Martin Sheen – Keeping The Faith

Ramón Estévez was baptized moments after having his left shoulder crushed by forceps during his delivery. He was supposed to die, but Ramón, who would later be known as actor and social activist Martin Sheen, survived and thrived. As a younger man he developed a hunger to a find deeper meaning in his life. But his search dredged up some powerful personal demons as well.

Today, Sheen has conquered those demons, but has never lost that intense overriding passion and reverence for the human spirit, which is evident whether he’s chatting about his wife, kids and grandkids, throwing himself into challenging new roles as an “ex-president,” championing his favorite causes, or talking about the 25th anniversary this year of the spiritual journey that changed his life forever.

He spent an afternoon near Malibu, sharing with Grand Magazine an exclusive glimpse into his private life.

One thing Martin Sheen doesn’t need is coaxing to talk about the five grandkids he adores.

Paloma [Emilio's 20 year old daughter] is at the University of Hawaii now. She’s going as an exchange student to Spain and Chile at the start of her junior year. She’s an absolutely extraordinary young woman. She’s stunningly beautiful and she’s also an accomplished musician. She played in a jazz orchestra and became a rock ‘n’ roll drummer. She taught herself how to play the drums. She’s a percussionist. She’s also a credited lifeguard in Malibu. She’s just wonderful. I’m just nuts about her. Can you tell?

The other little girl is Cassandra. That’s Charlie’s daughter. She is 21 and a junior at Loyola University studying theatre. [Martin laughs that almost every family member is in the performing arts.] It would be something to line up the kids, look them over and tell them, ‘you, you’re going to be a doctor; and you go to law school. There will no more actors!’ But that does not work. And it’s not supposed to. The difference with Cassandra is that she’s studying the whole thing. She’s studying stagecraft and literature.

Paloma’s older brother, Taylor, was my personal assistant for a time. ‘Taylor have you seen him’ – that was his name. That’s because I’d send him on an errand and I’d come out and ask have you seen Taylor. That’s how he became known – ‘Taylor have you seen him.’ I adore him. In 2003 I went on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Taylor who was 19 at the time came with me. There he met the love of his life. He lives in Spain, now.

After seeing three of our grandchildren grow up, we are now blessed that there’s also Charlie’s beautiful baby girls, Sam [born March 2004] and Lola [born June 2005]. The day my first grandchild Taylor came into the world was a special moment for me. I was there when he was born. His mother did natural childbirth and she invited Janet [Martin's wife] and I to be there. And of course, we said yes, we’d like to be there.

I remember Carey [Salley, Taylor's mother] laughing and crying at the same time that it was a boy. When they held him up we were all in tears. It was a mighty, mighty blessing. It was very special. I’ll never forget it. My father was 42 when I was born. And I was a grandparent at 42.

My mother and father met in citizenship school. She taught him English. She [Mary Ann] was an Irish immigrant and her family were members of the IRA. My father [Francisco] was a proud Spanish immigrant. He worked long hours as a punch press operator at the National Cash Register Company in Dayton, Ohio. My mother died when I was 11, and my father worked even harder just to keep the ten of us-9 boys and a girl-close to each other and hold us together as a family.

I was always different from my brothers and sister because of my left arm [weakened and 3 inches shorter than his right]. My father always told me ‘Work with your mind, not with your body.’ My father thought of me as a cripple. I was deformed. Pop would put a little money aside each week – just for me. Not for the other brothers. Most of the guys when they turned 18 or 19 joined the army. He wanted me to go to the University of Dayton. But I had a different idea.

I deliberately flunked the university’s entrance exam. My father knew I wanted to be an actor, but he didn’t know if I was any good. We had some terrible arguments about this and when I threw the test to finally get through to him, he immediately suspected foul play. The dean tried to tell my dad that I didn’t want to go to school. But my father wouldn’t buy it. No sir!

When the subject of going to New York came up after that, he was more opposed than ever to my plan.” [Martin imitates his father's big basso profundo voice and Spanish accent] “Oh honey, [he called all his kids, 'honey'] you can’t do this. You don’t dance, you don’t sing, you don’t play the music.’And I said to him, ‘Pop, you watch TV every night and you watch westerns. How many guys do you see singing and dancing or playing a musical instrument on those shows? And you know what he said? He said, ‘Well you don’t ride a horse neither.’ I swear he said that. And it was an explanation as if to say, you can’t even do that! You’re all wrong for this. He was unbelievable.

