A collaboration between an actor who played John Dean and a director
whose credits include a no-holds-barred attack on Richard Nixon seems
like a natural.So it should come as no surprise that Martin Sheen
(Blind Ambition) and Emile de Antonio (Milhouse: A Whtie Comedy) have
joined forces on a new film, In the King of Prussia. The title refers
to a small town in Pennsylvainia where an act of civil disobedience
by activist priests Daniel and Phillip Berrigan led to a controversial
and heated trial. the film, a mixture of reenactment and documentary
footage, premiered last month at a benefit screening in Minneapolis;
it features the Berrigan brothers, playing themselves, and Sheen,
playing the stiff-backed judge that presided over their trial.
De Antonio and Sheen formed a friendship during the filming, and earlier this year, while Sheen was starring in a stage production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in Florida, the director interviewed him for American Film. Sheen, a forthright and unusually principled man, talks here about his expreiences with Francis Coppola during the filming of Apocolypse Now, his reaction to working on a location in India for his new film Gandhi, and his early days as a sometime actor down and out in New York.
Emile de Antonio: Several years ago, your career was at a kind of
crossroads. Although you'd suffered a heart attack while filming
Apocolypse Now, the film was an enormous success and your performance
was praised by many of the critics. Most actors would have negotiated
a three-picture deal for four million dollars --
Martin Sheen: I had those opportunites.
De Antonio: But instead you went to India to play a relatively small
role in Gandhi. I think my job here is to be mundane. How much did you
get paid for the Gandhi film?
Sheen: You better turn off the machine.
De Antonio: Why?
Sheen: Because many other actors would be offended by how much I made
for so little time. My salary was $200,000. That's a lot for three weeks'
work. But I'll tell you something. I really did it for nothing. Money
had no part in it. The producing company donated my salary.
De Antonio: To whom?
Sheen: I said that the donations had to be made in the memory of
Gandhi: to Mother Teresa and her work in Calcutta; to the Quakers who
put Gandhi up when he came to London; to Concern, an Irish group
founded at the time of the Biafra famines. Wherever there are starving
people, you'll find Concern. How can you make money off Gandhi?
De Antonio: I was in India a few years ago. The New Delhi festival
invited me for a retrospective of my films. I was in a Hilton-type hotel
and I saw people die in the streets.
Sheen: Every sense is assaulted; hearing, seeing, touching are all so
assaulted that you're frightened by it, but you can't hide. I surrendered
to it totally.
De Antonio: Tell me about the surrender.
Sheen: One day several groups of beggars from a temple surrounded us;
one was a little girl with one arm who presented herself to us: "No
mommy, no daddy, no food." we said, yes, and threw a few coins. We got
into a cab and drove off. When I looked back, she was hanging on the
bumper in heavy traffic. She was risking her life. And I thought:
What would my wife Janet do in this situation? That's when it sparked.
I said to hell with it. We put them inside the cab; we took them wherever
De Antonio: Who is we?
Sheen: My son Emilio and I. They were covered with lice, had no undergarments,
they were filthy all over, skinny, starving, rotten teeth, eyes bloodshot.
Then I began to see my own children in these babies. They were my children.
We took them and embraced them and tried to make contact with them.
That was really the start of it, the physical level. You just surrendered.
De Antonio:I agree. There was no choice. I made the other one. Most do.
Sheen: Movies are a big deal over in India, and so are movie stars.
They can't go anywhere without guards. One of them invited us to a party.
He treated his servants so that Emilio was digusted. 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 see even them."
I said,"Emilio, you have to understand, they cannot see the help. If they
see the help, they see themselves."
De Antonio: You were raised a Catholic, weren't you?
Sheen: Yes. I practiced Catholicism very faithfully, until my early twenties.
I gradually lost the practice of my religion. I don't know how. It
wasn't a sudden thing; it was a deterioration. I didn't feel comfortable
with Catholicism in the sixties.
De Antonio: Why?
Sheen: A lot was happening in the world in the sixties, and the church,
except for the fringe groups like the Catholic Action people, was
status quo. The church did not seem to take a stand on the war in Vietnam.
As far as I could see, the church just wasn't active, it wasn't realistic,
it was a participant in what was going on. The church wasn't strong
enough to hold me. I wouldn't go near a church. I was a fallen-away Catholic.
