MARTIN SHEEN: THE ELDER STATESMAN

OUTSIDE THE OVAL OFFICE | March 17th 2008

Brigitte Lacombe

There is no one in America more presidential than Martin Sheen. So who better to comment on the 2008 race for the White House? He talks to David Thomson about politics, rebelliousness, working with Brando, and why he doesn't see himself as a star...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Spring 2008*

For Martin Sheen, one small rudeness is a badge of honour. "You see," he says, "the extraordinary thing is how closely 'The West Wing' overlapped with the administration of George Bush. And every now and then, the whole crew on the show would go to Washington to shoot some exteriors and get the snow on the ground. Well, Andy Card was Bush's chief of staff then and when we were in town invitations came out from him so that each person on the show could get to meet the equivalent person in the White House. Except for me! That man would not give me the time of day because he knew I had a history as a radical!"

President Jed Bartlett (150 episodes of "The West Wing" at 42 minutes a show!) and I had lunch in Los Angeles on the day of the New Hampshire primary. Sheen had already done a little campaigning for Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico. Richardson dropped out a day after Hillary Clinton's surprise win in New Hampshire, but Martin Sheen knows politics is a game played slowly. "We've had a season of surprises already with Obama coming out of nowhere, and Hillary faltering, but in the long run I have a feeling it might be Obama and Richardson as the ticket. I like that, I think Obama's a good and decent man."

Which brings me to the second main point that we might as well establish at the outset: the estimate that Sheen has of the present incumbent at the White House. Paragraph break. Big close-up of Sheen's boyish face--at 67 he still has the fire of a kid.

"He's arrogant. He's ignorant. He's a bully. He's not a politician. He's the sort of person who'll pick a fight with someone because he can whup 'em. That's what he did in Iraq. He conned the military--and it's to their shame--to further a political agenda. And we have lost respect and power in the world, beyond partisanship.

"You see, 'The West Wing' seemed clear-cut in that Bartlett was based on Kennedy, Carter and Clinton. His was a Democratic administration. But there were lots of Republicans on the show, too, and they believed in it because their reverence for the White House was neutral. It believed in compromise. Early on in the show there was this immense 13-page tracking shot, where the camera's backing off from John Spencer, God rest his soul [who played Leo McGarry, Bartlett's best friend and chief of staff]. And he keeps moving but he has issues and problems at every step. He hears the president has had an accident on his bicycle. He hears news from all over the world. All one shot-context, the mass of tasks and things needing action. And then the camera suddenly backs away from him and you realise he's in the Oval Office. You feel the space. And there's Mrs Landringham with a schedule. She asks has he heard about the president. 'Sure, the klutz!' he says. And she goes very serious and says, 'Now, we'll have no talk like that in this office!' And you felt the respect. 'The West Wing' was always meant to be about a team that had the privilege of running the country."

I ask, did the Bush administration help with the show? "Not a bit. What they liked to do was send a memo. 'Friends', it would say, 'you got a detail in the secret-service coverage wrong. Please don't make us look like idiots.' Just the criticism. So imagine my shock when I see himself landing on a battleship--'Mission accomplished!' Because that's something the secret service would never have permitted. He overrode them. He just wanted to do it!"

Sheen has directed pictures himself, and he loves what the camera can do. But, above all, he loves the mise-en-scene of handling power and authority. He looks presidential, and he is four years younger than John McCain--one of the few Republicans for whom he has any respect. You understand how, when he entered the hotel where we're lunching, the staff fell back, yet kept a close guard on him--as if they were his security detail. And this Martin Sheen has over 200 movie and television credits to his name. He works like someone who was once a very poor boy, and he admits that, "If they'd paid me more, I'd have worked less, maybe."

Sheen was born in a very poor part of Dayton, Ohio, in 1940, the son of a Spanish immigrant and an Irish woman. His given name was Ramon Estevez. He was one of ten children and he was born crippled. Life was tough. "I am not a star," he concedes. "And," he goes on, his face wreathed in smiles, the pale blue eyes alight, "it's a mystery to me why not!"

