Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Mark Wahlberg

A sandy-haired actor with cute, punk-next-door looks and a past to match, Mark Wahlberg went from a jailed Boston street thug to a respected legitimate actor in less than a decade, with attention-grabbing stops as a rapper and underwear model along the way. The youngest of nine children, Wahlberg counted among his brothers New Kids on the Block heartthrob Donnie. Indeed, he was briefly a member of that million dollar vocal group, but quickly left, reportedly unwilling to take singing lessons and unhappy with their syrupy style.

While Donnie was nearing the top of the charts as a New Kid, Mark was in jail, serving time at age 16 for a drug-addled attack on a Vietnamese man. While incarcerated, the young man worked on turning his life around and bulked up his relatively small-statured body with regular weight training. Three years later Wahlberg released the hip-hop/pop album "Music for the People" under the moniker Marky Mark. The 1991 record went platinum on the strength of the singles "Good Vibrations" and "Wildside" and the rapper's thuggish charm. Unwilling to rest on his music alone, Marky Mark gave his audience a little something extra, and was known for dropping his pants and revealing his buff physique as well as his underwear. This caused the people at Calvin Klein to take notice, and soon the rapper was a model, appearing on Times Square billboards in the designer's signature boxers.

Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch suffered a sophomore slump with their 1992 follow-up "You Gotta Believe,” and Wahlberg began to be known, much to his chagrin, as a model and celebrity more than a musician. The fallout that followed reports of his sometimes racially motivated violent past and his "free speech" defense of a wildly homophobic comment by Shabba Ranks certainly didn't help his public image. He moved into acting in 1993, playing a doomed student in the USA Network TV-movie "The Substitute.” The role wasn't particularly challenging or interesting, and Wahlberg's career could have easily ended there, but attracted to the business, he persevered. In 1994 he co-starred with Danny DeVito in Penny Marshall's "Renaissance Man.” Marshall, impressed by Wahlberg's cocksure attitude and thick urban accent, cast the neophyte in his first film role. While he admittedly didn't show much in the way of acting skill in the film, he did comport himself with ease in front of the camera, and possessed a spark and charm that proved appealing to audiences. The following year he even managed to steal scenes from Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Basketball Diaries,” playing volatile Mickey, boyhood friend of DiCaprio's Jim Carroll. In 1996 he gave a remarkably chilling performance in "Fear" as a charming but mysterious young man who dates a sheltered 16-year-old (Reese Witherspoon) and shows his true colors as a maniacal and violent stalker. A starring role alongside Bill Paxton in the little-seen independent "Traveller" followed in 1997, but it was that same year's "Boogie Nights" that would establish Wahlberg as a serious actor.

Helmed by relative newcomer Paul Thomas Anderson, "Boogie Nights" told the story of an unusually endowed busboy turned porn star and his rise and fall in the adult industry from the late 1970s to early 1980s. Wahlberg was initially wary of the project, worried that Anderson had approached him because of the underwear ads he wished to forget. Luckily for all involved, Wahlberg was convinced by Anderson and his script to take on the project and slimmed down to get the appropriately hungry look for the part. Roundly acclaimed if a little disjointed and long-winded, "Boogie Nights" was an enjoyable and oddly old-fashioned fable, and the actor's mix of boyish innocence and brute sexuality made him a perfect Eddie Adams/Dirk Diggler. In 1998 he cashed in on his renewed popularity in the action comedy "The Big Hit,” co-starring with Antonio Sabato Jr, Lou Diamond Phillips and Bokeem Woodbine as one of a group of suave and sexy, but somewhat bumbling hit men. The following year saw him take on a role opposite Chow Yun Fat in the Asian gang urban crime drama "The Corruptor". While his efforts in both "The Big Hit" and "The Corruptor" were solid, the roles didn't ring true as both were limited, two-dimensional characterizations, and Wahlberg's work, while capable, didn't add much. He would generally fare better with work that utilized his winning combination of youthful charm and worldly hardness and roles where his looks belied his actions.

