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Martin Sheen: An act of faith: president of the peace movement

By Andrew Gumbel

18 January 2003

There are people, in these times of war fever and right-wing resurgence in America, who take a certain perverse pleasure in the continuing success of The West Wing, television's fantasy variant on the soap opera of modern politics. Supporters of the real-life president, George Bush, like to scoff at the impeccable liberal credentials of his fictional counterpart, Josiah Bartlett.  His starry-eyed left-wing idealism might have seemed halfway plausible back in the dog days of Bill Clinton when the show began, they argue; but now it is so deliriously removed from the real goings-on in the White House that it merely serves to illustrate the prejudices of a Hollywood establishment blinded by narcissistic devotion to its own political correctness.

The Bushies may be correct in thinking that fictional government leaders are almost always more liberal than their real-life counterparts-- just think of Michael Douglas in The American President, or Ray McAnally in A Very British Coup. But when it comes to the appeal of Josiah Bartlett, they have got it only half right. Bartlett may be out of sympathy with the Republican Party that now controls all three major branches of government (White House, Senate and House of Representatives), but the fact is he is not half as radical as the man who plays him, Martin Sheen. And Sheen, quite apart from his prowess as an actor, is emerging as a political force to be reckoned with.

After years of energetic grass-roots activism in favour of the poor and the disenfranchised, and against American militarism, nuclear proliferation and the "Star Wars" missile shield, Sheen is winning new recognition for his passionate opposition to a war against Iraq. He took centre stage when, just over a month ago, more than 100 Hollywood actors signed a petition against military action in the Middle East under the banner Artists United to Win Without War. He was the keynote speaker last week when more than 15,000 people marched for peace through downtown Los Angeles. West Wing shooting schedule permitting, he is expected to take an equally prominent role at the head of another massive anti-war demonstration being assembled in Washington today. With a decision to invade Iraq perhaps days or at most weeks away, 200,000 people are expected to turn up either in Washington or at a sister event taking place in San Francisco.

Sheen is, in fact, the closest thing to a personification that the emerging American peace movement can boast a movement that embraces not just the traditional anti-militarist left but, increasingly, suburban mums and their children, Latino minimum-wage workers worried about job security in a war economy, public healthcare workers and teachers facing swingeing budget cuts, a large chunk of the labour movement and now, this being Martin Luther King Day weekend, numerous black activist groups.

"A lot of people have been silenced for a long time, but that is ending," he told the crowds in LA last weekend. "We are telling the world that we are patriotic Americans but we do not support going to war with Iraq." It is a potent message for those with the inclination to hear it: not just a statement of political beliefs, but also a clear warning to the powers in Washington that the mood of the country is shifting away from the blanket support offered to the Bush administration after 11 September.

What Sheen brings to the part, aside from the instant name recognition, is an unmistakable passion for the cause, a deeply felt commitment to the ethos of non-violent struggle and boundless experience of public protest and civil disobedience. He can set an audience alight with his rich, booming voice and his instinctive actor's love of words. Unusually for a Hollywood figure, he leaves people in little doubt about his sincerity and his absolute willingness to lay himself on the line for what he believes in. After all, he has been arrested more than 60 times, most recently for his protests at military bases in California and Georgia. In an age in which the boundaries between fiction and real life tend to be a little blurred, the fact that he plays the president on television doesn't hurt either.

From his earliest days, Sheen has been a rebel, a nonconformist, a man who delights in challenging authority at the highest levels by standing four-square on his own unshakable moral sense. His radicalism has its roots in a certain populist strain of Catholicism stretching back to his boyhood in a large immigrant family in Ohio; it was nurtured by the shattering experience of the Vietnam War and the rise of Cesar Chavez, the heroic leader of the United Farm Workers' union in California in the 1960s and 1970s.

To this day, there is no company Sheen loves more than that of rebellious Catholic priests, the kind who publicly call for a return to the non-violent, peace-loving message of the gospels, who loathe war, loathe the consequences of US intervention in Latin America and elsewhere, loathe the injustices and disenfranchisement and poverty of the modern United States, loathe even the hierarchy of the Catholic Church itself for its cosy accommodations with the rich and the powerful.

Just a few weeks ago, Sheen was in Baltimore at the funeral of one of the most outspoken of America's radical priests, Philip Berrigan, and he didn't hesitate to use the occasion to excoriate the bellicose impulses of his own government. "We're addicted to war," he told a radio reporter. "That's what we love best, and what we do best... I'm just appalled, and I'm horribly depressed by what we're faced with. We're going to pay dearly for it, with our humanity and with our conscience."

