20 Great Interviews:
Tom Dunphy, Contibutor
October / November 2005
He was born Ramon Estevez, the seventh of ten siblings, nine boys and a girl, on August 3, 1940 in Dayton to a Spanish-born father and Irish-born mother (“she taught me all the Irish songs”). Estevez took the stage name Martin Sheen upon moving to New York in the early 1960s to pursue acting. (“Martin” came from the last name of a casting director friend; “Sheen” from the ubiquitous TV bishop.) Unlike countless other Hollywood types, Sheen has been married to his wife, Janet, for over 40 years. And he is patriarch of an acting family — daughter Renee Estevez and sons Emilio and Ramon Estevez and Charlie Sheen have achieved varying degrees of fame, and infamy.
Martin Sheen has good reason to laugh these days. His TV series, The West Wing, is a critical and ratings success, and has given Sheen a career boost as he enters his fifth decade of acting. Sheen plays President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet, a blunt, common-sense pragmatist who wrestles with his presidential decisions and his faith.
“They’ve allowed me my Catholicism, which places the issues we raise on the show in a moral frame of reference,” says Sheen. “To see the most powerful man in the world get down on the floor of the Oval Office and ask forgiveness for his sins — finally I got to do something personal.”
Why does Sheen think West Wing has resonated so strongly with the American public? “I think we are causing public debate on some very undebated issues,” he contends. “We’re talking about gun violence, about justice, about racism, about the environment, about these issues that touch us. I think that’s what people are responding to.”
Martin Sheen has made cinematic forays into the White House into somewhat of a personal cottage industry. In addition to his Bartlet character, Sheen played chief-of-staff A.J. McInerney in the 1995 feature film The American President, John F. Kennedy in the 1983 miniseries Kennedy, and Bobby Kennedy in the 1974 miniseries The Missiles of October.
Sheen has few regrets, but portraying Jack Kennedy is one of them. “It shouldn’t have been done, quite frankly. I was ill-prepared, the company was ill-prepared. He’s too big an icon to portray. It was hopeless,” he says.
Sheen turns downright evangelical in talking about the late president. “The image of that brilliant, handsome man, that young father — Kennedy sparked an energy, enthusiasm, idealism. He changed the world! He’d express an idea and it became policy. He said, `We’re going to the moon,’ and we got there in less than ten years! He willed it.
“The main ingredient of his administration was confidence,” continues Sheen. “He was like a cocky, streetwise Irishman. He knew he pissed some people off. He had a knowledge of the media, and he played it like a piper. He knew exactly how to get them to dance to his tune. He was charming and brilliant, and people were in love with him and he knew it.”
Playing the Kennedy brothers had a great effect on Sheen, and he still mourns their loss. “That family is indelibly etched in my heart,” he says. “JFK’s death was bad enough, then Reverend King, which was another massive wound, then Bobby. This country is still crippled by their deaths. Crippled! We lost Bobby, and got Richard Nixon. Gimme a break. We never got over Nixon.”
Martin Sheen is a man who acknowledges — and celebrates — his Irish roots. He keeps a home in County Tipperary and holds an Irish passport (in addition to his American one). “I love Ireland,” Sheen says. “I think I love it too much.
“Ireland is one of the few countries in Europe that has never invaded anyone, never beat anyone up — except when they fought the British — but Ireland has never conquered anyone,” Sheen says. “What Irish flag was ever planted on foreign soil and claimed for itself? None.
“They sent missionaries, they sent writers, they sent artists, they sent nuns, they sent teachers into the world. Which is far more powerful,” he says. “I love to go to other parts of the world and meet Irish people. You go to some of the worst situations in the third world and you’ll find Irish nuns, Irish doctors, you meet Irish priests, Irish lay people serving. You say to them, `What the hell are you doing here?’ and they’ll say, `Sure, why not?’ It makes perfect sense.”
His late mother, the former Mary Ann Phelan, fostered a sense of Irishness in the Estevez home. “She was so feisty, so cocky. I learned all the Irish songs from her,” says Sheen fondly.
Sheen is well acquainted with Northern Ireland politics, and is not afraid to opine on the topic. “If David Trimble had half — a third — of the courage Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams have, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” he says. “I’m terribly proud of Clinton’s foreign policy. I could nitpick, I suppose. But we would not have a Good Friday Accord if not for the president. He took some real chances.”♦