutual actor/friend at a backstage party. The attraction, Martin told Rolling Stone, was not mutual at first, but he was persistant. Admitted Martin, "I was thinking about getting laid... Janet was my first." Janet yeilded to his attentions, beginning what would prove to be a lifelong love.
Soon the couple began living together -- a move that got them evicted from Janet's apartment because cohabitaion was considered sinful by her landlord. They lived on love, hope, and macaroni casserloes as Martin waited for his break in the impossible industry he had chosen.
The money for acting school never did materiaalize, and to this day, Martin Sheen does not boast any formal acting school training. But his natural abilities were enough to get him chosen to replace Gary Goodrow in the role of Ernie in The Connection, a play that took a bold look at drug addiction and awed and shocked theatergoers with it's frank dialogue.
Matt Clark, then the stage manager of The Connection and still a friend of the Sheen family, later recalled, "Marty was funny. He was the only serious actor I ever knew who didn't study. He used to say that study was just reassurance. He didn't have to be reassured."
That same year, 1961, Janet quit school and the couple went on tour with the play.
Two Can Live as Cheaply...
Once back in America, Martin and Janet married on December 23, 1961, adding a new flavor to the family pot: Janet is part Jewish, among other ethnic varities. While Martin juggled casting calls with odd jobs (usher in a Manhattan theater, soda jerk in the Bronx, car washer, busboy), Janet settled into their meager nest. While they never dreamed at the time that they would leave New York City for the milder climes of Malibu, Janet recalled that "we kept moving all the time -- to a cheaper apartment."
Martin quipped in 1980, "Thursday was garbage day, and Wednesday night we'd go out... and collect. We decorated three or four apartments from the street. On the day we were married, I put on a big army coat with pockets inside and out, and I went to the supermarket to steal bologna and cheese." The lack of money often led to stress and spats; unskilled "day jobs" and pitiful bank accounts took their toll. Once, Martin recalled, the couple was having a not-unusual fight about money: "She said, 'I'll show you,' went to her purse, and tore up seventy dollars. I spent hours taping that money back together!"
Their first child, Emilio, was born early in 1962. And it was while the couple was living on Staten Island that second son Ramon came into the world -- without medical assitance. "I delivered one of my children myself," Sheen recalled. "That's the kind of financial shape I was in. It was the most stupid thing I could have done. I almost lost my wife and my baby." To this day, Sheen does as much as he can to make sure that people do not have to exist in this country without access to a doctor's care.
By 1963, Martin was beginning to make some headway in his career. He played an alcoholic wife-beater in a segment of the television series East Side, West Side, starring George C. Scott. "Martin did a fine job for me," Scott recalled for After Dark magazine almost a decade later. "I remembeer he had a wonderful sweetness about him as a person and was such a calm, gentlemanly-type fellow -- and when he played the part he was absolutely wild and crazy and tore the joint up and everything. I was very impressed with his work. And certainly impressed with him as a human being."
In 1964, Sheen made his debut in Never Live Over a Pretzel Factory; later that same year he received public and critical acclaim with Jack Albertson and Irene Dailey in Frank Gilroy's Pulitzer Prize winning pllay, The Subject Was Roses. He and Albertson were both nominated for Tony Awards: Albertson won. But the victor later noted, "I beat Marty only because mine was the stronger part."
This was only the first but just about the last acting award Martin would ever vie for -- not because his work wasn't considered deserving, but because he consistenetly withdrew his name from the competition. He simply disagrees with the concept of singling out individual players for approval over and above the others. Back then, though, as he later told Variety, "I didn't bother with it. I knew it wouldn't make any difference if I had. I just had to let it pass, and it did."
During the role of The Subject Was Roses, Sheen suggested that the general amanger of the theater organize a benefit performance to raise funds for the growing civil rights movement. He also initiated the involvement of old friend Barbra Streisand and of Sammy Davis, Jr., who was then appearing in Golden Boy. Most of Broadway was contibuting its support for racial equality that night, as receipts from various box offices were funneled into human rights coffers. Sheen remembered that another famous Martin -- Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. -- was backstage at the theater that night, but in the confusion he never got to shake hands with another one of his many heros.
By now it was obvious that Sheen as an actor had to expand his venues if he was going to support a wife and two sons -- soon to bbe three sons, as Carlos (now Charlie) was due in 1965. It was time to get into the lucrative, if not particularly challenging, field of serial television. Sheen attacked TV with a vengence: his episodic television resume included roles on The Defenders, Route 66, Medical Center, The Mod Squad, The F.B.I. and even My Three Sons. For much of 1967, he was a regular on the daytime soap opera As the World Turns, playing the part of Jack Davis.
Actor Zooey Hall, who today has a recurring role on the daytime drama The Young and the Restless, guest-starred with Sheen in an early episode of The F.B.I. "We were both playing memebers of a mafia family trying to make our marks," he recalled. "Martin's character was sent to kill someone on behalf of his godfather within the family, but had gotten himself involved with a character played by Meg Foster. He didn't make the hit he was contracted to do, so I was sent to kill him and Foster's character. We had a big chase sequence onn the docks. At one point, he trips and falls and I have the opportunity to kill him.
"What I remeber most about Sheen is how he'd be standing by, watching as my close-ups were being shot. The camera was shooting up from the ground, as if it were his point of view. He was standing by, watching this very intently. Afterwards, he came up and complimented me on the simplicity and honesty of my work. I had the feeling he was really studying my technique in front of the camera. I may just be guessing now, but I think he had then done some work in episodic television but was still getting familiar with camera technique. If you were in one Quinn Martin show and he liked your work, chances are you'd get a role in other Quinn Martin series. When Sheen and I worked together, he had more experience working onstage.
"I rememebr that some of his children -- two or three of them -- were on the set with him that day," continued Hall. "My impression of him was that he was a serious and hardworking actor andd a caring father."
Martin continued to appear on the boards throughout this period. He worked with producer Joseph Papp in Romeo and Juliet and did a controversial, mod production of Hamlet. In this unusual vision of Shakespeare, Sheen played the mournful Dane as a Puerto Rican janitor. The play was a flop, but critics noted, "The part is played by a gifted young actor, Martin Sheen, who is so mercurial and nimble (physically and verbally) and handles his brainless assignments with such poise that it may be entirely because of him that the proceedings are not a bore."
Martin's association with Papp continues today, with plans for a New York showcase as well as Sheen's continued encouragement of his son Charlie toward the legitimate theater.
In 1967, Sheen landed his first feature film role in The Incident, with Tony Musante. The pair played drunken hoodlums who terrorize subway passengers in the bowels of Manhattan. It was in that year that Martin was strongly attracted to a daring new stage play in preproduction. "I read three pages of this new musical and I knew it would be great," he told Women's Wear Daily (WWD). (As it happened, he didn't get a part in the New York "tribe" of Hair.)
A film veteran at last, Martin was ready to conquer Hollywood. His first Los Angeles based role was in an episode of Outer Limits and by the late sixties, he was traveling from NY to LA on a regular basis. The first trip, however, was the most memorable -- and not only because it was the first. It turned out that the bus he was riding on broke down outside Albuqueque, New Meixco; Martin and five other passengers literally pushed the bus down the highway until it jumped started.
