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One of the busiest, most conscientious actors who ever worked in Hollywood, Martin Sheen put together a Herculean body of work - though much of it forgettable - that contained enough highlights to consider him to be among the great actors of his generation. After establishing himself as a youth run amok, most notably in "Badlands" (1973), Sheen grew over the years into a patriarchal figure whose rectitude and social responsibility kept with his liberal Catholic activism. A proud family man who saw all four children enter the acting business, with sons Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen enjoying lucrative careers of their own, he was perhaps most noted for his performance in Francis Ford Coppola's storied "Apocalypse Now" (1979), on which he suffered a near-fatal heart attack while seen onscreen in a drunken, unscripted meltdown the director incorporated into the finished product. But he subdued his rebellious ways with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, while putting his political activism to the fore with an enduring portrayal of an idealistic president on "The West Wing" (NBC, 1999-2006), which allowed him to put his two greatest passions - acting and activism - on full display.Born Ramon Estevez on...
One of the busiest, most conscientious actors who ever worked in Hollywood, Martin Sheen put together a Herculean body of work - though much of it forgettable - that contained enough highlights to consider him to be among the great actors of his generation. After establishing himself as a youth run amok, most notably in "Badlands" (1973), Sheen grew over the years into a patriarchal figure whose rectitude and social responsibility kept with his liberal Catholic activism. A proud family man who saw all four children enter the acting business, with sons Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen enjoying lucrative careers of their own, he was perhaps most noted for his performance in Francis Ford Coppola's storied "Apocalypse Now" (1979), on which he suffered a near-fatal heart attack while seen onscreen in a drunken, unscripted meltdown the director incorporated into the finished product. But he subdued his rebellious ways with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, while putting his political activism to the fore with an enduring portrayal of an idealistic president on "The West Wing" (NBC, 1999-2006), which allowed him to put his two greatest passions - acting and activism - on full display.
Born Ramon Estevez on Aug. 3, 1940 in Dayton, OH, Sheen was raised the seventh of 10 children by his father, Francisco, a Spanish immigrant who worked the sugarcane fields of Cuba for a few years after initially being denied entry into the United States, and his mother, Mary Ann, an Irish woman sent to the United States by her father because of her family's deep involvement in the Irish Republican Army. When he was nine, Sheen began working as a caddy at an exclusive country club, where he saw for the first time the differences between working class people and privileged elites; the latter of which he grew not to envy or respect. While attending Chaminade High School, he began performing in several productions after having harbored a desire to become an actor. Despite his father's objections, Sheen borrowed money from a local Catholic priest, Father Alfred Drapp, and moved to New York City to pursue his dream post-high school. Shortly after his arrival, he landed work as a curtain puller and floor sweeper at the Living Theater, which netted him just five bucks a week but the opportunity to audition for roles.
In 1959, Sheen made his professional stage acting debut in "The Connection" for the Living Theater. Soon after, he began working in television, landing guest spots on early shows like "The Defenders" (CBS, 1961-65) and "Route 66" (CBS, 1960-64), as well as a featured role on "As the World Turns" (CBS, 1956-2010). Following a production of "Antony and Cleopatra" for the New York Shakespeare Festival, Sheen made a brief Broadway debut in Frank Gilroy's "Never Live Over a Pretzel Factory" (1964), which ran for about a week before the play was shuttered. He found greater Broadway success with Gilroy's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "The Subject Was Roses" (1964), in which he played a young soldier returned home from World War II, only to find himself embroiled in his parents' domestic strife. The role earned Sheen his first Tony Award nomination. Meanwhile, he made his feature debut as a juvenile delinquent terrorizing the occupants of a subway car in "The Incident" (1967), which he followed by reprising his Tony-nominated role alongside Broadway co-star Jack Albertson in the film adaptation of "The Subject Was Roses" (1968).