I went to New York anyway and changed my stage name to Martin Sheen [to get more work as an actor]. In 1960, I met the one and only woman in my life – [his future wife] Janet [Templeton]. We were married in 1961 and started a family. Emilio was born in 1962, Ramón in 1963, Charlie [Carlos] in 1965 and Renee in 1967.

In 1965 I was on Broadway in “The Subject Was Roses” and it was a big hit. My dad was visiting us. I wanted him to see the show, but he never would. ‘Oh no, I couldn’t,’ he’d say. There was always a promise to come and an excuse not to come – that’s how shy he was.

He wouldn’t talk in public. He rarely raised his voice. And years later my brothers and I discovered he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. He was not made to feel proud of his accent. He had a magnificent accent. Still, there was no talking to him and I knew it.

But then one evening he did come. This was so important for me. My father was leaving to retire in Spain in a few days, and he might not ever see me on stage again. Now that play was about fathers and sons and I gave what I thought was the best performance of my life that night. The last scene in the play, I tell my father that I love him. And we hug each other. That’s the curtain line. So I played it to him through Jack [Albertson.] It was pretty powerful.

My father never came back stage. By the time I got home, I was just exhausted from the performance, and waited for my father, but he still never came out to see me. I sat on the couch, exhausted, looking down and in my peripheral vision I saw my father’s feet coming in the frame. He was a walker. He’d put his hands in his pockets and pace endlessly. He walks past me and he never says a word.

Then suddenly I see his feet and become aware that he’s standing right over me. So I look up and he’s looking right at me. It’s like he’s looking at me for the first time. Like who are you, where did you come from, what’s your story? He just stared at me until I got really nervous. And I broke the gaze. He left a few days later for Spain and never said a word to me about the play.

But that was not the end of the story. In 1969, I’m doing the movie “Catch 22″ and I had to go to Italy to complete the film. I took Emilio and Ramón with me and decided we just have to go to Spain to see my dad’s homeland and meet his brothers. And so we do.

It was a tiny little house made of stone that looked like they carved it out of the mountain. There was no electricity and they weren’t prepared for us, so they led us to a room with one bed and we all slept in the same bed. It was so dark we couldn’t see anything in this room. The next morning I wake up and the first thing I see on the wall was the poster for “The Subject Was Roses.” I was stunned.

And although I couldn’t speak much Spanish I was made to understand that the bed we had slept in was the bed where my father was born. Here I am with my two kids sleeping in my dad’s bed and room. I later found out he was bragging about me to his family there. I never knew it. See, he could never express himself emotionally. That was the best he could do. He was so proud of me and he never told me.

When I was in high school, a young boy, Chris Kuhn, showed up in my high school during my freshman year. His father was a pilot and he loved to brag about him. I was jealous of him. My dad was a factory worker; you know what I’m saying? So one day I’m in the alley smoking and this car pulls up and this kid Chris gets out and he’s unloading his stuff and while he’s doing that the old man gets out on the driver’s side. And he comes around and kisses this boy goodbye on the lips. I almost fainted. I’d never, ever seen anything like that. I felt like a voyeur. It was in public, there was nobody else on the street, but he did it as if he did this all the time, very, very casual and it was like it was no big deal. Chris goes into the building and I’m left standing there. Saying did anyone else see this?

My own father was not unaffectionate but I never kissed him until he was in the hospital just before he died. I was profoundly affected by this. And I resolved in my heart that this is the way I would always make my children and grandchildren feel precious and loved. If one of my children or grandchildren would walk in right now, that’s how we would greet each other. Public, private, it wouldn’t matter.

My children have turned out to be good and decent human beings. We are a close-knit family. The mother of my children is a remarkable woman. Janet is just incredible. She takes my breath away. I don’t have a clue who this dame is, with all due respect. I wake up each day and say, ‘wow, is she going to stay here?’ I used to feel guilty that I didn’t deserve her and tried to push her away, but she wasn’t going anywhere. Then I realized she was leading me somewhere within myself.

I was immediately attracted to Janet, but she was not impressed with me. She didn’t care for me when we first met. But I knew if I could get her to see me perform on stage, she’d chase me. And that’s exactly what happened. I had her come to a performance of “The Connection” at the Living Theatre. And that did it. She didn’t even wait until after the play. She came back at intermission. She was concerned for me. I was playing a drug addict. And she thought maybe I was sick. She just wanted to make sure I was okay, and we’ve been together ever since.

We met in December 1960 and married in December 1961. People who have been married a long time realize something. The problem with getting married so young is our culture is so unfocused about what’s really important. So we focus on the knight in shining armor, putting people on a pedestal and thinking she’s going to make me happy or he’s going to make me happy. You have to make yourself happy.