In 1999 Wahlberg co-starred with George Clooney and Ice Cube in David O Russell's "Three Kings,” a hard-hitting but comedic chronicle of the Gulf War. Here he shone, making the most of a role as a man both terrified and tough, a young father and soldier desperate to get back home. He reunited with Clooney in the gripping actioner "The Perfect Storm" in 2000, a fact-based account of a downed fishing boat off the coast of Massachusetts. A harrowing film with a grueling shoot, the Wolfgang Petersen project promised to be a summer hit, and would further establish Wahlberg as a performer to be reckoned with. He next starred in "The Yards" (2000), a New York City-set crime drama directed by "Little Odessa" helmer James Gray. Although co-stars included James Caan and Charlize Theron, the film was carried by the actor, unlike much of his previous ensemble-type projects, and would prove to be a make or break vehicle that could allow him to shake his rapper/model past depending upon the reaction of audiences and critics. Wahlberg next starred in the comedy "Rock Star" (2001) as a lead singer for a small-time cover band who is tapped to replace a superstar hard rock front man. An unlikely rags to riches story, "Rock Star" was actually based on fact, and a surprise success like Wahlberg could certainly relate to these themes.

Wahlberg also headlined the much-anticipated adaptation of "Planet of the Apes" (also 2001), directed by Tim Burton, a project which had some merits and garnered a great initial buzz but ultimately disappointed. If Wahlberg found it hard to fill Charlton Heston's sandals, it was even more difficult for him to step into the designer loafers of suave Hollywood legend Cary Grant for the 2002 remake of Stanley Donen's 1963 classic "Charade"—so hard the studio wisely attempted to avoid comparison by calling the new version "The Truth About Charlie." Even the steady hand of Jonathan Demme couldn't mold Wahlberg's usually in-over-his-head persona into that of the strong, confident mysterious espionage agent that made the original story work so well. Despite such missteps in the remake ring, Wahlberg again signed up for yet another modern update of a well-made movie, this time re-teaming with his "The Yards" co-star Charlize Theron for F. Gary Gray's take on "The Italian Job" (2003) this time stepping into a role first played by Michael Caine.

He then played a fireman drawn into the search for answers to deep philosophical conundrums in a retail superstore when he reunited with David O. Russell for the "existential comedy" "I [Heart] Huckabees" (2004). Wahlberg then took on a role that was close to tough, troubled man he used to be when he played the hotheaded Bobby Mercer, one of four troubled foster sons seeking to avenge the murder of their mother, in John Singleton's hard-edged, if sometimes implausible, revenge drama "Four Brothers" (2005). Meanwhile, Wahlberg enjoyed some behind-the-scenes success on the small screen as the co-creator and executive producer of the hit HBO comedy "Entourage" (2004 - ), which drew upon anecdotes from the inside Hollywood exploits of Wahlberg and his hangers-on to tell the story of rising star Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) and his club-hopping crew.

For his next film, “Invincible” (2006), the true-to-life telling of improbable NFL player Vince Papale, a former part-timer bartender turned special teams star on the Philadelphia Eagles, Wahlberg made an earnest attempt to portray his character as realistically as possible, right down to rejecting the use of stunt doubles and taking his own hits. Besides wanting an accurate portrayal of Papale, who served on set as a consultant and trainer, Wahlberg didn’t want to be perceived as a wimp. Though his agents may have worried about their client getting hurt, Wahlberg earned the quick respect of the extras—many of who were Arena football players—after getting pummeled again and again on the field. But it was Wahlberg who harbored the most admiration after he met Papale, who impressed the actor with his passion and enthusiasm. The two shared similar backgrounds—both came from rough working-class neighborhoods—though Papale, unlike Wahlberg, managed to avoid falling into the trap of petty crime and thuggery. “Invincible” received strong reviews from critics, many of whom where pleased with its authenticity and heart despite rampant sports film clichés.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Matt Damon

After a few lean years, Matt Damon became Hollywood's Golden Boy as the star and co-author of the sleeper hit "Good Will Hunting" (1997). With his clean-cut looks and killer smile, the Massachusetts-born actor began his career playing callow teens disillusioned by circumstances, whether he was successful or not. While still boyishly handsome, by the end of the 1990s, Damon had begun to undertake darker characters, attempting a gradual maturity. Still, he eschewed the brooding characters favored by contemporaries like Edward Norton in favor of the devilishly charming ones, along the lines of those essayed by the equally blond Matthew McConaughey.