Soon the parts began rolling in: He played the screen version of The Subject Was Roses, and played the small role of Lieutenant Dobbs in the film adaptation of Joseph Heller's anti-war novel, Catch-22. Colleagues from that film's Mexican location setting remembered Martin well. This was the guy that refused to stay with everyone else in Guyamas at the plush Playa de Cortes Hotel. When they saw the conditions under which the locals lived, Martin and Janet chose to live among the native villagers, many of whom subsisted near starvation. The Sheens became a one-family Peace Corps, giving away most of their clothing, food, and kitchen and bathroom supplies.
It was also during that Guaymas location shoot the the Sheens fell in love with the warm weather, and made the decision to relocate the Estevez clan to Malibu, California. In California, said Martin, "You can dress any way, act any way, start a religion -- no one will put you down."
It wasn't very long after the move west in 1969 that George C. Scott beckoned Martin back to the New York stage. Scott was producing the off-Broadway version of South African playwright Athol Fugard's Hello and Goodbye, about the emotional confrontation of a son and daughter in the family of an Afrkaaner railwayman after years of separation. Colleen Dewhurst played the embittered prostitue sister; Sheen replaced another actor as the hysterical brother. The play ran only forty-five performances but helped cement the Scott-Sheen friendship.
Back in Los Angeles, a new art form called the "MoW" -- Movie of the Week -- was in full gear, allowing the small screen to tackle productions and subjects that would be impossible on the expensive silver screen scale. Some telemovies were simply churned out, but others were landmarks in home entertainment. Martin appeared in Then Came Bronson; Goodbye Raggedy Ann; Mongo's Back in Town; Welcome Home, Johnny Bristol. And then, on November 1,1972, he starred in one of the landmark TV movies of it's day, That Certain Summer, alongside Hal Holbrook. It was television's first serious, sympathetic portrayal of homosexuality, with Sheen and Holbrook playing the lovers.
That Certain Summer was among the most honored productions of 1972, and Martin Sheen was nominated for an Emmy Award for his sensitive portrayal. He turned it down.
In a letter to the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Sheen wrote, "I appreciate the honor, but on personal principals I would like my name to be taken off the ballot. I don't feel that actors should compete against each other." The name Martin Sheen was stricken from the annals of Emmy history, and the supportiing actor with the highest number of votes in the category -- James Brolin of Marcus Welby, MD series -- was put on the ballot instead.
Badlands, Good Times
IN 1958, A NINETEEN-YEAR-OLD BOY NAMED CHARLES STARK-weather took his fourteen-year-old girlfriend, Caril Fugate, on a murder spree through Lincoln, Nebraska. By the time they were caught they had killed ten people, including Fugate's mother, stepfather, and half-sister. In separate trials, both Starkweather and Fugate were convicted of murder. He was executed in the electric chair; she was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Badlands was director Terrence Malick's vision of the Starkweather case. The names, places, and the manner of dying had been changed. Martin Sheen was a South Dakota garbage collector named Kit Caruthers; Sissy Spacek was the girl sociopath, Holly. The 1972 movie was predicted to make Martin Sheen a major star.
"I was terribly excited after reading the script," Sheen told a WWD reporter, looking back on a movie he still feels is one of his best. Of his character, he recalled: "Even his capture would be on his own terms. He combed his hair, took his pulse, and built a monument to himself. He saw his capture as an historical event. Even when he killed,it was on an existential level. There was no vengeance or thrill motive. His gun was his magic wand. He used it the same way the C.I.A. uses its weapons to overthrow governments and the U.S. uses bombs. We're all taught from the time we're children to use things to remove obstacles."
Sheen's friend and admirer George C. Scott was bowled over by Martin's work in Badlands. Scott commented, "He can play a totally amoral character and still come off sympathetically. I am stunned. Stunned. He is one of the best young actors alive."
Today, Martin will not play a role as violent as the mass murderer. But at the time, he felt there were justifications for this type of characterization-and those justifications did not have dollar signs on them. "There are many more reasons for doing a role than just the money," Martin told a television interviewer. "I look at it in my own life this way: that the part can offer me an opportunity to examine a part of myself that ordinarily I might not do. It might help me get to an area of myself that I might not ordinarily be able to get to. It's like being given a license that says, 'All right now, you can examine this.' And no one is the wiser because the craft is the art or the profession."
Playing a psychotic killer like Caruthers allowed Sheen "to explore the possibility that I had those tendencies in me as well. I didn't ignore or deny them; I explored them. I disapprove of killing, I disapprove of harming people, but I get angry and hurt people. That's violence. If I were to deny that, it would be dangerous. A lot of people say, 'Well, I'm a nonviolent person,' yet they contribute to organizations that buy and sell weapons. Or they believe in keeping some segments of our society down. We engage in all sorts of activity for our own benefit that is to the detriment of other people. That's very violent."
New York Times critic Vincent Canby noted in his review of Badlands: "Kit and Holly are out of touch with their feelings, and it's the scary suggestion of Badlands that this isn't an especially abnormal condition in this time and place. Although they talk, they cannot communicate, within themselves or to each other. The language they use is made up of phrases learned by rote. . . Miss Spacek manages the rather grand feat of being simultaneously transparent and mysterious, sweet and heedlessly cruel. Sheen, who does look a lot like James Dean, whom Kit fancies, has what may be the role of his career.
Martin was obsessive about the "role of his career." There was one scene set in a gas station, and Martin made a point of personally picking up all the flip-top can rings from the filming area, because in 1959 soda cans didn't have the easy-open tabs. "We had to be careful all along," detail-attentive Sheen told the WWD reporter. "You can never wing it. Acting is not an accident. I'm appalled to see inexperienced actors hired because of their looks or personality and young players made overnight successes when they don't know what they're doing."
Ironically, the role of Kit Caruthers almost went to the young actor who "assassinated" Martin back in The F.B.I.: Zooey Hall. Hall had then been receiving kudos for his intense work in the prison movie Fortune and Men's Eyes. Recalled Hall, "Terry Malick contacted me. because he was considering me for the lead in Badlands. I had just gotten back from working on another movie in Europe, and Terry called me at home. He said he was pretty much decided on me for the lead in this film and wanted me to come up to his house to shoot some footage. The project sounded very interesting to me, so I agreed. At his place I met an actress, Sissy Spacek, whom I had never heard of before. Terry filmed the two of us. The next thing I heard was that Martin Sheen had gotten the part. He did a fine job of it."
Despite the excellence of Badlands, its depressing subject matter made it basically unacceptable commercially. While it received praise from the critics, the movie was simply seen by too few people to propel Martin to the universal acclaim those who did see it felt he deserved.
In 1972, Sheen and his family shared a small and crowded rented house in Tucson, Arizona for six weeks while Martin worked on the movie Rage. The project reunited Sheen with George C. Scott, who starred in and directed the feature film that ended up becoming one of that great actor's (another who refuses actors' awards) least liked.
It's the story of a father's vengeance for his son's death, a death brought about by an accident in a secret chemical warfare experiment. Scott tries to blow open the military's attempt at a cover-up, and Sheen was all but unnoticed in his role as an Army physician. But for Sheen, the reward was working alongside Scott. Martin said that sharing scenes with George was like "being in a ring with a heavyweight. And I'm about bantam weight by comparison."
