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Original article from Hispanic Magazine, July/August 2000.


The Sheen Shine by Dana Ballestero

Martin Sheen may be relishing his starring role as the leader of the free world on NBC's new hit drama "The West Wing", but, please, don't call him Mr. President.



by Dana Ballestero

For years, Martin Sheen and his sons have shared time atop the film world. Now, he and Charlie are invading the tube, bringing the Sheen Shine to prime time and the Oval Office.

Martin Sheen may be relishing his starring role as the leader of the free world on NBC's new hit drama The West Wing, but, please, don't call him Mr. President.  "I am the Acting President," declares the actor as if he were issuing an executive order from his carved Oval Office desk on the show's set.

For Sheen, it's a classic play on words: Sure, giving life to President Josiah Bartlet, a liberal, two-term New Hampshire governor-turned-Commander-in-Chief provides a creative challenge each week for the celebrated stage and screen actor, who turns 60 in August.

But, perhaps closer to Sheen's heart, it is through Bartlet that the long-time social activist, arrested for civil disobedience at more than 60 demonstrations in two decades, gets to act out (on screen, at least) his commitment to human rights and social justice before the show's estimated 13 million viewers on Wednesdays at 9 p.m.

The hour-long series, chronicling the behind-the-scenes triumphs and tribulations of White House life, is peppered with intelligent, thought-provoking, snappy dialogue and passionate acting, a credit to series creator Aaron Sorkin, Sheen, and his talented cast of co-stars: Rob Lowe as deputy communications director Sam Seaborn; L.A. Law veteran John Spencer as chief of staff Leo McGarry; Bradley Whitford as deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman; Richard Schiff as the highly excitable communications director, Toby Ziegler; Allison Janney as press secretary C.J. Gregg; and Dulé Hill as Bartlet's personal aide, Charlie.

Critical acclaim and a growing fan base of college students, young attorneys, and political junkies in its first season helped catapult the political drama into the top 30 most watched shows on television. Half-way through the first season, Sheen earned a Golden Globe nomination from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for best leading actor in a TV drama. (Lowe also earned a nod for best supporting actor.)

But he was bumped off by James Gandolfini, star of HBO's cable TV Mafia hit, The Sopranos. It was very sweet [being nominated], he says. But it was a little embarrassing. I thought, why me? Why Rob?

Sheen flew almost halfway around the world to support Adams during the latest round of cease-fire negotiations with the British government and to mark the anniversary of the Good Friday Accords, a building block in the foundation of the peace process.

Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet
on The West Wing

"I was only in the last part of the show," Sheen explains. Aaron said, "We just want the President to appear once a month." I said that would be great. I did the pilot, and then went off to find another job. A month later, Sorkin called back, with a better job offer: NBC wanted Sheen to anchor the ensemble cast.

"Since then, it's been the ride of my life", he says. In the works before season number two starts in September is a two-hour movie-of-the- week that chronicles the life of President Bartlet and how the other cast members came to join the journey to the White House.

So how does The West Wing play in the real world? Well, reaction has been decidedly mixed and definitely along party lines. Everyone from White House senior aides to junior-level female staffers have quipped that nobody's actually that good-looking (sorry, Martin, they mean co-star Rob Lowe) in the real West Wing.

Conservatives have complained bitterly to NBC about what they perceive to be onesided, bleeding-heart-liberal story lines: In one of the first episodes, President Bartlet castigates a group of religious conservatives and assails anti-abortion activists as extremists.

But the nation's highest-ranking Hispanic office-holder likes it, and Sheen's President, just fine. "I love his West Wing stuff and The American President", says Bill Richardson, secretary of the Department of Energy. "He's crossed the barrier as being a major star without being labeled Hispanic by Hollywood."

Richardson once had his own abrupt, but pleasant encounter with the actor. In the mid-1980s, the former New Mexico congressman, then a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, wanted to bestow upon Sheen the group's annual humanitarian award, but the actor demurred.

I was very amused by his answer, Richardson recalls. He said, "I don't deserve to be honored. I won't accept this award unless you also honor César Chávez." So we did, posthumously, because he had already passed away.

"He's not afraid to take positions," adds Richardson. "He's not [aggressive] in a way that's in your face like other actors. He picks his issues carefully."  Many issues actually: the plight of the homeless, nuclear disarmament, environmental preservation, animal rights and the working poor, namely marching with Mexican strawberry pickers struggling to unionize on Southern California farms.

Sheen turned to activism and returned to Roman Catholicism after recovering from the heart attack he sustained while filming the 1979 Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now. "But, I don't focus on causes per se, he says. I focus on social justice."

To highlight the plight of the homeless, Sheen portrayed the nation's first homeless rights activist, Mitch Snyder, in the 1986 made-for-TV movie Samaritan: The Mitch Snyder Story. To research the role, Sheen and Snyder camped out on a sewer grate for three hours near the Washington Monument; they collected 45 cents.

Sheen later eulogized Snyder during a July, 1990, funeral service after the activist committed suicide. For the working poor, Sheen has rallied alongside César Chávez, father of the Chicano power movement in Southern California and leader of the movement to unionize Mexican farm workers.  "I try to lead with my heart, and my common sense tells me to place the focus on the beings who are suffering," he says.

"You don't hear any of the [presidential] candidates talking about these issues: the homeless, the environment, health care and ...," his voice trailing off.  Even his Acting President doesn't always do the right thing, says Sheen---on a recent show, he enforced the death penalty. "[Bartlet] chose the polls and what the people wanted over his own religious beliefs," says Sheen disapprovingly of his character.