One begins to appreciate why Sheen's political opponents are just a little bit afraid of him. This kind of unswerving moral certainty is hard to argue with, and even harder to ridicule. The right-wing press may have had a field day last week pouring scorn on the singer Sheryl Crow after she turned up to the American Music Awards in a T-shirt with "War is not the answer" spelt out in sequins. But they don't dare dish out the same treatment to Sheen. Nobody can accuse him of empty sloganeering, not when he has the guts to be thrown into jail time after time. Not when he dares point out that NBC, the network which produces The West Wing, is owned by General Electric, a company with fingers stuck over all the military-industrial pie.

"There are those who would write him off as a zealot," says Mike Farrell, another actor turned activist who has campaigned with Sheen against the death penalty as well as on Iraq. "But to sit and listen to the man or have a conversation with him is to understand that he operates from a deeply moral, deeply personal and deeply faith-filled perspective." More than that, he has frequently put his acting career on the line. "Many people in our industry are very cautious of the associations they allow themselves, who they hire and who they work with, for fear that they will be out of favour," Farrell added. "Martin has never let that stop him from doing what he felt was the right thing to do."

As an actor, of course, he has been no slouch. Back in the 1970s, he made a huge impression as a teenage runaway in Terrence Malick's Badlands, then almost came unstuck in the huge existential adventure that eventually became Apocalypse Now. Sheen had problems with alcohol back then, and indeed shot the celebrated opening sequence of the film after a day of hard drinking that undid him every bit as much as his war-addled character, Willard. The strain and the mounting craziness of the production gave him a heart attack so severe that a priest even gave him the last rites. But he recovered; the film became a hit, and the traumatic experience in the Philippine jungle stirred within him a renewed sense of spiritual and political commitment.

By the time he went to India for Richard Attenborough's Gandhi in 1981, he was picking beggars up off the street and inviting them to ride around in his taxis. He donated his $200,000 salary from the film to a variety of non-violent charities, from Mother Teresa to the Quakers. As he said at the time, "How can you make money off Gandhi?"

By the 1990s, he was marching regularly with the Californian farm workers. During one Easter Week march, he even got down on his knees to wash the workers' feet, a gesture that perfectly symbolised both his political and his religious fervour. Through a group of friends in Berkeley he became interested in Latin America and joined the annual rallies to close down the School of the Americas, a US military training camp in Georgia responsible for training members of paramilitary death squads up and down the continent.

In 1997 he was arrested while campaigning for the union rights of strawberry pickers. In 2000, he was arrested outside Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the same place where Greenpeace later tried to halt a test of the "Star Wars" anti-missile system, and placed on three years' probation.

All of this might have received far less attention were it not for The West Wing. The show, which first aired in 1999, has not only been an audience winner; it has also provided Sheen with an aura of political authority that has carried over from the small screen into real life. Playing politicians is something of a forte of his, going back to the 1970s: he has played both John and Robert Kennedy, as well as the Watergate conspirator John Dean and a clutch of fictional figures from the villain in David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone (1983) to the éminence grise in The American President (1995). Bartlett, though, has taken him on to a whole new plane; the most common question he faces from entertainment journalists these days is whether he'd fancy being president in real life too.

The answer to that question, incidentally, is no. "I don't have the kind of intelligence or the make-up to be a president," he said recently. But other forms of politics the kind played out on the street in acts of civil disobedience are another matter. Railing against authority is a well-honed role of Sheen's, and one we are likely to hear a lot more about.

Life story


Born Ramon Estevez, 3 August 1940, in Dayton, Ohio, seventh of 10 children of a Spanish father and an Irish mother; took the name Martin from casting director Dale Martin and Sheen from TV bishop Fulton J. Sheen.


Married Janet Templeton 23 December 1961; they have four children Emilio, Ramon, Charlie and Renée, all actors.


Local schools in Dayton; failed his entrance exam to the University of Dayton on purpose in order to pursue an acting career in New York.


Stage: The Connection (1961), The Subject Was Roses (1973). Films: Badlands (1973), Apocalypse Now (1979), Gandhi (1982), The Dead Zone (1983), Wall Street (1987), Da (1988), Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993), The American President (1995). Television: The Execution of Private Slovik (1974), The Missiles of October (1974); since 1999 has played the President in The West Wing (left).


Arrested 70 times for involvement in protests over issues ranging from nuclear disarmament to homelessness.

They say

"Wouldn't it be something if Martin Sheen could be our president in real life?" Allison Janney, West Wing co-star.

He says

"President Bartlett is a creation of Aaron Sorkin, our wonderful writer. I would be far more liberal and progressive if I were president, which would never ever happen, thank God."


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