For his next role, a 1973 adaptation of Brian Moore's novella Catholics, Martin was able to go back to his altar-boy days and don the priest's robes as Father Kinsella. He played a reformer sent to sway a group of Latin ritists who had holed up in an abbey off the coast of Ireland. Although the CBS Playhouse 90 piece was considered "another impressive step towards superstardom" for Martin, what he has best remembered about the production was that he bought a Super-8 camera for his little boys-Emilio, Ramon, and Carlos. It was supposed to be something to keep them occupied while he worked; little did he know that it would spark the interest of a new generation of entertainment-industry dynamos.
In March of 1974 came another heralded TV movie, the two-and-a-half-hour special, The Execution of Private Slovik. Martin played the title character in yet another downer drama-the saga of the only American soldier since the Civil War to be shot for desertion. He took the part so seriously, remembered his wife, that "he was absolutely impossible during that period. He couldn't stop being Slovik, even at home."
In real life, Sheen was never in the military. "I married young, and nothing much was happening at the time, but I probably would have gone if called," he has said. "I'd probably have been one of the guys in the firing squad.
"The Slovik case is relevant today because human life is sacred. If we're responsible for it, we have to take it seriously."
It's not only life that Martin Sheen takes seriously. He also takes acting very, very seriously. When Private Slovik was released he told TV Guide, "People think acting is an accident. It's not. It's calculated, planned, scrutinized, rehearsed. A performer has to know what he's doing every instant, to invent and improvise and feel, to bleed a little or else there's no growth . . . God, how I love to act!"
It was also in 1974 that Martin made Pretty Boy Floyd, a movie made memorable because it gave him the chance to bring yet another member of his family into the business: his brother, Joseph Estevez. Joe, who worked at a Frigidaire factory in Ohio at the time, had been acting in local amateur theater groups. He auditioned for and won the role of "E.W." in the television movie. The experience spurred a major change in Joseph's life; today, working under the name of Joe Phelan (his mother's maiden name), he is a professional actor himself.
If Joseph was becoming enamored of the actor's calling, his brother was becoming disenchanted with it at times. In August of 1975, Martin took the opportunity at a luncheon in his honor (for his work with James Farentino in Death of a Salesman) to express his displeasure with acting awards and the quality of prime-time television: "To engage in a campaign to receive a prize is juvenile. Why should actors be made to compete against each other?" he asked.
He continued by describing network fare as "the garbage that starts in the morning and continues all day it's on a sixth-grade level." He also contended that programmers "assume that this is a nation of idiots. You just have to watch the tube every night to see what I'm talking about. To improve TV, you have to start over and assume that people are intelligent. Some of the people running the programs may not be as intelligent as the audiences are."
There are reasons for the relative lack of quality on television. "They work too fast on TV, they're too heavily censored, and the scripts are weak," declared Sheen. "Be-sides, you have to compete with actual events shown on newscasts. Nothing I've done on television can compare with seeing one real man get killed."
Still, Martin continued to work in the television medium, and gradually began to develop a certain respect for it. His hotheadedness cooled. Several years after those 1975 comments, he conceded, "Some people in show business are still snobbish towards TV. They're nuts. If TV acting is good enough for George C. Scott and Laurence Olivier, who are they to say?" A decade after his luncheon outburst, Martin had come full circle. "I work very often for the money. I have no altruistic set of values I apply to my work," he said. "I find it very difficult to turn down money for doing something I don't believe in. I'm not strong enough to say no."
We all have to grow up sometime. And Martin Sheen is only human.
MARTIN SHEEN WAS NOT THE FIRST ACTOR OF CHOICE FOR THE
role of Captain Ben Willard in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Steve McQueen had been asked originally, but wanted $3 million to do the project. Al Pacino turned it down. Jack Nicholson was interested but was working on another film. Eventually, Coppola hired Harvey Keitel (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver), but Keitel walked off the set in a contract dispute after three weeks.
It turned out that Sheen, just back from filming The Cassandra Crossing in Rome, ran into Coppola at the airport; the director was himself en route from the Philippines Martin had been one of the early people considered-and rejected-for the part. This time, however, the timing was right. On April 27, 1976, Martin Sheen began a sixteen-month "journey into darkness" that would change his life. The role was a challenge. Ben Willard is young, cynical, and war-weary; he's also a killer-for-hire. Willard has Obeen assigned to find and "terminate with extreme prejudice" the renegade and psychotic Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando, in his Cambodian jungle retreat. A Vietnam war story based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now was, as Sheen put it, certain to be "one of the most talked-about films in motion-picture history." For many reasons, it was.
For one thing, it was one of the most logistically horrendous shoots in motion-picture history. Eight weeks into filming, typhoon Olga brought production to a halt. On May 16, 1976, a six-day rainstorm began that brought more than forty inches of rain to the location and destroyed many of the film's standing sets. The town of Luzon was all but demolished. There was a two-month hiatus while the technical crew salvaged what they could from the destruction and rebuilt the rest.
It was when the film resumed production that Martin Sheen made one of the most memorable opening scenes ever filmed. These few moments established so much character-and with such economy, grace, and intensity-that Sheen effortlessly embodied, for posterity, all his ideas about acting. Five years before laying down this remarkable bit of footage, he had said, "When I walk in front of a camera I ask myself, 'Why are you so scared? What are you hiding?' Then I begin to feel the reality of the situation. I can't admit to the fear of what the camera does . . . it catches you. As actors we do things in public that ordinary people do alone. We must do it publicly. . Some of our greatest actors have difficulty stripping themselves. It takes enormous courage to let it-the rage, the fear, the hurt come out."
In that famous opening scene of Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen (Captain Willard) is literally naked in a Saigon hotel room. As "This Is the End" by the Doors plays on the soundtrack, he moves around the room practicing martial arts moves and then catches his reflection in the mirror. He studies himself more closely in the glass and becomes so enraged and so repulsed by the person he sees that he punches the mirror to destroy the image. The mirror breaks; his hand bleeds. Willard smears his blood over his face and body.
"The director decided what was necessary in the beginning of the film was to show a guy who was suicidal, drunk, unhappy," explained Sheen. "He was no ordinary hero. He was a professional killer, which is what a soldier is. This soldier had to deal with death to the utmost degree. He had to kill his own people. He was unhappy, and very confused."
When he did that scene, Martin admitted, "I was intoxicated. I had been drinking all day. I'd lived in that room for a couple of days, day and night. I had no business being on the screen. Francis didn't want me to do it, but I insisted. . . . He was very compassionate, very sweet I was a raving lunatic."
Coppola's wife, Eleanor, wrote in her book Notes, about the Apocalypse experience, that when Martin's hand started to bleed, "Francis said his impulse was to cut the scene and call the nurse, but Marty was doing the scene. He had gotten to the place where some part of him and Willard merged. Francis had a moment of not wanting to be a vampire, sucking Marty's blood for the camera, and not wanting to turn off the camera when Marty was Willard. He left it running."