Although he acted onstage in school plays and declared his intention to pursue that career when he enrolled at Harvard, Damon found it difficult at first. His initial screen appearance was in the one-line role of Adam Storke's younger brother in "Mystic Pizza" (1988). He was well-cast as Brian Dennehy's medical school dropout kid in the made-for-cable movie "Rising Son" (TNT, 1990) and excelled as an anti-Semitic preppie in "School Ties" (1992), but has stated that the competition for the roles in his age range was fierce. Nearly all the young men in "School Ties" had auditioned for the co-starring role in "Scent of a Woman" (also 1992), but the plum role went to Chris O'Donnell. In fact, Damon and O'Donnell often competed for roles with the latter generally winning out. While Damon proved adequate in the sizable role as the narrator of Walter Hill's revisionist Western "Geronimo: An American Legend" (1993), he and his role were outshone by more seasoned actors (i.e., Gene Hackman, Wes Studi). On the other hand, he all but stole "Courage Under Fire" (1996) from Denzel Washington, offering a vivid turn as a guilt-ridden veteran of the Persian Gulf War tormented by an incident in battle. (He lost forty pounds to achieve the gaunt, haunted look of the character.)

While at Harvard, Damon had begun to write a script about a troubled mathematics genius. With childhood buddy and frequent co-star Ben Affleck, he fashioned a screenplay that soon became the talk of Hollywood with studios bidding competitively for the project. In 1994, Castle Rock initially purchased the rights for over a half-million dollars in a pay-or-play deal. The story then focused on Will, a South Boston resident with superior intelligence whom the government attempts to recruit. A year later, with the project in turnaround, Miramax purchased the rights and the script had evolved to focus more strongly on the emotional difficulties of the leading character. Before "Good Will Hunting" went before the cameras, however, Damon landed his first screen lead as a newly-minted crusading attorney in Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of "John Grisham's 'The Rainmaker'" (also 1997). The one-two punch of the two leading roles (undoubtedly assisted by the resulting publicity for Damon and Affleck as writers and actors) solidified the actor's status as the "It" boy of 1997. Earning both a Best Actor Academy Award nomination and sharing an Oscar win for Best Screenplay further raised his profile.

With his career in high gear, Damon was now in a class alone, no longer having to compete with Chris O'Donnell (whose own star was tarnished by "Batman and Robin"). Before the hoopla, Stephen Spielberg had tapped the actor to play the title role in the WWII epic "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), which critics heaped with praise for its showy camerawork and impressively staged battle set pieces. As the soldier whose three brothers have been killed in action, the All-American looking Damon was in only the last third of the film, but still managed to make an impression. He fared less well as the poker hustler-turned-law student who agrees to help his ex-con best friend in "Rounders" (also 1998). In this redux of Martin Scorsese's 1974 drama "Mean Streets," Damon relied more on his winning personality, warm smile and good looks than on his acting ability, giving more of a "movie-star" portrayal than a real performance. Still, he now had his pick of roles. Repaying writer-producer-director Kevin Smith for his assistance on "Good Will Hunting", he teamed with Affleck to play a pair of fallen angels trying to get back into heaven in "Dogma" (1999). Damon followed by undertaking the more challenging title role of an American who decides to murder his traveling companion (Jude Law) and assume his identity in Anthony Minghella's well-crafted "The Talented Mr Ripley" (also 1999), resulting in one of the actor's best, most intense performance, though the film largely built its reputation and devoted admirers after its intial release.

Damon's career hit a brief but worrisome slump with the release of three creative and box-office duds in a row: director Robert Redford's lethargic "The Legend of Bagger Vance" (2000) with Damon as a washed up golf pro opposite wise caddy Will Smith; "All the Pretty Horses" (2001), director Billy Bob Thornton's failed adaptation of novelist Cormac McCarthy's Western; and a small supporting turn in Van Sant's by-the-numbers "Finding Forrester" (2000). The actor recaptured his A-list cachet when he joined the all-star cast of Steven Soderberg's remake of "Ocean's Eleven" (2001), playing pickpocket and aspiring big-time thief Linus Caldwell in the popular hit--he would return to the role for the sequel "Ocean's Twelve" (2004). His next film was a complete about-face from those slick, polished crowd-pleasers: Damon and Casey Affleck starred (and co-wrote) the largely improvised drama "Gerry" (2002), a little-seen effort directed by Van Sant about two men named Gerry who are stranded in the desert during a hiking mishap--an intriguing experiment but not for mainstream audiences.

