Hail to the Chief: The West Wing's Martin Sheen
By David Martindale
Millions of Americans adore Martin Sheen as
a pretend president in television's acclaimed drama The West Wing.
Hail to the Chief: The West Wing's Martin Sheen
By David Martindale
Millions of Americans adore Martin Sheen as a pretend president in television's
acclaimed drama The West Wing. They might even say, as his co-star Allison Janney did not long ago, "Wouldn't it be
something if Martin Sheen could be our president in real life?" But, of course, the actor wouldn't have a snowball's chance
of getting elected. In this era of stay-in-the-middle, try-not-to-offend politics, his liberal, pacifist philosophy and his
shoot-from-the-lip style would be major liabilities.
But more important, the actor who portrays President Josiah Bartlet, insists
he's not the man for the job--and likely never will be. In fact, when invited to become a candidate in 1996, he said thanks,
but no thanks.
"The Green Party asked me if Id be interested in running with Ralph Nader," Sheen
explains. "I was flattered, since I believed in their whole platform, particularly with the environment, human rights, and
education and health care. But I don't have the kind of intelligence or the makeup to be a president."
But Sheen's real reason for declining might have more to do with his unwillingness
to leave a career he dearly cherishes. Sheen has acted in so many feature films and TV movies that even he has lost count.
"I have no memory of not being an actor," he says. Before The West Wing he was best known for intense yet vulnerable
performances in such movies as Apocalypse Now, Badlands, and The Execution of Private Slovik--and, of
course, for being the father of actors Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez.
As a far-left-leaning weekend activist, he has voluntarily been incarcerated
more than 60 times for participation in protests involving such causes as nuclear disarmament and support of unionized farm
workers. During the recent election season, his celebrity status gave him a bully pulpit to endorse liberal Democratic candidates,
to condemn gun lobbies, and to slam Hollywood's penchant for what he calls "sleaze and gratuitous sex and unnecessary violence."
Although passionate about a number of causes, would he give up acting altogether
to fight for them as a public servant? Don't count on it.
"All my life, I knew exactly what I wanted to do," Sheen says. "I left home at
18 and came to New York and started the adventure. It's still going on and I love it now even more than when I started. I'm
Martin Sheen began his life as Ramon Estevez on August 3, 1940. He was born and
raised in Dayton, Ohio, the seventh of 10 children born of immigrants Francisco (who came from Spain, by way of Cuba) and
Mary Ann (who was Irish). It was a poor but close-knit Catholic family that made do on Francisco's salary as an inspector
for the National Cash Register company.
As a child, Ramon dreamed of becoming a professional golfer, but fell in love
with acting after performing a three-line part in a high-school production of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.
"I didn't know, when I was a child, how to identify with what I felt inside until
I started going to movies," recalls Sheen, a fan of Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and James Dean. "Then I realized I was
part of that community and I rejoiced."
Francisco urged his son to get an education at the University of Dayton, but
Ramon had other ideas. He deliberately failed his college entrance exams, then headed to New York with a few hundred dollars
borrowed from his parish priests.
He arrived in New York on February 1, 1959, and found work as a curtain puller
and propman at the Living Theatre--the avant-garde off-off-Broadway playhouse where he met his wife, Janet. (They married
in December 1961 and, nearly 40 years later, are still together.) After five years of toiling, he made his Broadway debut
in Never Live Over a Pretzel Factory in March 1964. It closed after one week, but he followed it with a breakthrough
Tony-nominated performance in The Subject Was Roses a few months later.
By this time, Ramon Estevez had become Martin Sheen. "In New York, when I called
up for a job or an apartment," he explains, "I would give my name and they would always have that silence or that hesitation.
They would think that I was Puerto Rican. I had enough problems trying to get a job as an actor. So I removed myself from
He took the name Martin in tribute to CBS casting director Robert Dale Martin,
who had been good to him, and Sheen from Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, host of the 1950s religious program Life Is Worth Living.
"Within my heart," the actor also points out, "I'm still Ramon."
Its worth noting that Sheens children--sons Ramon, Emilio, and Carlos and daughter
Renee--all grew up with the surname Estevez and that Carlos didn't become Charlie Sheen until the launch of his film career
Sheen started doing television in the early '60s, often playing the part of a
street punk or moody misfit, and graduated to feature film roles later in the decade.
But it wasn't until Badlands (the 1973 cult film in which Sheen and Sissy
Spacek played young lovers on a bloody murder spree across the American Northwest) and The Execution of Private Slovik
(the '74 TV movie in which Sheen portrayed a World War II U.S. serviceman facing a firing squad for desertion) that the actor
really turned heads.