As the cameras rolled, Martin collapsed on the bed, holding hands with Coppola and others around him as he sang "Amazing Grace" and bled through the wrappings someone in the crew had put on his hand. Janet and Emilio were called, but it was two hours before they were able to get Martin back to the hotel.
"That scene wasn't in the script," Sheen has since confessed on numerous occasions. "It was me. At least, it was me at the time. That was something I invented that came out of the dark side of me . . . I was a very confused man. We shot it on August third, nineteen seventy-six-my thirty-sixth birthday. I'll never forget that day for as long as I live.
"I wrestled with the devil on-camera, with a spirit inside me that I detested. Wrestled with it, brought it out in the open-and saw that devil and saw myself. A pain was escaping from me. A pain that just jumped out of my throat. It left me wandering and dazed for a while, but it was just one of those demons that I had not exorcised until then."
Martin refused to look at the rushes of that landmark scene, much as Coppola wanted him to see what amazing work he had done. In fact, the first time Martin Sheen saw himself capturing the screen at the opening of Apocalypse Now was in a movie theater. Said Sheen later, "It's part of myself I'm not able to look at; I'm not able to deal with it.''
Martin had a premonition that he would not get out of the Philippines in one piece. At one point, he even came back to Los Angeles for several weeks, after a falling-out with his director. When the quarrel was patched up, Sheen returned to Manila filled with an unnamed dread. "I was afraid that I wouldn't come out of there alive, through an accident or something else that would happen to me," he told friends at the time and later admitted to the press.
"Working on that movie was the roughest thing I ever did in my life, both physically and emotionally," Sheen told a Family Weekly reporter. "I always had some illness or another, and until the last six weeks of shooting, we never knew when we were going to finish the film."
And then it happened: Late one night he was in his cabin in the mountains when he was awakened by a burning pain in his chest. By morning the pain had increased, and Martin felt dizzy and faint. He almost passed out. Rolling onto the floor, he dressed himself, then crawled on his hands and knees down a dirt path to the road where a guard gathered him up and carried him to the set. From there, a helicopter flew him through heavy winds to Manila.
It was March 5, 1977. "I was having a heart attack, and I ended up in the hospital," Martin said simply. "But the experience changed my life."
Five years earlier, when Apocalypse Now was no more than a handful of notes on Francis Ford Coppola's desk, Martin had expressed the desire to retreat within himself, to retire perhaps to a damp forest in Spain and sit thoughtfully in a cold stone house. He envisioned, in many ways, the isolated environment that a heart attack ended up creating for him: "I want to see if I can listen to the silence. To be quiet. For meditation. To listen to my children. I really want to see how much excess baggage I've acquired in my life. With my life. How many crosses I've got. I want to see if I can drop a few of these. . . . I want to take a look at myself . . . see where I am with me. I want to tear down, rebuild a little, remodel. I want to expose myself to change. I expect I'll be a different person if I can do it," he said at the time.
Five years later, the "remodeling" still hadn't been done. And Martin Sheen imploded.
"I was fragmented emotionally, physically, and spiritually . . . I was almost nonexistent, not in touch with my spirit at all. I was not in command of my own life," said Martin. "After the heart attack, as I lay in the hospital, I said to myself, 'You're sick because you're not taking care of yourself. This is a warning. I resolved to take better care of myself, and I prayed."
Martin was close to death. He asked for a priest to administer the last rites even though, at the time, he was a "fallen-away" Catholic who "didn't believe in God, but does believe Mary was His mother." During his three weeks in the hospital and three weeks of recuperation, Janet was at his side-sometimes even sleeping on the floor of the intensive-care unit at the Manila hospital. She arranged for a New York-based psychiatrist to counsel Sheen in long-distance telephone therapy. Meanwhile, production-company press releases referred to his heart attack and emotional collapse as "heat exhaustion."
To Martin, his heart attack was the manifestation of a spiritual, not simply a physical, illness. It was recompense for a life improperly lived. "I was the only one I knew or cared about," he confessed to Elle magazine many years later. "I wanted to be a movie star, to be known, to be loved. Here I was in the middle of 'my big chance' and I nearly lost it. My spirit sent me a clear message: 'You are going to have to change,' it said. 'I cannot live in you. I'm outta here.' And I said, 'Hold on! I'll make some changes.'
From March 5 through April 19, until Martin was well enough to return to work, filming on Apocalypse continued. Martin's brother Joseph was flown in to act as his stand-in and double, and they shot around Willard's character entirely, whenever possible. Meanwhile, Martin was healing. He gave up cigarettes (which he had previously smoked at the rate of three to four packs a day) and he began to exercise. He stuck to a healthy diet. And, most of all, he began soul-searching, trying to find the root of what he perceived as his psychic ills.
"The experience helped me to really see my family and really appreciate who they are. They became my first priority . . up until that point, only my career was important to me. But our careers are a projection of our egos, really. We're not our careers any more than we are our hair, clothes, or whatever. Who we really are is something far more substantial than an image. So my career was relegated to its proper place, and as a result, I have a lot more fun with it,,, he told The Saturday Evening Post.
Apocalypse Now was a blockbuster when it was released. It was nominated for Oscars in the categories of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Screenplay (adapted from another medium), Best Art Direction, and Best Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall)~ It won for Best Cinematography and Best Sound. Once again, Martin Sheen stood by his principles and withdrew his name from the Motion Picture Academy list of nominees for the Best Actor award.
After the Deluge
MARTIN SHEEN SWORE AFTER HIS SOUL-DESTROYING TURN AS
Captain Ben Willard that he would never again take on a role that was emotionally unhealthy, even though his greatest work had been playing such characters. "There is a great presence of violence and evil in the world," he told a reporter. "You can't deny tbat. I have, because of my experience in Apocalypse Now, resolved that part
of my-self. I'm not interested in any violent pictures. I will not participate in them. I will not give myself because I've been through it. I won't engage in that anymore."
But even though he wouldn't play characters troubled by dark demons, he would still feel his own in real life for almost four years after Apocalypse was finished. They were, Sheen said, four "very, very difficult, unhappy years."
"I didn't like myself very much. I was a very miserable man, and I was miserable to be around. My family couldn't live with me, and I don't blame them," he told Duo Syndication Ltd. For three months, he separated from Janet and the children, voluntarily and unhappily. He was depressed to the point of despair.
"It was the craziest I ever felt," Martin told Vanity Fair reporter Stephen Schiff in 1987. "I was really bizarre I was angry. I was ungrounded. I was at sea; I was really adrift . . . I would stop perfect strangers on the street and ask them if they believed in God. It was bizarre behavior." And he got into trouble as a result of it.
"One night, in San Francisco, I tied one on and decided to take this restaurant apart and I wound up in jail," Sheen told Washington Post reporter Tom Zito. He was separated from Janet at the time, had gone on a drinking binge-as he confessed to a Cosmopolitan magazine interviewer-and noticed that his wallet, with several thousand dollars in it, had been lifted. When the police showed up, he took a swing at an officer. That's how he landed in the slammer.
It was, recalled Martin, quite an eye-opening experience. "I'm sitting there with this black woman, who's still trying to get me. to take some aspirin and apple juice for my hangover, thinking I'm really in big trouble now, and I ask her what she's in for. And she says, 'I shot my fella.' Just like that."