De Antonio: But I notice you now go to mass, you're now close to the
Berrigans. What brought you back?
Sheen: It was a long, bumpy road that started in the Philippines
during Apocolypse Now. It started on March 5, 1977, when I had the
heart attack. I nearly died. I had the last rites.
De Antonio: What caused the heart attack?
Sheen: I call it fragmentation. There was a lot of responsibility on me
that I was unable to carry. I was divided spiritually. I was almost
nonexistent, not in touch with my spirit at all. I was not in command
of my own life.
De Antonio: Was the opening sequence shot before the heart attack?
Sheen: yes. That was shot on my thirty-sixth birthday, August 3, 1976.
Frankly, 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 screen. Francis didn't want me to do it, but I insisted. I said
"There is something here I need to investigate." He put two cameras up
and and said "Whenever you want to quit, just say it." He was very compassionate,
very sweet, and at the same time protective. He asked, "What is it you want to do?"
I said I didn't know, and he said, "I'll go along with that. Fine. OK"
&nbbsp; I was a raving lunatic. Joe Lowery, a Vietnam veteran and friend, was teaching me hand-to-hand --- karate and judo. He explained that the best way to train if by yourself is in front of a mirror, because nothing is faster than your own reflection. I was in front of a mirror. I made a chop; I was too close; I hit it and cut myself and Francis yelled, "Cut!" And I said, "No, Keep rolling." And he said, "No, you're bleeding," and I said, "Yes, I know, let's go on; I'm not hurt, I want to explore this."
He held the footage in the Philippines for a long time. He finally said, "You must see this footage. I don't want to use it unless you see it." And I said, "No, I can't look at it; it's a part of myself I'm not able to look at; I'm not ablle to deal with it." Francis said "I don't want you to be surprisedd or embarrassed." I said, "Look we're dealing with a guy here who's in a very bad way. This could be useful to the film." He offered to show it to me after he cut it, but I refused. The first time I ever saw it was in the theater.
De Antonio: It seems to me that Francis made your character and it's
complexities clear enough, but Brando's motives weren't so well
delineated. You told me once that you felt Brando's contribution to
the film was comprimised by the editing.
Sheen: Yes. There were two major sequences with Marlon cut from the
film. Extraordinary stuff was shot which revealed who he was, how he
came to be there. In one scene, he had me in a tigar cage next to two
North Vietnamese regular-army prisoners. He needed information. He
spoke to the guards in French and asked them if they had the information.
One of the gaurds said no. The camera came in close on me as he drew a
revolver and shot one Vietnamese in the head and part of his head flew
into my cage. He then attacked me for being horrified. he asked me
how you can win a war without hurting the enemy, how you can seize a
military objective without killing people. That's what he was trained
for. We ended by screaming at each other. His conclusion was: You get
information any way you can. The man he killed had become his enemy.
The Green Berets spoke of the Vietcong as "Kong," big and powerful.
They believed the only way you could whip him was to become like him
and Marlon's character was doing that. The candy-ass generals in Saigon
and Washington were so appalled they wanted to liquidate him.
De Antonio: In the released film Brando's character was one-sided; he was easy to hate.
Sheen: Well, the entire French sequence was left out. The Michelin
tire plantation had been reconstructed, and a whole French cast was
brought from Paris. The French invite us to dinner in their mansion,
and the patriarch complains and grumbles. The old man talks about how the
politicians in Paris sold the army out, how Premier Mendes-France abandoned
the French position in Southeast Asia. He blames student rioting and the
civilians for the loss of Dien Bien Phu. It was central and Marlon was
wonderful, Francis is so good when he deals with family, when he deals
I got to know Marlon during the those weeks of shooting; he lived near us and he often came down to supper. he liked Janet. Janet had gotten him grains, oatmeal, and so on, food that wouldn't make you sick. She had forty cases of Perrier sent over, and it saved a lot of problems for marlon. He used to send her flowers every day.
Janet was really the truth during all of this. I was caught between the part and my responsibility as a father, husband, and lover. I had to deal with two different things every day, my day at work and my day at home. Janet became an enemy to the producing company. They didn't like her; she was radical, she objected to everything. She was the only one --- I didn't realize it at the time -- who had my whole being at heart. She never did let up, never once did give in. She said to them, "No, you can't see him. I don't give a damn. I don't want you to bother him. Get the hell out of here. I don't give a damn who you are." As long as I live, I'll never forget, when I was being wheeled down to the emergency room, that she took my hand and she said; "It's only a movie, babe." And then I started getting well. She stood between them and me.