The diagnosis of "failure" is not a frequent part of interviews with actors. So bear with this line a moment. "I came up in the James Dean era. He was the phenomenon of the day, taken away in 1955. I went to New York, to act, in 1959, and there was a belief then that if you were talented you would get your break. It had happened with so many kids--[Montgomery] Clift, Marlon [Brando], Paul Newman. Me! You were trusted on your merit. It was a lie! It was a crap-shoot. And as time passed I was told, 'Well, this is what you do, you help your luck along. You flatter the right people. You tell them they're terrific. You eat some shit.' I couldn't do it. And then I got 'Badlands' and I thought this is pretty good stuff. And others said so, too. I thought, now, now it's going to happen. It didn't."

"Badlands" was a small independent picture, the first made by Terrence Malick. It was about a couple of kids--Martin and Sissy Spacek--who go on a casual killing spree and head for the Dakotas. When they're captured at last, the star-crazy cops tell the boy, Kit, he looks like James Dean, and the kid preens and does a look and a walk that are funny and tragic. Martin Sheen had arrived: handsome, fast, sexy, hungry, dangerous and absolutely lovable. Stand back. It was his "On the Waterfront".

Of course, he worked all the time, but when "Apocalypse Now" came along, Sheen was a replacement for Harvey Keitel. The film that followed was a famous set of disasters, with Marlon Brando arriving out of shape and hardly ready to work. So in the wreckage of the auteur theory and the near-breakdown of the director, Francis Coppola, it was possible to lose sight of Sheen's astonishing performance as the young officer sent up the river to terminate the command of a rogue colonel, with extreme prejudice.

"Apocalypse" was a nightmare for everyone. Sheen was so committed he had a heart attack. And he tells a story that backs up what he was saying about not being a star. "I remember the first day Marlon worked. I was held prisoner, all tied up, and Marlon had to walk into the scene and drop Freddie Forrest's head in my lap. Well, it was a scene where it was raining, and so they had rain machines on us all the time. And I was being watched by these Ifugao tribesmen, just dressed in loincloths. And they were getting soaked and shivering as if they had a fever.

"So we did a take and they called 'Cut!' and I looked at the natives and I said, 'Look, do we have any blankets? Someone is going to get sick.' And I was told, 'Oh, don't worry, Marty, they're used to it. They'll be all right!'

"So, enter Marlon, and he comes in, walks up to me and drops the head. 'Cut! Perfect! That's lovely. But we'll do it again.' Now Marlon had not heard me earlier, but he looks at the Ifugao and he says, 'Excuse me, but these fellows are suffering here, and there's no need. Don't we have some blankets or dry clothes for them?'

"Whereupon, 'Certainly, Mr Brando. Fetch some blankets. Let's get these guys feeling better.' Just like that, so I thought, 'I don't know about this'. And I was more likely to be trouble myself."

Sheen can trace this rebelliousness all the way back, and here you have two strands making one root--the nature of his politics and his career waywardness all in one. "When I was a boy, I was a caddy. I started aged nine. My brothers told me it was time to start. I began at this very exclusive country club in Dayton. It had a profound effect on me. The people who played there, for the most part, were self-involved, angry, alcoholic, miserable, over-indulged. Horrible people. They called you 'Caddy'--never bothered with your name. There were no black caddies allowed. The only blacks shone shoes or served food in the clubhouse. And my brothers said, 'Be nice to them. Angle for the tip.' But the thing they would do is compromise you. They expected you to cheat. So you carried an extra ball or two and if they drove out of bounds, why you'd search around and say, 'Over here, sir!' I could never bring myself to cheat for them."

"And as an actor, I can't sell myself. I was never secure until 'The West Wing', and even then I was meant at first to be in about one episode in five. But when the network saw the pilot, they said, we want to see the Oval Office. So that meant me." So the president got promoted, and very soon Sheen had the biggest job of his career. He is very modest about his ideas on the presidency. Except for this: "The work! I had to be at the studio at 5.30am, so I'm leaving home at 5. Sometimes I'm finished at 10 at night. It wasn't worth going home, so I'd stay at a small hotel by the studio. And then, once we were a hit, I negotiated myself a break--four-day weeks. The long weekend saved me. Perhaps the president should think about it."