He called Janet, and when he confessed about the money, "She was just terrific. She said, 'Forget about the money. The important thing is how you're feeling, if you're all right.' I took a vow not to touch the stuff [alcohol] again. We really love each other. That's what matters."
The couple reconciled. As Sheen told reporter Rena LeBlanc, "She is the best person to ever come into my life and we have never agreed on a thing, never once, and we probably never will. And, for that reason, we always have a lot to say and fight about."
In spite of his emotional turmoil and bizarre behavior, Sheen was disciplined enough to continue to work through that 1977-81 period. He got a chance to return to his hometown of Dayton, Ohio during the filming of the TV docudrama Blind Ambition, and even drove by the National Cash Register building where his father and all his brothers had worked at one time or another. As he told a reporter from the Post, "I used to think that building was so big! They used to show movies there for the kids of the employees, and they'd have a Christmas party every year. Once they gave us each a silver dollar and I kept that big, beautiful dollar for years and years. I used to think that company was so wonderful." Now, Sheen calls his father's employers "bastards", attacking their labor practices.
With the Post reporter, who had landed the plum assignment of hanging out with this guy and shooting the breeze for several days, Sheen drove around in a rented Hornet and took in the local ambiance. The pair stopped off at a fast-food restaurant, and Sheen was appalled at the $2.90 per hour that the countergirl was making. She didn't seem to think the wages were so bad; in fact, she offered Martin an employment application! During breaks in filming, Sheen also stopped off at a local drama workshop. There, at least, the kids had no trouble recognizing the homegrown star.
As the disgraced presidential advisor John Dean in the Watergate saga, Blind Ambition, Martin found himself playing a character who, if not necessarily a goody two-shoes, was at least a nonviolent soul. His portrayal earned him the nomination for a Best Actor Golden Globe award by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Martin's response was typical, a telegram that read: "Many thanks for your kind consideration. I am grateful. Despite the flattery, however, I must respectfully withdraw my name as competition only serves to divide us. I pray you will hold me excused."
In 1980, Sheen made The Final Countdown, costarring with Katharine Ross. She described him at the time as "sort of a pixie. The parts he's played have always been very serious, but he's not like that at all. He's always joking. He's a lot of fun to be around."
On the set, he developed a reputation as a backslapper and prankster, who would unexpectedly break into James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart impressions or a few bars of the Village People'~ disco hit "In the Navy"-a song filled with gay double entendres that drove the sailor extras crazy. It's all just one more facet of a man who calls himself introspective, who says of himself, 'I'm more inclined to wonder what life is all about instead of just enjoying it.',
Actually, Martin's sense of humor is one of the first things people notice about him. And it usually surprises them. His reputation is so studiously somber and his choice of roles so weighty that he just doesn't seem like the kind of man who's going to be smiling when you meet him.
His next role was not likely to change that mistaken impression.
Caste and Crew: India and Elsewhere
The next Landmark movie on Sheen's lengthy list of credits was Gandhi, which had a profound effect on the deepest core of the man within the actor -- not only because of the meaningful nature of the subject, but also as a result of his personal experiences during the filming of the project. Gandhi was Sir Richard Attenborough's long dreamed of biography of a young lawyer's transformation into one of the world's greatest men of peace. The beloved spiritual and political leader of India, Mahndas K. Gandhi, became a powerful twentieth century figure. Attenborough has claimed that when he read Gandhi's biography it totally changed his life. It took him twenty years to begin production on the film, but on November 26, 1980, he watched a Hindu priest bless the camera in a traditional Indian start-of-production blessing.
In Gandhi, Martin played the part of Walker, a composite of several western journalists (notably Louis Fischer, Vincent Sheean, and William Shirer) who followed Gandhi's career during numerous visits to India. Each advocated Gandhi's philosophies long before he was accepted by the world at large. Producer-director Attenborough -- who was knighted in 1979 for his contribution to the British stage and cinema -- picked Martin for the role because, in his opinion, "Sheen is the most exciting actor to emerge from the United States during the past five years."
Martin Sheen was transfixed and transformed by India. "In India," he said, "every sense is assaulted and battered -- literally -- and the spirit, too." And Sheen who emerged from working on this film was a great deal more spiritually connected than the man who first arrived on Attenborough's set. Also, he emerged much more connected with his eldest son, and it was Emilio -- on location as Martin's stand-in -- who was in any ways the conduit to Martin's spiritual rebirth.
"While in India, Emilio helped me in a unique way," Sheen recalled in a Washington Post interview. "He dove into the crowds. I was afraid of the crowds, but he dove in, and I followed... I saw that we were all one, all from the same father. I am in and of this, this mystical body of Christ."
Sheen also found the poverty frightening. "Paticularly the suffering of the children. I was terrified. You'd see children with lice in their hair, skin already shot -- they looked like old people. Their teeth rotten... they had no undergarments. They were filthy all over. They grab hold of your legs, you know, until a crowd gathers... After a while you really have to surrender. And I started doing that, because I started to see in the faces of these children, which I was trying to avoid, my own children. I realized, they are mine. We are all, every one of us, connected.
Unequal distribution of wealth and the oppression of the underclasses has always affected Martin strongly, even in America where the division is subtle compared to many other parts of the world. Imagine his reaction to the juxta-position of such great wealth and such terrible poverty. Emilio, too, was repulsed by the chasm between the haves and have-nots. Once, Martin recalled: "The servants were treated so badly that Emilio was disgusted. Emilio called me into the toilet and said, 'We've got to get out of here.' I said, 'Is it the way they're treating the help?' He said, 'Yes, they don't even see them.' I said, 'Emilio, you must understand, they cannot see the help. If they see the help, they see themselves.'"
Another incident that struck Martin's mind was one he relates to a reporter from Elle magazine. Martin and some of the other members of the film company were granted permission to visit with Mother Teresa. He was excited and rushed back to the hotel to tell Emilio the news. Sheen clamored and stammered about plans to take an overnight train and celebrate early morning mass with the selfless nun, who had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her devotion to the poor.
"Emilio stared at me, half smiling, and asked, 'Why?' And I screamed back, 'Are you joking me? Didn't you read the books I gave you about her?' I shrieked, swearing I was talking to an idiot. Then Emilio, by now laughing at my frenzy, yelled back, 'But why do you want to meet her?' And I hurled back reflexively, 'So I can tell everyone I met her!' Then he smiled and looked back at me.
"I never met her. I really had no business going there anyway. I would have fainted from the poverty and been more of an obstacle for her to deal with. My son taught me that."
Although he was raised a devout Roman Catholic, Sheen had gradually fallen away from the practicing faith. The separation came mainly in his late twenties, when he was more concerned with the injustices of the world around him. "I didn't feel comfortable with Catholicism in the sixties," he said. "The church didn't take a stand in politics... it just wasn't active, wasn't realistic. The church wasn't strong enough to hold on to me."
But the soul-searching that occurred after his heart attack, compounded by what he saw in India, reaffirmed his childhood faith. "I came back from India shaken. Very deeply shaken. And started searching. Asking. Trying to make touch. I became a practicing Catholic once again."
