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Acting President, Tireless Activist
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Martin Sheen: Acting President, Tireless Activist
Mon, Dec 16, 2002 12:23 PM PDT

by Jacqueline Cutler

At a formal affair, where well-heeled men and women sip cocktails on a balcony, Martin Sheen is disheveled, looking more like someone who would be tossed out of the Oval Office than like President Josiah Bartlet on NBC's "The West Wing".

Sheen confides that he "borrowed the suit from work." The tails of the once-ironed shirt hang free over expensive pants, his tie is askew, and his hair looks as if it were combed with a rake.

At 62, he has a reinvigorated career. "At this point in my life, if anyone had told me that I would be doing this show and in the position I am right now, I wouldn't have believed it," Sheen says. "I have never been happier in my life or more satisfied with my career or work, and the people I work with, or the woman I am married to. She is my trophy wife of 41 years."

He tucks into a plate of ribs in the privacy of his Winnebago on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank. Grandson Taylor, Sheen's assistant for two years, lovingly teases him, saying part of his job is "keeping dessert away from him."

Sheen relishes having family around. He was one of 10 children, reared by an Irish mother and Spanish father in Dayton, Ohio. He was 11 when his mother died, and he had already been working for two years.

"I caddied until I left home," Sheen says. "It has stood me very well because as a child I got to see the difference in our culture, in our society, between the haves and the have-nots. I was part of the labor force that served the rich. To this day, I cannot belong to a private club. I would love to belong to a club, but for me personally, it would be immoral because I know better."

When Sheen wants to take the golf clubs out of his trunk, which also holds a basketball, he opts for a public course, where he carries his own bag.

Just as he learned early how the class system works, he learned even earlier where he fit in. "Children have a knowingness about themselves," he says. "They don't have the language to express it. They know something about themselves that projects them into the future. It was the same for me. I had this absolute assurance, this knowingness about myself, and I didn't quite know until I started going to the movies. I was 6 or 7, and I thought, 'I can do that. I am one of them.' There was never any question about it the rest of my life."

That conviction sustained him when he arrived in New York on Feb. 1, 1959, with a couple of hundred dollars. As an aspiring actor, he slept in subways and took odd jobs. He was a soda jerk in the Bronx and a stock boy at American Express. He worked at a small theater company, learning the essentials of production, and stood on soup lines for his dinner. Yet he never considered giving up.

During the lean years, Sheen met Janet Templeton, an art student. "We didn't hit it off," Sheen says with a hearty laugh. "She didn't care for me. I pursued her and I knew if I could get her to see me [in a play], she would be chasing me, and that is exactly what happened."

They married in December 1961, and a year later, their son Emilio was born. In August 1963, the Sheens delivered their son Ramon in their Staten Island living room. "I was so stupid," Sheen says. "I had never seen a baby born before. I thought the placenta was his twin."

All four of Sheen's children -- Emilio, Ramon and Renee Estevez and Charlie Sheen -- are actors. Three of the children use their father's original surname, which he changed to land roles. "The only regret I have about having four children is not having four more," Sheen says.

During the movie successes and his near-fatal heart attack while filming 1979's "Apocalypse Now," Janet has been by his side. Sheen says there is no grand secret to their long marriage. "The bottom line is loving one another and being able to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth to each other, and trusting that as long as you love one another and help one another to become yourselves, you will be fine," he says.

Sheen speaks with the same conviction about fighting for social justice. He had a spiritual reawakening on May Day 1981 that led him back to the Roman Catholic Church.

"I had gone to India to do a small part in 'Gandhi,' and although I had been in Third World countries before, this was the worst poverty I had ever seen," Sheen says. "It had a profound effect on me. Gandhi said the worst violence is poverty. I had to find a way to bond the will of the spirit to the work of the flesh. It seemed appropriate to rejoin the church. I came back out of love, surrender and freedom."

He was deeply influenced by the Berrigan brothers, the activist priests whose church he joined. His first arrest came during a protest with the Rev. Dan Berrigan against the "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative in 1986. In all, he has been arrested for civil disobedience 64 times. Sheen is on probation and cannot get arrested without risking a prison sentence.

"If you ever see Martin arrested and in handcuffs, you can rest assured that 'West Wing' has been canceled; you just don't know about it yet," co-star Rob Lowe says. "The thing that is so sweet about Martin now are the pains he goes through to not get arrested." Lowe, who has been friends with Emilio for years, regards Sheen as a second father.

"I couldn't be happier for him," Lowe says. "He is one of the great show business lessons. Here was a guy who was famous at 27 for 'Badlands,' and here he is around 60 and more famous and more successful and doing as good a work, if not better, and making the money."

Sheen is proudest of the 1973 film "Badlands" about Charles Starkweather's murderous spree through the Midwest, and the Vietnam retelling of "Heart of Darkness," "Apocalypse Now." For years, he avoided regular television work, saying in 1982, "It's one of the worst things that can happen to you, becoming a successful television actor. You're popular, but it really stunts your growth."

Sheen laughs as he hears his words. "It does stunt your growth," he says, "except for 'West Wing.'"


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