Standing up for his beliefs has earned Sheen a rather dubious honor: Hollywood celebrity with the longest rap sheet.

He's been arrested more than 60 times in two decades at protests around the world, but he hasn't served any jail time. His activism has almost cost him his life on more than one occasion.

His vocal support for government reforms in El Salvador and his fundraising for Salvadoran humanitarian relief organizations in the Los Angeles area made him the target of pro-government death squads in 1993. And an angry mob of seal hunters nearly clubbed him to death during a 1995 Greenpeace protest in the Magdalene Islands. More recently, his moral stance almost cost him the Presidency.

Last November Sheen left The West Wing set (salvaged from The American President movie) and flew to Fort Benning, Georgia, to join the hundreds of protestors calling on the U.S. Army to shutter the School of the Americas, a training facility that, despite its democratic teachings, has graduated some of the cruelest dictators and military leaders in modern Latin American history.

Sheen, splattered with fake blood and arms shackled in plastic wrist cuffs, was photographed kneeling before military police in his trademark pacifist form of resistance.

The picture was published in newspapers around the world on November 22, and Louis Caldera, the nation's first Hispanic Army secretary, has since ordered an inquiry into the school. Sheen, ever the professional, made sure to have an escape plan, so as not to interrupt the show's production schedule. "Martin is really great," West Wing executive producer John Wells told a group of reporters visiting the show's set in January.

"He calls us and tells us he's going to be arrested over the weekend but not to worry about it. He's arranged for someone to make his bail, and he'll be back on the set on Monday morning."


The Rest of the Clan
By Dana Ballestero

Martin Sheen isn't the only member of the famous acting family to star on the small screen. In September, Charlie Sheen makes his series television debut as the lead on ABCs comedy-drama Spin City. He replaces the popular Michael J. Fox, who retired from acting in May to focus on his health and national research efforts to find a cure for Parkinson's disease.

The now-sober Sheen (almost two years and counting) says he's trading in his wild ways for life in the cutthroat political world as a New York City deputy mayor on the top 20 show. Whether Spin City will retain its loyal fan base and high Nielsen ratings remains to be seen. Sheen, 34, does have some comedic experience (think Hot Shots! and Major League) though he has stronger drama credits on his résumé (think Oscar-winning Platoon and Wall Street).

Another big question mark: How Spin City will fare against The West Wing; they're both scheduled to air during the 9 p.m. time slot on Wednesdays. "Oh, yes," says a cryptic sounding Martin Sheen, who plays the president on the NBC drama. "That's another network so we don't talk about it." Then he erupts in laughter. "I'm very happy for him. He's already asked me if I would appear as the President on the show. I'm going to bounce the idea off Aaron [Sorkin, creator of The West Wing] and we'll see what we can work out."

The logistics certainly will be easier to coordinate now that Spin City is relocating from the Big Apple to the City of Angels, at Charlie's request.

The move reportedly was one of the conditions Sheen stipulated before he signed the four-year, $4 million deal.

If the Sheens had a family crest, the epithet would surely read, the family that works together stays together. Daughter Renée Estévez, the newest family member to catch the acting bug, earned a cameo role as Nancy, the assistant to the President's executive assistant, on The West Wing. But Papa Sheen, Charlie, and older brother Emilio Estévez have been acting together in various incantations for more than a decade.

Martin Sheen directed and starred opposite sons Charlie and Ramón Estévez, Jr., in the 1991 military drama Cadence. Charlie and Martin previously played father and son in the 1987 smash Wall Street opposite Michael Douglas. Martin and Emilio appeared in the 1982 drama In the Custody of Strangers, which starred Emilio as a drunken teenager sent to rehab by his parents.

They appeared together again in 1989's Nightbreaker, playing the younger and older part of a 1950's nuclear scientist grappling with the reality of the nuclear era. In 1996, Emilio directed and starred opposite his father in the film version of the Vietnam-protest Broadway play The War at Home.

Charlie and Emilio co-starred in the1988 Western Young Guns and 1990's Men At Work, their screwball comedy about two hapless garbage men who find a corpse on their route that leads to corporate environmental espionage. But they had not appeared together on screen since 1993's National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon, a spoof of the Lethal Weapon films. The reason: Charlies sordid past struggles with cocaine, alcohol and notorious women, most notably dethroned Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss.

"We went 10 years where we were estranged because he was an addict and I wasn't", Emilio, 38, told US Weekly in May. Until now. Cable network Showtime aired Emilio's latest directorial feat: Rated X, the rise and tragic downfall of porn filmmakers Jim and Artie Mitchell, directors of the cult classic Behind The Green Door. In real life, Jim Mitchell spent three years in prison for murdering his brother, who had turned into a dangerous and seemingly incurable drug addict, a threat to himself and others. The brothers only had to draw upon their own estranged relationship for inspiration.

Seeing his sons together again on screen was bittersweet for Martin Sheen, who attended the film's May 5 premiere. "It's hard to watch, knowing what Charlie went through," said Sheen, who had attended many of Charlies court appearances over the years.

But it's a magnificent, heroic performance. You can only do that when you own that journey. Charlie Sheen's long-time addiction to drugs and alcohol is a wrenching journey he says he never wants to forget. "I didn't leave the set thinking, 'Look what I'm missing'", he says of his days filming Rated X. "I left the set every day reminded why I didn't want to live like that anymore."

Sheen has been sober for almost two years. He'll need a clear mind to master the comedic nuances of the sharply written Spin City scripts. 


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