Demostrating his increasing diversity and believability, Damon took on the role of the amnesiac uber-spy Jason Bourne in the film adaptation of Robert Ludlum's "The Bourne Identity" (2002), a crackerjack thriller that did solid box office business and became a mega-hit on home video. The actor would reprise the role for the equally well-crafted sequel "The Bourne Supremecy" (2004). And he would demonstrate a flair for goofball comedy, with a wickedly funny turn on the small screen as Jack's scheming rival to join the gay men's chorus in a 2002 episode of the hit NBC sitcom "Will & Grace," a role he was expected to reprise; and when he teamed with perfectly smarmy foil Greg Kinnear as a pair of conjoined twins in the Farrelly brothers' flawed but winning "Stuck On You" (2003). His next film cast him opposite Heath Ledger as an utterly fictionalized version of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, the Bavarian fairy tale spinners known as "The Brothers Grimm" (2005), reimagined by director Terry Gilliam as a pair of curse-removing con artists who are suddenly tasked with solving a genuine magical mystery that ultimately inspires many of their famous stories. Damon showed a great deal of panache and charisma as practical scoundrel Wilhelm, but the story ultimately left him too little to do, and the film lacked some of the spark and imagination expected of a Gilliam project (behind the scenes, Damon was also credited with frequently playing peacemaker between the embattled Gilliam and the films' producers, the Weinstein brothers). At the end of that year Damon gave a fine performance in the complex potboiler "Syriana" (2005) as an oil industry analyst living a comfortable life in Geneva with his family, but the death of one of his children while on a visit to an oil-rich nation drives him to become obsessed with helping the country's benevolent young prince raise his nation with sound businees dealings.

Damon has cultivated a reputation as one of the most affable movie actors in Hollywood, and has frequently collaborated with his friends to give their projects a boost. He and Affleck created, produced and often appeared in the HBO reality series "Project: Greenlight" (2001- ), which documented and bankrolled untried aspiring filmmakers' attempts to create a motion picture to be released by Miramax (the show resulted in the films "Stolen Summer" [2002] and "The Battle of Shaker Heights" [2003], both executive produced by Affleck and Damon), and the duo also created and produced the short-lived ABC drama/game show "Push, Nevada" (2002). Damon also cameoed in films by his friend, writer-director Kevin Smith, including "Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back" (2001) and "Jersey Girl" (2004); and in films from his "Ocean's Eleven" collaborators, including "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" (2002); and up-and-coming filmmaker pals, such as the creators of the comedy "Eurotrip" (2004). As a voice actor, Damon lend his distinctive vocals to the films "Titan A.E." (2000), "Spirit: Stalltion of the Cimmaron" (2002), "The Majestic" (2001) and "Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train" (2004).

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Nicolas Cage

Though haunted by cries of nepotism early in his career, engaging, sleepy-eyed American star Nicolas Cage, nephew of director Francis Ford Coppola, led anything but a charmed existence growing up amidst the placid suburban comfort of Long Beach, California. His mother's hospitalizations for severe depression kept her away from the family for long intervals, and his parents' subsequent divorce, coupled with his adolescent feelings of "dorkiness" made it easy for him to identify with James Dean's outsider status in 1955's "East of Eden". Credited as Nicolas Cage for the first time, he channeled his frustrations through his initial leading character in "Valley Girl" (1983), his name change inspired by Luke Cage, the black comic-book hero who suffers from depression and insecurity. He has always looked at the world as a very strange place, and his correspondingly dark vision has colored his work from the beginning.