De Antonio: I have been close to death, but nothing became cleaer. I learned very little.
Sheen: Well, I was dealing with the spirit, and I didn't know how to
handle it. It was bigger than I was, stronger than I was. There was a
sign given to me in the Philippines, I was smote. I floated on the
water and said goodbye to the mainland. I was gone and I decided to
come back because I ahd work to do. I wasn't frightened. death doesn't
frighten me anymore. I knew that the spirit moved me to get my
attention, to save my own soul.
De Antonio: How many children were there in your family? Did it have any signifigance?
Sheen: It did. There were ten children. Both parents were immigrants,
my father from Spain, my mother from Ireland. At first, they wouldn't
let my dad in, because the Spanish-American War had been newly fought
and Spainards weren't highly thought of, so he went to Cuba and worked
a couple of years in the sugarcane fields. My mother was sent to
America for safety because her father and brothers were deeply
involved with the IRa and "the troubles." They met in a citizenship
school in Dayton, Ohio. I was born there; my mother had twelve
pregnancies. I was the seventh son to survive.
De Antonio: Were you raised under a name other than Sheen?
Sheen: Ramon Estevez was my name. My father's first name was Francesco.
He was a very small man and very handsome. He had a beautiful, slendar
face, not a wrinkle. He still had the face of a boy when he died. He
never uttered a word in public; he called clerks and waiters and
everyone "sir." He had an explosive temper. I loved him. Pop's way
of looking at the world was you either work for a living or you were
a thief. He always paid for his bills cash on the barrelhead, went
right to the source; if it were the electric company, he went right
to the electric company, paid cash, and got the receipt.
I adored my mother. I didn't know her well, but I remember her well, speaking English with a thick brogue. She was very small, very heavy; she sang a lot of songs. She taught us a lot of old Irish songs, communicated with the old country as my father did, had a lot of ties there.
De Antonio: Did you go to high school in Dayton?
Sheen: I went to Chaminade, a school run by the Martinist fathers. Actually, I
didn't graduate. I flunked out, because I didn't give a damn about
school. I got very serious about what I wanted to do. I made up my
mind in my senior year that I was going to be an actor. I was going
to go to New York. and work on the stage and that was going to
be my life. I was very happy and relieved that I had made that
decision and was going to stick to it. I remember going through senior year staring out the window,
watching the B&O take off for New York.
De Antonio: Had you had any acting experience before?
Sheen: High school plays. One of the biggest disappointments was that
I never played the leading man.They went to the football players.
They always counted on me to play the difficult chharacter roles.
And there was "The Rising Generation" on Dayton television; it was based
on "Ted Mack's original Amatuer Hour." People would write in postcards to vote for the contestants.
In my audition I read poems and Scripture. I won. I came back and won
again. Part of the prize was a trip to New York and a CBS audition.
Robert Dale Martin, the casting director at CBS (that's where I took
my name), was very encouraging. I knew I had to go back to New York
but I didn't have any money. Our assisstant pastor, a very young
priest, Father Alfred Drapps, loaned me a couple hundred dollars, and
I arrived in New York on February 1, 1959, I worked for American
Express as a stock boy; I would go out for readings and auditions during the day.
De Antonio: Didn't you join the Living Theater?
Sheen: I was fired by American Express. They should have fired me
months earlier, because I was never there. I belonged to a group
called the Actor's Co-op with Barbara Streisand and a few others
who went on to have big careers. We chipped in a few dollars each a month
to rent a loft next to the old Madison Square Gardens, and do showcases and invite agents.
And then Judith Malina and Julian Beck asked me if I would be
interested in working at the Living Theater. I became a curtain
puller and propman and spent two years there.
De Antonio: So were you a poor young man doing all kinds of odd jobs?
Sheen: I have gone broke a lot of times in my life, a great many times,
but I never have been poor, never. I learned that very early. I was
never afraid of not having money in New York; there is something in
that town that teaches you about survival.