Spiritually it infused Martin Sheen's life. He has meshed his inherited Roman Catholic beliefs with personal experiences that allow him a belief in reincarnation, one that had development long before his work in India. Besides, he pointed out several times, "Until the third or fourth century, the Church believed in it. I find it hard to believe in Adam. We're still in the Garden of Eden. We're still trying to get back to God."
Martin believes that his work as an actor has spiritual basis, too, and that perspective has made it easier to accept his children's career choices. "At first, the idea of them following in my career path bothered me," he said. "I thought of my own experiences. But then I rejoiced. They would find this spiritual life. That's how we find God in ourselves. Creativity is really a manifestation of the spirit, of God's presence in us. And everyone must be creative. Hopefully, we can do that through our work. But we must be creative. It's the conduit to the spirit."
The budget for the epic Gandhi was $22 million. Martin's salary was a $100,000 donation from the film-makers to a charity called Concern, which aids refugees in Third World countries. Similarly, he worked without pay and gave his $5,000 salary back to the producers of the film In the King of Prussia, which told the story of the Ploughshare peace movement.
It was during that project that he mat Father Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest who is an activist for the peace movement in America. And it was just prior to the beginning of that film that Martin lost his brother Michael to a heart attack (he had also lost his mother and another brother to heart attacks). Father Berrigan consoled Martin over his loss, and became his spiritual advisor and teacher.
Sheen also donated his services for the PBS production of No Place To Hide. He said, "I do it because, in my mind, I have no other choice when I feel strongly enough about something."
As his spirituality and social concerns grew, so did Martin's active involvement in political issues. In February of 1982, when Screen Actors Guild president Ed Asner took a stand against American military involvement in Central America, Sheen issued a public letter in several industry trade publications. It read:
"Dear Ed, "I hate to be spending money for this letter as I'm sure we both agree it would be far better spent on the El Salvadoran relief effort. However, attention must also be paid to you personally in this regard. Thank you for accepting the responsibility most of us have conveniently chosen to ignore. I'm proud to call you my president and my only regret is that I am unable to join you and my fellow actors in Washington, D.C., on President's Day.
"Sincerely, Martin Sheen"
That paid advertisement earned Martin a lot of hate mail and even a death threat. But still he joined Asner in collecting funds for medical aid to El Salvador, and the two men have remained close friends.
In a LA Times interview, Sheen was quoted as saying, "I've been warned by a lot of people to keep my views to myself. But on this occasion I had to do what I what I did. I never want the time to come when I look back and feel ashamed. Courage, in my view, is the first virtue."
"Courage leads to other virtues," he expanded on another occasion. "But I've never experienced courage in myself. I've known it in other people; I know it when I see it. What the hardest, most courageous thing to do in any given situation? Usually it amounts to simply telling the truth -- both to yourself, and revealing it when called upon to do so. But basically you do this by your life. You live your courage. I don't qualify for that because if I did I'd probably be in a jail cell somewhere."
Martin Sheen, however, has not flinched from the prospect of going to jail for his beliefs, and there are many who do not flinch at calling him courageous. But no amount of devotion to his causes would keep him too far from his first love: acting.
Among Sheen's favorite projects, 1983's Man, Woman, and Child ranks about third behind Badlands and Apocolypse Now. Based on a novella by Erick Segal (who wrote Love Story), it's the tale of a happily married college professor Bob Beckwith, who is suddenly confronted with the discovery that he has a ten year-old son by a long ago affair with a French woman. After the woman dies in an auto accident, the boy joins Beckwith, his wife, and two daughters (ages thirteen and nine) in the States for a get-aquainted visit. The visit strains Beckwith's marriage and tests everyone's love for each other.
There was an unusal clause in Sheen's contract for this movie. He requested a one-and-a-half-hour lunch break during which he would do Hatha Yoga exercises with an instructor. Having found a health regime when recovering from his heart attack, Martin was not about to backslide He combined good sense with his rediscovered interest in Eastern philiosophies to keep him in balance.
The reborn Catholic had by now comfortably integrated his church with an interest in Indian mysticism, an interest he had developed long before the filming of Gandhi. Sheen has studied at the ashram of Omraam Mikhail Aivanhov and has been healed by Bikram Choudry at The Yoga College of Indic Studies in Beverly Hills. Good health means balance in all areas: mind, body, and spirit. In the Sheen household, there are no cupboards full of junk food; the kitchen is stocked with natural food and vitamins. (Sheen did, however, start smoking again.)
In Stephen King's The Dead Zone for Paramount that same year, Martin played Greg Stillson, a maverick politician who becomes a moral focus for Christopher Walkin's character, Johnny Smith, a young man who has developed eerie pyshic powers during a coma. Burt Lancaster was originally slated for the role, but he had not fully recuperated from open-heart surgery when the film moved into production earlier than first scheduled.
Martin's scenes were filmed at Niagra-on-the-Lake, Canada, in 1983, the population was 12,5000 and the local unemployment rate was 21 percent. When candidate Stillson's outdoor political rally was filmed on the town common, 600 people lined up at 700 am -- right before Christmas -- to apply to be extras. A lucky 250 were chosen. They were patient, but usually freezing, folks either huddled together for two nights at the gazebo shoot or cheered Sheen for a couple of days in support of his character's campaign. Martin was struck by the way that in spite of the Canadian winter temperatures, the extras maintained constant enthusiasm with hardly a complaint.
Sheen became the most popular man in town getting to know the shopkeepers and even the postman. Of his character, he noted that Stillson was the kind of sleazy, immoral, and unprincipiled type of politician he would dedicate himself to defeating.
The following year, Martin made another SKing adaptation, Firestarter. This turned out to be the first time the author and actor met. King remembered the meeting well: "I got down to North Carolina for only two days," he said. "I had dinner with Dino [de Laurentiiis] and Martin and a friend of mine. the thing that I remember about Martin is that he is the most articulate man and the most knowledgeable actor on the subject of politics that I had ever met, with the exception of E.G. Marshall. Of course, the thing with E.G. is that he's pretty right-wing, a very conservative guy. And Martin is a nice counter to that; he's very liberal.
"He knew a lot about the Kennedy's and the Kennedy administration. We talked about apartied in South Africa. He's a very smart and very pleasant man. I was impressed by his intelligence and how many outside interests he has."
Martin played two characters that were born to SKing's imagination: a government agent on the run and a corrupt politician. King found martin's choice of roles interesting. "Martin told me he got a kick out of playing the kind of men he doesn't like. I personally think he deserves an Academy Award nomination for his Greg Stillson portrayal," King said. "There's one scene I had written where Stillson puts on a hard hat and throws out hot dogs to the audience, and gives a real down home, country boy speech. I couldn't imagine Martin Sheen doing it. But he pulled it off beautifully.
While Martin's career commands most of his time, he is always a devoted family man who takes time to be involved with his children's endeavors. Ramon, for instance, earned a small role as a photographer while visiting his dad on The Dead Zone location. Between projects, Martin visits his sons at work whenever he can.