Cage graduated from teenage angst after providing a strong presence in a small part in his uncle's underrated "Rumble Fish" (1983), making his first serious dramatic waves as the sensitive, strong and fiercely loyal friend of Matthew Modine in "Birdy" (1984), Alan Parker's duet for emotionally scarred Vietnam veterans. Although roundly criticized at the time for his over-the-top choices in Coppola's nostalgic "Peggy Sue Got Married" (1986), they attracted the attention of Cher who, likening his strangely compelling performance to watching a two-hour car crash, proposed him for the role of Ronny in "Moonstruck" (1987)--then walked out of the production for a day until the producers gave in. "Moonstruck" was his first really big box-office hit, and though some critics objected to his portrayal of the inarticulate but philosophical baker he patterned after Cocteau's alienated monster from 1946's "Beauty and the Beast", it was unmistakably vintage Cage.

Cage showcased his goofier qualities in such movies as the Coen brothers' screwball comedy "Raising Arizona" (1987) and David Lynch's odyssey, "Wild at Heart" (1990), in which no amount of overacting as Elvis-acolyte Sailor could ever be too much for Lynch's anything-goes universe. He probably single-handedly guaranteed a perpetual cult status for "Vampire's Kiss" (1989) when he ate a live cockroach in yet another method-acting stunt (he had knocked out a tooth for the filming of "Birdy"), and though the critics united with the public in ignoring "Amos and Andrew" (1993), it was his wacky charm that was central to the success of Andrew Bergman's comedy "Honeymoon in Vegas" (1992). Unfortunately Bergman couldn't repeat the formula for "It Could Happen to You" (1994), despite the presence of Cage in that cast. Returning to the Nevada city in Mike Figgis' "Leaving Las Vegas" (1995), Cage delivered an uncharacteristically subtle, multi-layered performance as an alcoholic writer out to commit suicide. Bringing warmth and humor to what could have been an unsympathetic role, Cage earned rave notices, earning nearly every possible award, including a Best Actor Academy Award.

Following his Oscar win, Cage reinvented himself as an action hero, starring in a trio of blockbuster muscle movies that elevated him to the ranks of aging icons Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Harrison Ford. "The Rock" (1996) teamed his at-first geeky FBI biochemist with Sean Connery (as the only man ever to have escaped from Alcatraz) to free hostages on the famous island while "Con Air" (1997) matched his bad-luck good guy with offbeat Federal Marshall John Cusack to foil the machinations of some of the hardest criminals ever assembled. After playing a psychotic terrorist who gets to swap identities with FBI guy John Travolta in John Woo's "Face/Off" (1997), Cage enjoyed a respite from actioners in "City of Angels" (1998), a love story inspired by Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire" (1988), before taking his turn in Brian De Palma's crime thriller "Snake Eyes" (1998). In 1999, Cage starred in two edgy thrillers, the vile "8mm" directed by Joel Schumacher and the intriguing but ultimately unfulfilling "Bringing Out the Dead" directed by Martin Scorsese.

2000 brought Cage back in touch with his action movie side, starring in the car theft movie "Gone in 60 Seconds" with Angelina Jolie. While the movie was short on character development and plot, it was big on fast car chases (Cage was a well-known automomotive enthusist in his private life) and was a hit at the box office. However, Cage's next three films did not fare as well, with "Family Man" (2000), "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" (2001) and "Windtalkers" (2002) all receiving lukewarm reception with audiences and critics.

After becoming better known for his unorthodox personal life (such as his three-month marriage to Elvis Presley's daughter Lisa Marie in 2002), Cage was ripe for a comeback when he starred as real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his fictional twin brother Donald in the reality-bending "Adaptation" (2002), in which Kaufman and director Spike Jonze (who previously teamed on the unconventional "Being John Malkovich") attempt to mix the fact and fiction behind Kaufman's attempts to adapt the bestselling novel The Orchid Thief into a motion picture. Cage, finding an ideal vehicle for his talents, finally returned to the kind of edgy, quirky and unpredictable characterizations that distinguished him early on, and gets to appropriately indulge in some of his latter-day showiness as well. Cage's whimsical portrayal of the Kaufman brothers earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination, his second. Also in 2002, Cage saw the release of his first directorial effort, "Sonny," about a man (James Franco) who wants out of the family business as a professional gigolo, which opened quietly amid mixed to unfavorable reviews.