By now, Martin’s hunger for fulfillment of the soul was raging like a fever, spiking with every critical success. Still, through all his struggles, Martin never stopped trying to keep his family together. When he went on locations around the world to shoot movies like “Catch 22″ and “Gandhi”, he and Janet juggled school schedules and vacations to make sure she and the family could join him there and spend as little time apart as possible.

And then came “Apocalypse Now”. Shot on location in the Philippines, the Vietnam War saga represented a dark time for Martin. In one of the opening scenes of the movie, Captain Willard, the character Sheen plays, becomes so out of control and drunk that he smashes his hand on a mirror before collapsing in sobs covered in his own blood. What many moviegoers don’t know is that the booze and the blood were for real.

Martin related the story during an “Inside The Actor’s Studio” interview with James Lipton. “I could barely stand up, but I felt something interesting was happening and I kind of wrestled these demons before, but not on film and not in public and I thought maybe I should go in this area. Again, it was that search for a transcendent experience. And I stripped down and began to do some of the karate in front of the mirror and misjudged how close it was and I hit the mirror and it cracked and I cut myself pretty deep in my thumb and Francis [Ford Coppola, the director] tried to stop it.

There were two cameras photographing it and I was nude. I didn’t know how much would ever be used anyway. I was into something deeply personal and I had this demon by the throat and I was not going to let it go – for my own sake. I had no idea it would be part of the film. And as it went on I got deeper and deeper into my own personal pain and despair and guilt. And I asked Francis to just let it go, just let me have it and he said are you sure and I said yes. And so I owe him that.”

While we were still filming “Apocalypse Now,” I had a heart attack. I was all alone in the jungle and had to drag myself to the road to get help. I was in the hospital for three weeks and then they put me in a hotel for three weeks. That’s when my family came. Janet didn’t want the kids to see me in the hospital. I was going down the corridor, lights flashing above me and I’m half dead. And the very first thing my wife said to me was, ‘It’s only a movie babe.’ That’s when I started to get well. I realized I was not dead yet.

Charlie was very scared. He thought I was going to die. Charlie bought two baseball mitts and one ball. In his own way, he was trying to rehab me. He was only 10 years old. He kept moving my wheelchair further away so I’d have to throw the ball further. And eventually he moved me closer to the ocean. And one day he threw the ball, it hit my glove and landed in the ocean. After that, he went all over Manila looking for another ball. But we couldn’t find one. That was the end of my rehab.

The next few years I was on a really difficult search; I was looking for meaning in my life. And just asking those basic questions – who are you and why are you here. And I got called to India to do a small part in “Gandhi”. It was only five or six weeks. But it was enough to make a profound impression on me, because I had been in the third world before but never that type of third world. The poverty was unbelievable. I’d seen street people before but never entire generations who lived their lives on the street. It was just horrid poverty.

Then I had to go to Paris to make another film. I was alone in Paris feeling more lost than ever when an old friend came back into my life. One day I was walking down the street on the Left Bank and here comes one of my favorite people in the whole world. Terrence Malick. He was living in Paris. Malick put me in the movie “Badlands” released in 1973 – with Sissy Spacek. “Badlands” was one of the best movies I’ve ever done.

Over time Terrence became as much a spiritual adviser as I’ve ever had in my life. He would give me literature to read, not spiritual literature – “The Brothers Karamazov”; that was the last one he gave me and that book made a profound impression on me. It was that sense of universality of spirituality, that we could not escape our humanity. When we get in touch with that, we are made free and human and when we don’t we remain isolated. And we don’t do very well.

In Paris, 25 years ago, this past May 1, Martin reconverted to the Catholic faith. It helped him control the awesome intensity and passion that so often used and abused him. For the next 25 years, Sheen has harnessed that power and channeled it into social causes. It has also made him a better husband, father and grandfather despite the continuing demands of a successful career that has now spanned four decades.

These last 25 years have been the happiest and by far the most difficult and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I came back to my faith out of love and freedom and not having it pushed on me as a child. You can’t really appreciate it until you choose it. You have to embrace it; you have to understand it. You have to come back out of love.

Sidebar: Golf: the game of life

Sheen began to caddy when he was 9 and continued until he was 17 to help out at home – all the Estevez boys caddied. But what Sheen saw at the country club gave him a valuable life lesson on how not to treat people.

“I called a caddie strike at the country club where I was a caddy. So many of the people I caddied for were wealthy people belonging to these exclusive clubs. Some of them were pillars of the community. Doctors and lawyers and politicians, they were a pretty exclusive group. But on the golf course we’d see them on the downside. Few of them knew our names.