To Martin, his children are more than an obligation or a responsibility or a joy. They are his destiny. As he told Vanity Fair, "We pick our parents and children before birth. It's not an accident. Our children come to us to make up for past life indiscretions... They're holdovers from lifetimes we haven't yet solved. We've been here before. Every lifetime is an attempt to get back to the Father."
The greatest tribute he has made to his children, though, with this simple line: "I love these people as friends."
1984 turned out to be a particularly important one for Martin and Janet as parents. Both of them were extremely supportive when, in June of that year, Emilio made them grandparents for the first time. Although Emilio and the mother, Carey Salley, never wed, the Sheen home and hearts welcomed the baby boy, Taylor Levi. Later, in early December of the same year, Charlie's girlfriend of the time brought the first granddaughter, Cassandra, into the family.
It was also the year that Emilio made his commercial breakthrough in the film Repo Man. Martin would often stop by the set or production offices, offering support and encouragement, but never taking the role of backseat driver. Recalled Emilio's costar, Sy Richardson, "We were hanging out around the office, taking poster pictures for the film. Martin came in looking for Emilio and we just started talking. I'm not the kind of guy who runs up to another actor, introduces myself, and just starts talking. I maintain my space and stay there. But Martin walked right up to me and said, 'Hi. I've seen some of your rushes. You're very good. There are two or three guys in this film that I think will make it to stardom. Sy, and you're one of them.' My lip hit the floor! That really made my day -- made my whole week, actually."
"Martin is one of the nicest guys you could ever want to meet," Richardson added. "he's sweet, easygoing, always telling jokes. No one is a stranger to him... and he's not as intense as you'd expect him to be from his films. Emilio is very intense. What you might expect from Martin, you get from Emilio."
Activist Actor and More
The seeds of Martin Sheen's social conscience were planted in his youth, cultivated through his convictions, and blossomed as a result of his courage. Sheen is not an actor who became a star and then tacked on his name to a convenient cause; he's an activist whose excellence in his profession brings greater attention to the battles he fights for peace and human rights. Today, Martin is involved in the peace movement, the effort toward nuclear disarmament, the rights of the homeless, fighting American aggression in Central America, the struggle against apartied in South Africa, and the AIDS crisis.
Close to Christmas in 1984, Sheen flew to Managua and spent several days in Nicaragua to observe the effects of U.S. involvement in Central America. "When I went, I asked the President [Reagan] permission to wish the people of Nicaragua -- just those i would run into, not even the government, just the people I would meet on my journey -- a Merry Christmas. That's all I asked," Sheen said shortly after his visit.
"I wired the Secretary of State [Schultz] and I made the same request: 'Please, Mr. President, Mr. Secretary of State, allow me to wish the people of Nicaragua a Merry Christmas on your behalf.' And I didn't receive a response." Nor did he get a reply from the National Security Council, Robert MacFarland.
Only after Sheen had returned did he find a letter from presidential advisor Admiral John Poindexter, postmarked "The White House." It included a copy of a speech the President had given to the joint session of Congress, and a history lesson from Admiral Poindexter. "He was very interested in peace in Nicaragua," Sheen remembered of Poindexter's letter, "and it would come if the Sandinistas would stop invading and threatening their neighbors and being such good friends with the Soviets and Cubans; if they would just behave themselves there would be peace."
Sheen was deeply disappointed by the actions and reactions of his elected officials (even though they were individuals he did not personally choose). As he told the LA Reader, "I still wanted to believe that the people that run my government are better than me. I mean, I really want to believe that," he said.
While in Niaragua, Sheen made a statement of solidarity by donating blood through the local Red Cross. "Our American brothers were taking blood, and we wanted to have a sign of giving it back. I gave my blood in the name of my brother, Ronald Reagan."
Martin Sheen has said that he considers Father Daniel Berrigan to be the most courageous person he has everr met. He says he doesn't considered himself very courageous at all. How can he go around, he wondered, "wearing Gucci loafers when I should be in jail for commiting acts of civil disobedience. I've been in jail a few times for misbehaving, and I belonged there, but never for a righteous reason." By now, many of Martin's friends and colleagues in the peace movement had been jailed for their beliefs. He watched as his "brothers" were arrested for attempting to disarm a missile silo.
"Those are the peacemakers the government calls terrorists," said Martin. But "I'm too governed by fear to go to prison. I haven't cooperated with God's grace."
But as time went on, Martin contributed more and more money and effort to his beliefs.
In March of 1987, Martin organized the "Grate American Sleepout" in Washington D.C. Joined by fellow film actors Brian Dennhey and Dennis Quaid, daytime star grant Cramer, and more than a dozen congressmen, Sheen huddled with supporters and street people over two steam vents in front of the Library of Congress. The idea was to share the plight of America's homeless, people who could not find warmth in their city except that which was regurgitated from it's underground tunnels. The demonstration was in support of a bill that would provide $500 million in government relief for these people.
"Our government expropriates $20 million per day in maintaining a useless nuclear arsenal, while less than one percent of the federal budget is spent on low-income housing. The whole world watches while 46 human beings starve to death worldwide every 60 seconds."
On July 7,1987 Sheen was arrested on trespassing charges -- then issued a summons and released -- when he and two dozen other demonstrators protested nuclear weapons at the Riverside Research Institute in NY City. At the time, he told the NY Post: "The death being planned here -- the work on missile accuracy and Star Wars -- is all done in our names. I am here to say 'Not in my name'.
"Thee millions of dollars that will be spent on Star Wars [the Strategic Defense Initiative], a dangerous escalation of the arms race, is theft from the poor. It must be stopped."
On July 15, 1987 a small group of anti-nuclear protestors, including Martin Sheen, gathered at the RAND Corp.'s Santa Monica, CA headquarters. Sheen believed that advanced planning for a potential first strike initiative was being done at the RAND think tank. He told USA Today, "This is a place where the end of the world is planned. We can be creative and we can be destructive and, for the last forty years, we've been destructive."
Sheen was also arrested in early November of that year in Mercury, Nevada at an anti-nuclear demonstration during which protestors spilled nails at the entrance to the Nevada test site, hoping to block entry by vehicles. More than 200 people in all were arrested and charged with misdemeanor trespass. All were released. The demonstration was sponsored by the LA and Las Vegas chapters of the Catholic Worker, a group Martin had first become active in two decades before, and was honoring what would have been the ninetieth birthday of Dorothy Day, who founded a movement to promote peace and help the poor in the thirties.
A few days after his release in NV, Martin was arrested again in DC for trying to interfere with the erection of a fence that was designed to keep the homeless from taking refuge in a subway station near the White House. Sheen and homeless activist Mitch Snyder were charged with unlawful entry.
"The last year has become more intense', said Sheen to a USA Today reporter. "And yet it has been the most rewarding of my life. I hate the srrest, the booking, the dehumanization of the whole judicial process. I'm the biggest coward I know. I feel faint, I want to throw up. But I cannot not be active anymore. I want to be anonymous, but I cannot."
And if his list of causes and participation is not already long enough, Sheen is also actively involved with the Special Olympics, held each June in LA. An event that encourages athletic achievement and physical handicaps, it's one of the only competitions Martin embraces and approves of wholeheartedly.