Cage followed up his "Adapatation" triumph with a much-admired turn in director Ridley Scott's "Matchstick Men" (2003) as a small time con man with an abundance of pathological quirks who nevertheless comes alive when he discovers the 14-year-old daughter he never knew existed. Then he returned to action fare--this time in a more lighthearted and appealing mode--with the panned-but-popular Jerry Bruckheimer-produced "National Treasue" (2004), this time playing Benjamin Franklin Gates, the descendent of a treasure-hunting clan who seeks a war chest hidden by the Founding Fathers after the Revolutionary War. Next was his turn in "Lord of War" (2005) as Yuri Orlov, a globetrotting arms dealer struggling to stay one step ahead of his enemies--a relentless Interpol agent, his business rivals, and his notoriuous dictator customers--while also grappling his own conscience. The movie polarized critics--some hated it and others praised it, but all agreed Cage turned in a finely etched performance. Even better was his portrayal of the successful Chicago weather forecaster Dave Spritz who nevertheless inspires total strangers to throw fast foot at him in director Gore Verbinksi's seriocomic, existential "The Weather Man" (2005). Playing a newly introspective man wresting with his own mediocrity and plagued with an inability to meaningfully connect with his family members--his accomplished writer father (Michael Caine), his estranged wife (Hope Davis) and his children--in ways both hilarious and heartbreaking, Cage delivered one of his most measured, effective--and surprisingly low-key--performances, and sparked much awards season buzz. A lifelong comic book fan (as his adopted surname suggested) who flirted with virtually every comics-to-screen role that would come down the pike, from Superman to Constantine, the actor finally played a four-color character when he appeared as the hellish, motorcycle-riding superhero "Ghost Rider" (lensed 2005).

In addition to his high-profile acting career, Cage frequently made headlines for his high-profile romances. After a frequently unorthodox marriage to actress Patricia Arquette, Cage had an on-again, off-again relationship with Lisa Marie Presley. When their brief marriage ended for good in 2004, the actor surprised many with his marriage to Alice Kim, a former sushi waitress 20 years younger than Cage, a mere two months after his divorce from Presley was finalized.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Martin Sheen

One of the busiest, most conscientious actors in Hollywood, Martin Sheen has put together a Herculean body of work, much of it forgettable, yet sifting through the chaff reveals a vast array of gem-like grains to beg his mention among the great actors of his generation. He became established playing youths run amok, and though the resume boasts its share of villains, he has grown over the years into a patriarchal figure, whose rectitude and social responsibility is in keeping with his very liberal Catholic activism. The proud family man has seen all four children enter the acting business, with both Emilio (Estevez) and Charlie (Sheen) enjoying heat comparable to or in excess of any he has known. In a way, Charlie's bad boy persona reflects the father's once wild recklessness short-circuited by a heart attack and near-emotional collapse during the long shoot for "Apocalypse Now" (1979), his own personal wake-up call. There at his side, as always, his fiercely loyal wife Janet put everything in perspective by reminding him, "It's only a movie, you know."

Born Ramon Estevez to immigrant parents, Sheen left his Dayton, Ohio home for the bright lights of NYC, apprenticing at Judith Malina and Julian Beck's Living Theater before making his Broadway debut in Frank Gilroy's "Never Live Over a Pizza Parlor" (1964). Though that play was short-lived, he grabbed attention later that year with a Tony-nominated turn as a returning war veteran opposite Jack Albertson in Gilroy's "The Subject Was Roses", later reprising his role alongside Albertson in the 1968 film version. Sheen's feature debut came as a delinquent terrorizing the occupants of a subway car in "The Incident" (1967), but his real breakthrough came as the alienated, amoral yet charismatic killer (still his favorite part) on the run with Sissy Spacek in Terrence Malick's "Badlands" (1973), based loosely on the Starkweather-Fugate thrill-killings of the 1950s. Evoking the specter of James Dean, his character Kit parlayed a rebel image into his ultimate goal of notoriety, capture, fame and death, whereas Spacek's Holly accepted the mindless slaughter but stopped short of embracing the complete package, eschewing a glorious outlaw's execution.