Then came the role that defined Sheen's early career: Captain Willard in Apocalypse
Now (1979). Portraying a Special Services officer sent to assassinate Marlon Brando's renegade Green Beret colonel, Sheen
gave a brilliant performance that literally almost cost him his life. He suffered a heart attack on March 5, 1977, during
18 brutal months of filming in Philippine jungles. He was so near death that he was given last rites.
When he reflects on the experience, Sheen describes it as "life changing," as
"the beginning of a rebirth." "I wouldn't want to repeat the experience, knowing what was coming, but I wouldn't change it
The scare, after all, made him recognize the waste of his hell-raising lifestyle
(booze, cigarettes, and gambling) and his obsessive drive to succeed--lessons that haven't been easy to impart to his sons,
particularly the wild-living Charlie.
But in the two decades since Apocalypse Now, Sheen has worked steadily--frequently
appearing in mediocre films but never delivering inferior performances--while channeling his rebellious side into political
Among his career highlights: the 1983 miniseries Kennedy, for which he
received a Golden Globe nomination, Wall Street (1987), Da (1988), and The American President (1995),
which introduced him to The West Wing creator/executive producer Aaron Sorkin.
Sorkin originally envisioned President Bartlet as a character rarely, if ever,
seen. However, once he realized his drama would need an on camera president, he quickly turned to Sheen, an actor he knew
to have a commanding presence. It wasn't long before Bartlet became the show's central character, thanks largely to a scene-stealing
performance by Sheen near the end of the premiere episode.
Sheen was nominated for a Best Actor Emmy, but showed no disappointment when
the award went to James Gandolfini of The Sopranos. Instead, he found satisfaction in The West Wing's triumph
as Best Series. "James was selected MVP, but we won the game. That's the most important thing," he says.
Even though Sheen claims he is not presidential material, it's only natural that
the leader of the TV free world would have a hypothetical campaign strategy. The centerpiece of his platform? Nonviolence.
"If we put as many people into conflict resolution to solve problems as we do
[into the] military to solve problems, we would have a whole different point of view on the world and ourselves," he says.
As Sheen sees it, that applies not only on a global scale, but also in terms
of domestic gun control.
"We have to question our values as parents and citizens when our children are
armed and dangerous.... Breathing clear air is fundamental to life, not owning a gun."
Clearly, not all Americans would find this philosophy palatable. And if it cost
him an election, well, so be it. "The truth has got to cost you something," he says. "It's got to mean something personal."
Yet it's not uncommon these days to hear The West Wing fans pine for a president like Josiah Bartlet. Perhaps it's
less a comment about Sheen's activism than a testament to the show's ability to uplift viewers in an era of political cynicism.
It's also the ultimate compliment for an actor's performance.
"I do actually think of Martin as the President whenever I'm on the set with
him," says Janney, an Emmy winner as The West Wing press secretary C.J. Cregg. "He has taken on this role so completely
that he is President, as far as I'm concerned. He is so wonderful."
Adds John Amos, who worked opposite Sheen on The West Wing as Admiral
Fitzwallace, chairman of the President's joint chiefs of staff, "He wouldn't be the worst president we've ever had, just by
virtue of the character he brings his everyday role as a human being. Not everyone will agree with his political views, of
course, but he's one of the finest men I've ever had the pleasure of meeting."
And Tim Matheson, who portrays The West Wings Vice President John Hoynes,
offers this glowing endorsement: "I love doing that show. As an actor, the only thing better than getting to do dialog written
by Aaron Sorkin is getting to do it with Martin Sheen. He is such a generous actor."
Sheen's colleagues lavish him with similar praise, calling him a team player
and an unselfish actor. Amos recalls an incident that illustrates Sheen's famous generosity particularly well:
"Most of my scenes with Mr. Sheen took place in the Situation Room," he explains.
"We had an actor in one of the scenes who, God help him, was having a horrible time with the script. There was so much military
jargon for him to say and he was getting things twisted and leaving lines out--and after about the ninth take, you could see
he was becoming increasingly flustered.
"That's when Martin took the actors dialog and pasted it to his chest. I mean,
the man's lines, literally pasted to Martin Sheen's chest! So whenever the camera was on the actor and all you could see of
Martin Sheen was his back, the dialog was there, pasted on his chest for the actor to refer to. "It's one of the most gracious
things I've ever seen an actor do for another actor. Instead of losing his patience, he created a feeling of relaxation that
allowed the work to proceed.
"That's the reason Martin Sheen is regarded as an actor's actor, as a consummate
professional, and as a thoughtful man."
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