As Sheen approached what many would consider middle age -- but what was to Martin simply a new era of growth and change -- he continued to attack his career with gusto. Unlike many actors in their prime who refuse to do anything but movies, theater, or specific television projects, Martin continued to do it all. He even did commercials, sometimes simply voice-overs, an radio as well as television. That's Martin Sheen you hear when Michael J. Fox is crawling out the window to fetch a Diet Pepsi for his pretty neighbor. And that's Martin Sheen extolling the virtues of the Toyota Camry racing through the countryside.
Work is work, but when it comes to big-screen portrayal -- a role that would involve is soul -- Martin was at a point where he could choose to play only characters that appealed to his inner sensibilities. He had to find a certain satisfaction, a certain humanity, in the people he portrayed. "You have to be human," he told Hollywood Reporter. "You have to respond to the humanity of the work. Every work will generally reflect some part of who you are, where you are from, what you stand for. No matter what character you play, there's always going to be some sort of personal projection into that character. Some part of yourself is going to come through. That's what makes it so worthwhile."
Despite the recognized quality of his work in all areas, Sheen still refused to accept any involvement in acting awards. In 1985 he received another Emmy nomination, this time for a supporting role in The Atlanta Child Murders. One more time he requested that the Academy of Television of Arts and Sciences remove his name from the ballot; the program producers had entered it without his knowledge. The Academy granted his request.
"Competition in the arts," he stressed yet again, "is really at odds with what you're trying to do. It takes a group of people, a community of people, to present anything in the preforming arts. You can't do it on your own. Picking a specific person divides them from the effort it takes to be successful."
It was during this period that Martin watched not one but two of his sons mature as actors and even stars. But he is sensitive to the harsh glare of the spotlight, and loathe to see his children endure the transition form "actor" to "celebrity." "When Charlie became so popular in the wake of Platoon," said Martin, "We're delighted for him. But that much success for anyone is not healthy... It's madness for him right now. You want to go someplace with him? It's a public gathering. My heart goes out to him."
"I have to confess that I advised Charlie not to do Platoon. It was just so violent, and there was no heroism. I had no doubt that he would be successful, but I thought it would take ten or twelve years." Likewise, he said, "I was pleased that Emilio chose a creative profession, but saddened because I knew the pain he was in for... the pain of exposing yourself -- to do in public what everyone else does private. For a while, it seemed he would go to college and study forestry. But he decided to become an actor, and went after that in a very focused and concrete way."
Martin's work in acting continued, and in 1986 brought him a chance to fuse his sociopolitical and acting instincts in the television movie Samaritan, a biography of the homeless activist in whose company Sheen would later be arrested. Mitch Snyder was so devoted to the cause of the homeless that he had recently fasted for a total of 84 days to dramatize their plight.
"Of all the people in my life that I have envied -- and there are just a handful of them -- Mitch Snyder is one,"said Martin. "He is in full possession of his soul, which is what I would like to be in possession of. I'm sure all of us would. He has transcended the image of what it means to be a person -- to really be a person."
It was also in 1986 that Martin won an Emmy -- no doubt having been too distracted to withdraw his name in time. Or perhaps it was because this was both a departure and a homecoming for him; the award was for directing, not acting, and one of the young actors he was directing was his daughter, Renee. The project was an ABC Afterschool Special ca..ed Babies Having Babies, Renee played a teenage unwed mother. (It was pure coincidence that at the same time, Carey Salley was giving birth to Emilio's youngest -- and Martin's third grandchild -- Paloma Estevez.)
By 1987, Martin Sheen was able to enjoy the left-handed compliment of being recognized as "Charlie and Emilio's dad." Where once both boys were indentified in print as being sired by Sheen, now it seemed that their fame was eclipsing his own -- which was fine as far as he was concerned, since he had worked happily at the top of his profession for two decades without ever requiring "household name" status to satisfy him.
When Martin made The Believers for director John Schlesinger in 1987, the first thing moviegoers would exclaim was "He looks just like his kids! And he's so young!" Martin, 47 at the time, was able to convincingly play the father of a grade-schooler; it goes to show that a healthy regimen does work.
The Believers cast Sheen as Cal Jamison, psychologist who gets caught up in a police investigation involving pagan ritual, murder, and madness. Martin was in London working on the play The Normal Heart at the Royal Court Theater when producer-director Schelsinger visited him backstage. Sheen found it easy to relate to the character of Jamison because, "like him, I'm a Roman Catholic, a concerned father, someone who respects the beliefs of others -- but dismisses the supernatural."
In preparation for his role, he went to the library and read books about Senteria, an obscure religion that blends Catholicism and the Yoruban faith of Nigeria. Historically, as slaves adapted to their new lives in Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica, and Central America, they combined the gods of their ancestors with the saints of their Catholic masters. It was that link to Catholicism that fascinated Sheen.
Martin also took time to conduct long conversations with a psychiatric service doctor who specialized in the mental pressures of dangerous occupations, like police work. "I wasn't attempting to become Cal Jamison," he told reporters. "I tend to work the other way around. I was trying to find him in me."
From an actor's point of view, The Believers could not have been more challenging; Martin's emotions ranged from grief, shock, and terror to rage, compassion, tenderness and courage. The Believers, however, was in many ways too much of a roller-coaster ride to achieve widespread popularity. Said movie reviewer Leonard Maltin, "This well-crafted film knows how to manipulate its audience, but shows no mercy, either."
His next major role again gave Martin the chance to play a character with whom he could feel empathy. As the father -- and conscience -- of wheeler-dealer Bud Fox in Wall Street, he played a working-class hero and got to be dad to his own son, Charlie. Wall Street reunited Charlie Sheen and director Oliver Stone, and gave a big chunk of the spotlight to a member of yet another Hollywood dynasty: Michael Douglas, who was deliciously demonic as the power-hungry Gordon Gekko. Joe Fox, the union man who understood what it meant to work with his hands, served as a Greek chorus to the money-grubbing paper-shufflers of the stock exchange.
"The rich have been doing it to the poor since the beginning of time," said Martin, a line both in character and from the man. "The only difference between the pyramids and the Empire State Building is that the Egyptians didn't have unions."
wall Street did not earn either the money or the respect that Stone's Platoon had, but it was worthwhile for Martin because it gave him the opportunity to work with Charlie. And he found it possible to get involved with his kin off-camera, too. It was while hhe was shotting wall Street that Martin was involved in that demonstration outside the Riverside Research Institute, and Charlie came along. Charlie, however, stayed far enoughh away from the action to avoid arrest.
The younger Sheen told journalist Tom Green that his father actually requested that he get arrested in the incident, too, but Charlie didn't feel it was appropriate. "I said, 'No, but I'll come down there with you.' I walked him to the paddy wagon and met him at the station. I was right there for him.
"I understand basically what he's out there for," continued Charlie, "but he's ggone far beyond the surface of things. He's into the deeper stages. And I don't want to get caught with my foot in my mouth."
Charlie and Emilio both received from their father a legacy not only of talent and self-expression, buut of philosophy and social conscience that will become woven into the fabric of their futures. And both of them are being escalated onto a plateau of visibility so high and so fast that, when each gets in touch with his innnermost beliefs -- as happened to their father inn his late thirties -- the result will surely be explosive.