Despite dipping his toe in features and television, Sheen stayed wedded to the stage during the early part of his career. He tackled the title roles in the New York Shakespeare productions of "Hamlet" (1967) and "Romeo and Juliet" (1968) before writing "Down the Morning Line" (1969) under his birth name for the Public Theater, which starred the then-unknown Danny DeVito and was directed by Michael Douglas. Returning to film, he joined an all star cast that included Alan Arkin, Jon Voight, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins and Orson Welles for Mike Nichols' biting adaptation of Joseph Heller's wild anti-war satire, "Catch-22" (1970). Two years later, he had a significant role in the landmark television movie, "That Certain Summer" (ABC, 1972), playing the male lover of a middle-aged divorcee (Hal Holbrook) confronted with the challenge of telling his son (Scott Jacoby) about his sexuality. Though tame by later standards, the film was the first to portray homosexuality in a mature and non-derogatory way.
But Sheen's real breakthrough came as the amoral, yet charismatic serial killer, Kit Carruthers, who goes on the run with a teenage girl (Sissy Spacek) in Terrence Malick's "Badlands" (1973), based loosely on the Starkweather-Fugate thrill-killings of the 1950s. Tacitly evoking the specter of James Dean, Sheen portrayed Kit as a rebel seeking notoriety, capture, fame and even death. Sheen long remembered the part as being his favorite, even claiming that it was the one role where he would not change a thing about his performance. Meanwhile, Sheen embarked on a series of critically-acclaimed projects for the small screen. In "Catholics" (CBS, 1973), he played a priest sent by the Pope to conform a strong-willed abbot (Trevor Howard) to the new ways of the church. He followed with an Emmy-nominated turn as real-life deserter Eddie Slovik, the only soldier sentenced to death for cowardice during World War II, in "The Execution of Private Slovik" (NBC, 1974). Sheen was a gangster with a human touch in "The Story of Pretty Boy Floyd" (ABC, 1974), depicting the famed bank robber as a decent man with a strong sense of family duty.
In one of his first fictional forays into the political theater, Sheen delivered a strong and believable turn as one of his own personal heroes, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in "The Missiles of October" (ABC, 1974), a powerful docudrama detailing the events surrounding the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. He maintained a steady presence on television for the bulk of the decade, starring alongside brother Joe Estevez in "The California Kid" (ABC, 1974), which he followed with "The Last Survivors" (NBC, 1975), playing an officer from a sunken ship who must decide who lives and who dies aboard a crowded lifeboat heading toward a dangerous typhoon. While in Rome filming the mediocre disaster flick, "The Cassandra Crossing" (1976), Sheen received a phone call from director Francis Ford Coppola, who was in the Philippines making "Apocalypse Now" (1979). Dissatisfied with the performance of original lead actor, Harvey Keitel, Coppola offered the part of Willard, an Army captain sent upriver during the Vietnam War to kill a colonel gone mad (Marlon Brando). Sheen accepted and flew to the island jungles for what became the most tumultuous shoot of his career.
Almost from the start, production on "Apocalypse Now" was plagued with disaster - brutal monsoon weather that shut down filming for weeks, cost overruns, an overweight Marlon Brandon who was cast to play the emaciated Colonel Kurtz, and the lack of a coherent ending, thanks in large part to Brando's weight. For his part, Sheen was taxed to near death by the demanding Coppola, who put the 36-year-old actor through the ringer to the point where he suffered a near-fatal heart attack a year after principle photography began. Sheen's heavy drinking - which was starting to become a serious problem - only added to the degradation of his health. While Coppola spent six weeks shooting other scenes, Sheen recuperated. He returned to the set in mid-April, completing the production. The finished film - hailed as a masterpiece by most - opened with a hypnotic montage that depicted a drunken Sheen suffering a near-mental collapse in a hotel room - an event the actor barely remembered being a part of afterward. Completely unscripted, the scene ended with Sheen punching a real mirror with his fist, which cut his hand, while showing him on the floor breaking down in tears. All actions were captured by Coppola, who rolled camera on Sheen's brief, but real descent into madness.