It's a strange thing: few actors have been busier, and very few have done so many projects where their fee might have been waived or held to scale, because of the cause. And somehow it has always come down to politics. Martin Sheen has made TV movies on his issues--nuclear installations, torture--and on the rights of children who might be aborted. In famous mini-series, he has played Jack Kennedy, Bobby and Nixon's lawyer, John Dean. But his ancestry leads to his devout Catholicism, and another Sheen story that is the essence of the man.

"I have a lawyer, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, a public defender and still paying off his college loans. He's a great man. And one day he calls me and he says--this is during the Gulf war--we've got to go to Rome to meet Mother Teresa. Because she's ready to go see the pope. So we fly to Rome and we go to a place we've been told to attend. It's like a chicken coop. But she comes in--Mother Teresa. She is tiny! Four feet ten!"

It's getting to be an Irish story now. "She says, 'How are you, boys? What can I do for you?' And we say if she can see the pope about the war and if the Vatican can go the International Court. It might stop it. "She says, 'Really? And will the countries obey?' She's priceless."

"Well, she says she'll do it. But then she wants to bless us and our children. And she gets a packet of these little medals and she blesses me and my wife, Janet, and then my four children--Carlos, Emilio, Renee and Ramon. And she asks 'Anyone else?' Well, just before I left I was talking to Marlon and it was the time when his son [Christian, who died soon after this conversation] was on trial for killing his sister's boyfriend. You remember? And Marlon was crushed. So I said, 'Mother, there's this actor, a friend of mine, who's having a lot of trouble.' 'Oh, who's that?' she asks. So I tell her it's Marlon Brando. And she's never heard of him!"

"Later on, I told Marlon the story and I have to tell you he was in tears. It meant so much to him."

There's a great deal of Martin Sheen in that story--not just the faith or the trust in prayer, but the importance of family. Sheen has had but one wife and four children and he is famous for the way he looks after those kids. Carlos is the actor Charlie Sheen; Emilio is the actor and director Emilio Estevez. Time and again as we talk, we refer to the film Bobby--about the last day in Bobby Kennedy's life--that Emilio made last year, with Martin taking a small role.

Sheen looks as American as a president, so you might miss how Irish and Spanish he is. And then there is the being crippled. I thought I knew a bit about Sheen and I've seen a lot of his films. But until I met him I didn't know that his left arm is three inches shorter than the right. "I was a forceps delivery, in Dayton, and the man made a mess of it. My shoulder was crunched up and the muscle in the arm never grew. I have hardly any lateral movement."

I'm amazed, and I remark on films--from "Badlands" to "The Departed"--where he has seemed entirely active. He beams again--it is a source of pride today.

"Not that it always was," he tells me. "When I first came to New York I met a doctor and he said he had an experimental treatment. He thought he could make it right. And I was set to have this operation. So I turned up at his office one day and as I waited so patients came in and they were all of them really crippled. They could hardly move. They had crooked bodies. And I was passing. So I left the office and I determined I'd make out as best I could."

Over the years, he has been arrested on at least 50 political demonstrations--one of which earned him three years' probation. He has felt the anger of dire poverty, and he has overcome drink and drug problems in himself, which have also afflicted some of his sons. But he's gentle and forgiving and you value his soft, reasonable voice on all the documentaries he's helped along. The Spaniard in Marty Sheen might die on the barricades, but the Irishman can't stop laughing. "On 'Apocalypse'," he says," there were long nights in the Philippines where Francis, Marlon and I would go over the script. One night it was the whole night. We'd been sitting in the dark with candles, writing and rewriting. And in the morning, Marlon had taken his pages and folded paper hats. He had the script on his head!"

You can say that Sheen had his faith on his side, or you could argue that he is a fierce, self-made demon of work and determination who's not going to cheat unless the cheating is only acting. Like that odd flourish with which President Bartlett put on his jacket: that was a trick Martin Sheen had been running for years.

The West Wing: The Complete Series is available on DVD from Warner Home Video (44 discs, 112 hours, £89.97 at Amazon).

(David Thomson is the author of "The Whole Equation" and "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film", which has reached its fourth revision. He lives in San Francisco)

Portraits BRIGITTE LACOMBE, Los Angeles, January 2008