My son Ramon was born on Staten Island; in fact, I delievered him. Janet gave birth in the livingroom. It was foolish. We were just a couple of kids. It was a big risk; we shouldn't have done it; we were lucky. He was very large, and Janet hemmoraged, no doctor, nothing. I panicked, I took the to the hospital in fright, and on my way back I'll never forget the headlines --- Mrs. Kennedy had lost her baby the same day. Right after that, Joe Papp called me, called me by my real name, Ramon, and he said, "Ramon, I want you to do a play for me." It was Antony and Cleopatra, with Coleen Dewhurst. But then I got another break. I went to Joe and said, "Hey, I got a chance to do this television thing, I could be back here for rehearsal." he said, "No. You either work for me or you work for someone else. You can't do both." I said, "You're kidding." We had a terrible argument, and he fired me.
We're now in 1964 and I was on Broadway in The Subject Was Roses. Frank Gilroy, the autor, had all his friends in hock; they all invested in the play. It opened May 25, 1964, at the Royale Theater, at the end of the season. We had the theater for a cheaper price, because no other play was booked that summer, and he won the triple crown [Pulitzer prize, Tony award and New York drama critics Circle award]. It was an amazing success.
De Antonio: Didn't you do some work in television before The
Subject Was Roses?
Sheen: Yes. I played in "The Outter Limits." That was my first job in
Hollywood. I also did "My Three Sons," with Fred MacMurray. You had
to shoot his stuff first; you'd shoot all the scenes with Fred and
then he'd disappear. I worked with Fred for two days and had to come
back two months later. In the meantime, I went back to New York to do
"The Defenders"; we were on the set when John F. Kennedy was
assassinated. I had to go back to Hollywood to finishe "My Three Sons."
I was afraid to fly, so I went by Greyhound. One thing stuck in my
heart forever: Crossing the great desert, I saw a black and white
sign that said simply "We mourn him."
De Antonio: A lot of people feel television destroys an actor.
Sheen: Yeah. It stunted me, but it hasn't destroyed me. It's one of
the worst things that can happen to you, to become a successful
television actor. You're popular, but it really stunts your growth.
De Antonio: television does nothing close to Badlands. It's a masterpiece.
Sheen: It's the best thing I've ever done. I saw it again last year
in France, and when I looked at it I realized I wouldn't touch a frame.
It's the only thing I've done in my life that I'm entirely proud of.
De Antonio: In the King of Prussia was a turnaround experience
me. Spending weeks with the Plowshares Eight and Dan and Phil Berrigan
subverted all the beliefs and nonbeliefs I've ever had. I'm a lifetime
materialist. I never once thought about God except in books, as study.
Now I do. I was astounded by your commitment. I was worried. You
insisted on wearing your jacket under the jugde's robes. The temperature
was over 120 on the set. I thought we'd never be able to get through it all.
Sheen: Well, I wrote to you after the shoot and thanked you for allowing
me to come as close to bravery as I'd ever get. I remember the first time I saw
Dan and Phil at a news conference, and the reporters said, "Well, it's OK,
Father, you're on your way to jail again. What do you expect of us?
We have children. What's going to happen to them if we go to jail?" And Danny said,
"What's going to happen to them if you don't?" It's another step when you
bring spirit and politics together. That was Gandhi's belief. He didn't see
any difference, because if something isn't right, it's wrong.
All these people have the courage of their convictions, a willingness to take risks. You have to deal with the simplest ingredient in your life, the truth. Gandhi starts his autobiography, "I can't tell you about my life. I can only tell you my experiments with the truth." That's what Dan does in In the King of Prussia when he describes his life.
De Antonio: What do you have in mind for the future?
Sheen: I don't know; jobs come to me from all sorts of directions,
primarily from television, which I mainly do for financial reasons.
I find myself in a very strange position; I don't really have the
entree into the studios. I couldn't tell you who any of the heads
are anywhere except for Barry Diller. Consequently, I don't get many film scripts.
I have not recently been considered for a major role in a major film
by a major director, and it frees me from the image career, because
very often actors get hung up on the image of their career. It frees
me to do films like your own; it frees me politically.
De Antonio: Do you think you've learned most of what you've done in film from
yourself or from other people?
Sheen: If you're going to do something "important" in film, I think
you have to be aware of the people you're dealing with. Frankly, I've worked
with three directors whom I consider important: Terrence Malick, Francis Coppola, and Emile de Antonio.
De Antonio: Hey, we can't put that in!
[Tape runs out]
(American Film --- December 1982)
(contributed by Amy)