Though he continued his slide for a couple of more years, Sheen eventually rebounded from his near-death experience with a renewed sense of purpose. His road to recovery began while filming "Gandhi" (1982), in which he played a fictional American journalist who befriends Mahatma Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) on his quest for Indian independence. He donated his $200,000 salary for his three weeks' work to various charities, while returning to his Catholic roots after a meeting with Mother Teresa. Sheen also joined Alcoholic Anonymous in a long effort to overcome his drinking problem. Meanwhile, he delivered a creepy turn as the villainous populist of David Cronenberg's "The Dead Zone" (1983), based on the Stephen King novel. Returning to the political arena, he played President John F Kennedy in the miniseries "Kennedy" (NBC, 1983), which encompassed the doomed president's administration - from the early days of Camelot to the tragedy that befell the nation in Dallas. In the melodrama, "Man, Woman and Child" (1983), he was a happily married college professor whose tranquil family life is shattered when the child he fathered with an old lover shows up on his doorstep.
After a supporting turn in the solid adaptation of Stephen King's "Firestarter" (1984), he was a liberal-minded tenant of an apartment complex who challenges a no-nonsense ex-military man who has taken over security of the building following a series of crimes in "The Guardian" (HBO, 1984). Sheen exercised some of his own personal demons playing real-life cop Ed Zigo, who was plagued by personal tragedies while tracking down the notorious Son of Sam, in "Out of the Darkness" (CBS, 1985). Meanwhile, the actor formed Sheen/Greenblatt Productions with William R. Greenblatt and began mixing directing and producing with his onscreen duties. He earned a Daytime Emmy Award for his direction of "Babies Having Babies" (1986), a well-regarded "CBS Schoolbreak Special" that explored the issue of teen pregnancy by following the stories of five different girls struggling to cope with the same problem. Sheen returned to feature prominence with a small, but memorable turn as a union official and father at odds with the insider trading world of his financier son - played by real-life son Charlie Sheen - in Oliver Stone's absorbing drama of greed and excess, "Wall Street" (1987).
The following year, Sheen executive-produced and starred in two features, playing Barnard Hughes' son in "Da" (1988) and a trial judge in Leo Penn's "Judgment in Berlin" (1988), a courtroom drama about a real incident in 1978, when an East German man hijacked a Polish airliner with a toy gun and forced it to land in West Germany. Following several forgettable projects - "Beverly Hills Brats" (1989) and "Beyond the Stars" (1989), chief among them - Sheen served as executive producer while starring alongside son Emilio Estevez in the made-for-television movie "Nightbreaker" (TNT, 1989), a politically-themed drama about a former military doctor - played by both Sheen and Estevez; the latter in flashbacks - sterilized after nuclear bomb testing by the U.S. government in the 1950s. By this time, Sheen was also well-known for being a political activist with a knack for getting arrested - some 60-odd times over the course of a few decades. Following his first arrest, which came when he protested President Ronald Reagan's nuclear initiative, Sheen was involved in many issues, including environmental causes, anti-war demonstrations and civil rights marches. Sheen also had no problem doing whatever was necessary to save one of his sons from drug addiction. After staging an intervention for Charlie - even putting friend Clint Eastwood on the phone to talk him into rehab - Sheen went public in a big way when Charlie overdosed in May 1998 and his father reported it to police - in essence, landing his son in legal trouble and court-ordered rehab to save his life. Some were flummoxed that a father would turn in his own son, but Sheen passionately spoke publicly of his determination to do whatever was necessary to ensure Charlie's recovery.
Despite the many nights he spent in jail for his political activism and devotion to issues close to his heart, Sheen maintained a steady flow of film and television projects. He made his feature debut as a director with the disappointing military drama, "Cadence" (1991), which depicted an AWOL soldier (Charlie Sheen) thrown into an all-African American stockade, where he confronts a racist sergeant. Though he continued to be a consistent force in the feature world, Sheen became more indentified with the small screen as his career progressed. While the Civil War epic, "Gettysburg" (1993) received a theatrical release, far more people saw his distinguished, bewhiskered turn as General Robert E. Lee on the later TNT telecast. That same year, Sheen copped his first Emmy Award for his memorable guest appearance on "Murphy Brown" (CBS, 1988-1998) as a celebrated sixties radical writer who emerges from a self-imposed seclusion as a vocal conservative. Following the tone-deaf thriller "Hear No Evil" (1993), he starred opposite Patty Duke in "A Matter of Justice" (NBC, 1993), a two-part miniseries based on the true story of a mother trying to bring her daughter-in-law to justice for the murder of her son.