There were very few men in that club that I wanted to be like. There were so many men who were vulgar, insecure racists – anti-Semitic.We were little boys, I started when I was 9 years old. I heard them using language I had never heard before. And I had brothers in the navy. One of the fundamental reasons why I despised them was because they could compromise me. Put down an extra ball, cheat, lie about a stroke. We were paid $1.75 for carrying a bag and marching 4 miles in the hot sun around the course.

Free the caddies!

So I organized the lads on Monday and struck Tuesday on Ladies Day. All these women arrived and struggled with their bags and we were all standing around saying no, can’t help, sorry we’re on strike.We were trying to say, ‘look at us. Be respectful and if money gets your attention we’ll start there. It’s going to cost you to rent us. I want you to know my name.’ I was fired about noon. It was my first lesson in social activism. To this day, I could never join an exclusive country club, even though I love to play golf.”

Sidebar: In the Oval Office

Sheen’s career took a dramatic turn when he was offered the role of Jed Bartlett on NBC’s “West Wing” in 1999. The show was an instant critical success made sweeter by the fact that his daughter Renee had a part in the show as well. This was not the first time Sheen would play a president. He portrayed JFK in the miniseries, “The Kennedy’s.” Close to the Kennedy family since Robert Kennedy’s New York Senate run, Sheen had his doubts about playing JFK in the miniseries, “No one could play him, we were all shadows in comparison to his greatness.” But Janet reminded Martin how much he admired the president and said, “Who better to play him than someone who loved him?”

Fact and fiction

“The last day of “West Wing” I was aching,” he admits. “They scheduled me for the last dialogue scene. I didn’t get a chance to go to the wrap party. I find them hard to be at anyway, to say goodbye is so hard for me. The last dialogue scene in the show is with Charlie [Dulé Hill]. I just say goodbye to him. At the end of the scene the staff is all gathered to say goodbye, good luck, that kind of thing. So we finished that and they said, come with us.

They put me in a room and everyone was there. They surprised me and they just carried on.” It was a moving moment for Sheen who was still feeling the loss of his friend and co-star John Spencer. “John died on the 16th of December and we’d been mourning him through the holidays and then we had to deal with his death on the show as Leo. It was emotional.”

Sidebar: Sheen on the Big Screen

Not unlike other “ex-presidents” Martin Sheen is more in demand than ever now. He’s got two movies-”Bobby” and “The Departed”- premiering this fall and another that came out this month starring Jennifer Lopez and Antonio Banderas called “Bordertown.”

“Bobby,” Martin’s son, actor/producer/ director Emilio Estevez grew up aware of the admiration his father had for the late Robert Kennedy. In fact, it was Emilio at age 6 who wandered into his parents’ room to tell them that the New York senator had been shot. “He always felt that big hole, that awful wound with Bobby’s death,” says Sheen. “He saw the effect it had on me, on the family and all the people who knew and loved him.

Years later he heard this story about a young Black man who was waving a chair in the lobby and tossed it into the fountain the night Bobby was fatally wounded. So he started with that guy and gave him an identity. He made him a Kennedy volunteer, gave him a name, made him from Watts and built a story around that one guy.

Fact and fiction

Eventually the story setting became the day, the time, and the hotel of RFK’s assassination. He then placed all the historic facts of the event around the fictionalized elements.” Not unlike “Titanic”, fact and fiction merge in the dramatic climax of the film. “Emilio’s neighbor is Anthony Hopkins. He saw the script and said he’d love to do it. After word went out Hopkins was involved, the rest of the cast signed on. [They include Demi Moore, Lindsay Lohan, Sharon Stone, Helen Hunt, Christian Slater, Elijah Wood, and William Macy and Sheen to name a few] I couldn’t possibly be more proud of Emilio for how he’s pulled this all together.” “Bobby” premieres November 22 this year.

“The Departed”

Says Martin, “”The Departed” is a movie about an Irish gang that the state police infiltrate and the gang infiltrates the police and I play one of the police officers who gets Leonardo DiCaprio to infiltrate Jack Nicholson’s gang. And Jack plants a guy with us played by Matt Damon.” Speaking of his co-stars, Sheen says, “The three of them were a delight. I had one scene with Jack and I’m such a huge fan of his work. And they are so good-natured. They can’t go from here to there without being mobbed. “The Departed” premieres November 2006.

“Bordertown”

“”Bordertown” is the story about an American reporter who goes to a Mexican bordertown, in order to investigate some mysterious murders involving young factory women from all over Mexico,” explains Sheen. “Bordertown” premiered in June.

Originally published July/August 2006

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