Already counting the star-studded "The Andersonville Trial" (PBS, 1970) and landmark coming-out-of-the-closet tale "That Certain Summer" (ABC, 1972, in which he played Hal Holbrook's lover) among his TV-movies, Sheen embarked on a series of critically-acclaimed projects for the small screen. He earned an Emmy nomination for his sensitive portrayal of the deserter made an example in NBC's "The Execution of Private Slovik", and he showed the gangster's human side in ABC's "The Story of Pretty Boy Floyd" (both 1974), depicting Floyd as a decent man with a strong sense of family duty. That year's powerful "The Missiles of October" (ABC) also saw him slip into the skin of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, his first of many fictional forays into political life, but it is his turn as the military assassin sent to terminate the command of a crazed Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" (1979) that remains his signature role. Sheen has probably never put more of himself on screen before or since, and Coppola captured that commitment, particularly in the hotel room scene filmed prior to the actor's real-life heart attack.

Sheen rebounded from that near-death experience with a renewed sense of what is important in life. He donated his $200,000 salary for his three weeks' work on "Gandhi" (1982) to various charities, and his meeting with Mother Teresa while filming in India restored him to the active Catholicism of his youth. His work in the anti-nuclear movement has occasionally landed him in jail, and his sleeping on a sidewalk grate in Washington DC to raise money for the homeless is just another example of his selfless efforts on behalf of humanity. Despite the time devoted to social justice, his amazing output of film and TV roles has never slowed. Some of his more memorable work continued to develop his politician's persona. There was a creepy turn as the villainous populist of David Cronenberg's "The Dead Zone" (1983), based on the Stephen King novel, but he also played President John F Kennedy in that year's NBC miniseries "Kennedy", not to mention his portrayal of Watergate conspirator John Dean in the CBS miniseries "Blind Ambition" (1979), based on Dean's best-selling book.

Forming Sheen/Greenblatt Productions with William R Greenblatt, Sheen began mixing directing and producing with his acting. After helming "Babies Having Babies" (1986), a well-regarded "CBS Schoolbreak Special" which brought him a Daytime Emmy for direction, the actor once paired opposite real-life brother Joe Estevez as on-screen siblings in two 1974 ABC movies found himself portraying a union official father at odds with the insider trading world of his financier son (Charlie) in Oliver Stone's absorbing "Wall Street" (1987). The following year he executive produced and starred in two features, playing Barnard Hughes' son in "Da" and a trial judge in Leo Penn's "Judgment in Berlin", and he also executive produced and starred in the TNT movie "Nightbreaker" (1989), in which son Emilio essayed his character at an earlier age. Sons Charlie and Ramon (Estevez) joined him for his disappointing feature directing and co-screenwriting debut, "Cadence" (1991), while Emilio's "The War at Home" (1996) was a family affair featuring three generations (Martin, Emilio, daughter Renee Estevez and Emilio's daughter Poloma).

Sheen acted in many features during the 90s, but his work for the small screen is what really stood out. "Badlands" and "Apocalypse Now" not withstanding, his legacy may well be as a TV actor. Though "Gettysburg" (1993) received a theatrical release, far more people saw his distinguished, bewhiskered turn as General Robert E Lee on TNT. A veteran of years on the soap "As the World Turns" (CBS) during the 60s and countless episodes of series like "The Defenders" (CBS), "Mission: Impossible" (CBS) and "The FBI" (ABC), Sheen copped an Emmy for his memorable 1993 guest appearance on CBS' "Murphy Brown" as a celebrated 60s radical writer who emerges from a long self-imposed seclusion as a vocal conservative. Perhaps his most prominent feature role of the decade came as an advisor of "The American President" (1995) and introduced him to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. So it perhaps came as no surprise when he surfaced as US President Josiah Bartlet on the critically-acclaimed, Sorkin-created "The West Wing" (NBC, 1999- ), for which he earned numerous accolades, including Emmy nods in 2000 and 2001.

His success on the small screen reheated Sheen's film career, and the actor delivered the goods with impressive supporting turns as a basketball coach in the high school update of "Othello," "O" in 2001, and as the southern lawyer who welcomes con man and prospective son-in-law Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) into his home in director Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can" (2002).