Sheen's prolific output - which consisted of as many duds as gems - continued unabated in the second half of the decade. After playing an assistant district attorney in "One of Her Own" (ABC, 1994), which was based on the real-life case of a female officer (Toni Shroud) raped by a fellow cop, he strapped on his tinfoil hat for the alien conspiracy drama "Roswell" (Showtime, 1994), which focused on the crash of an unidentified flying object in the New Mexico desert in 1947. Perhaps his most prominent feature role of the decade came as a presidential advisor to Michael Douglas' commander-in-chief in "The American President" (1995), which acquainted him with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Three generations of Sheen's, including son Emilio and granddaughter Poloma, appeared in "The War at Home" (1996), which starred Estevez as a Vietnam veteran struggling to adapt to life back at home after the war. In "Hostile Waters" (HBO, 1997), he was the captain of a U.S nuclear submarine that collides with another nuclear sub from the Soviet Union, sparking a near-catastrophe of international proportions. Sheen was the heavy in the supernatural adventure, "Spawn" (1997), playing an evil government official who betrays and kills an assassin (Michael Jai White) who returns from hell to exact revenge.
After several decades on the stage and screen, Sheen finally landed his first regular series role with "The West Wing" (NBC, 1999-2006), Aaron Sorkin's behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of the White House, as seen through a group of idealist staffers. Sheen played President Josiah Bartlet, a former two-term governor of New Hampshire who serves as the leader of the free world with passion, intelligence, toughness and a touch of humor. Perhaps idealized to the point of being impossible, Sheen's character nonetheless faced numerous challenges, particularly a battle with multiple sclerosis. Meanwhile, the critically-acclaimed show was a long-running ratings winner for NBC, while racking up numerous awards and nominations. Sheen himself was nominated for an Outstanding Lead Actor Emmy Award six times, though he failed to win one. Nonetheless, Sheen became the country's favorite pseudo-president, particularly during the dark days of George W. Bush. Of course, his numerous arrests for political activism were only amplified because of his fictional portrayal of the president.
As the political atmosphere darkened following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and the subsequent Iraq War, Sheen was a frequent presence at numerous anti-war rallies. He also became actively involved on the campaign trail, stumping for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004. In 2006, Sheen was rumored to have been contacted by members of the Democratic Party in Ohio to persuade him to run for the senate, which he politely declined, stating he was unqualified for office. Following yet another arrest in 2007 for trespassing on a nuclear test site in Nevada, Sheen supported and raised money for New Mexico governor Bill Richardson during the 2008 Democratic primary campaign. Once Richardson dropped out of the race, Sheen threw his support behind the eventual president, Barack Obama.
During his successful run on "The West Wing," Sheen's film career received a significant jolt in the arm. He delivered a strong turn as a high school basketball coach in "O" (2001), a contemporary take on William Shakespeare's "Othello," which he followed with a turn as a southern lawyer who welcomes con man and prospective son-in-law Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) into his home in "Catch Me If You Can" (2002). He next made an appearance in Emilio's reflective political drama, "Bobby" (2006), which focused on the people working at the Ambassador Hotel the night Robert Kennedy was shot. Being a huge political influence on his sons, both Sheen and Estevez spoke reverentially of the real RFK throughout the extensive press tour. Sheen was one of many quality parts of Martin Scorsese's award-winning crime drama, "The Departed" (2006), in which he played the commanding officer of an undercover cop (Leonardo DiCaprio) who has infiltrated the inner circle of a notorious mob boss (Jack Nicholson) at the same time an informant has infiltrated the state police. Following an episode on Charlie's hit sitcom, "Two and a Half Men" (CBS, 2003-15), he narrated "They Killed Sister Dorothy" (HBO, 2008), a documentary that shed light on why a Catholic nun from Ohio was shot to death in South America. He next made an appearance in the forgettable comedy "Imagine That" (2009), starring Eddie Murphy.
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