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).


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