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A Conversation with Martin Sheen

By Brennen Matthews

Photographs by Jeff Vespa

Few actors have reached the acclaim and recognition that the much-applauded thespian Ramón Gerardo Antonio Estévez, better known as Martin Sheen, has achieved. At the young age of 79, Sheen continues to represent characters that we love on screen, fight for causes that he believes passionately in, and invest deeply in his growing family. Never one to sit idle, Sheen was named honorary Mayor of Malibu, California, in 1989, nominated for ten Emmy awards and eight Golden Globes during his career, and even received a coveted star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Perhaps best known for his role as President Bartlett in The West Wing or perhaps for his Big Screen leads in Apocalypse Now, The Departed, Gandhi, and The Way, Sheen is not someone people easily forget.

You are originally from Dayton, Ohio. Do you ever get back?

Sure, I’ve got tons of nieces and nephews, my brother and his wife, John and Barbara, are still there. He’s retired from public television there in town.

Do you still feel at home there?

Oh yes, very much so, you know. In fact, I was scheduled to join a memorial service for the victims of August 4th this past year. Unfortunately, I had to go to Texas to start a job unexpectedly, so I missed the peace march and the memorial for the victims.*

*On August 4, 2019, Connor Stephen Betts, 24, fatally shot nine people and wounded 17 others using an AR-15 style pistol.

I grew up about six blocks from where those shootings occurred. I grew up on Brown Street and we used to walk through [that area]. All those old buildings became part of the National Register. They were fixed up and made to present this very beautiful renewal of the whole community, and it’s become a tourist attraction. That’s why it was so full that night of the shootings.

We were just in Cleveland a few weeks ago doing a few days on a film out there.

Back in 1961 you actually did a guest spot on the show Route 66.

I did! Sure. We did it in Philadelphia.

Do you remember working on the show?

I do, very, very much so. The show was very, very popular at that time. I think that it was ‘62, wasn’t it?

I thought it was ‘61, but maybe it was ‘62.

The reason I remember was because Janet was pregnant with Emilio and he was born in ‘62. Now maybe we were shooting it in ‘61 and it went on the air in ‘62. But I remember that they plastered my hair down and colored it blonde. (Laughs) I played this character named Packy and it was very over the top. I was just kind of this street hoodlum, you know, gang leader, who was very adept at running around building tops and jumping from parapet to parapet.

I was up on a building, it was 13 or 14 stories high, and I was causing Janet a great deal of discomfort as she was watching me on the ledges. And I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but I look back on it now and think, “What a stupid ass I was.” (Laughs)

Did you enjoy watching yourself on screen in your early days?

You know, what was exciting was getting the jobs, and doing the jobs, that was always, most always a pleasant experience. But watching myself, very, very hard to do, even today. It’s very difficult. We have such a different image of ourselves, all of us do. But rarely do [we] see ourselves on a national stage. And it’s very, very... I’m still embarrassed. I mean, I love being an actor, I always have, and I love working, but I’m not always comfortable with the image that I see.

You’ve spent quite a good amount of time on 66. Have you ever driven the whole route?

Oh many, many times, yes! In fact, we were in Texas for almost two months in October and November [2018], and you know, Route 66 goes right through Texas and the Panhandle. I’ve been on that road many, many times.

Back in the early sixties, I used to go out west from New York City on a Greyhound, I think it took three and a half days, and occasionally they would change buses along the way, but normally it was the same bus. The bus was the cheapest way. I’ve been back and forth across the country on the Greyhound on Route 66 more than, I would say, two dozen times.

That is a lot of bus travel. Are there any trips that stand out to you more than others?

One of the most memorable trips that I remember was in the summer or early fall of 1963. I did an episode of My Three Sons, and in those days, you had to film all the scenes with Fred MacMurray [first]. He had a contract, where he filmed all of his scenes and all of the episodes first and when he finished, then you’d come back and finish all the other scenes with the boys. And so, when I was hired to do this scene they said, “Well, you’ve got to come back in December and finish and work with Tim and the rest of the lads. Will you do that?” “I will,” I said.

So, I worked a scene with Fred and then I got a call to come back to New York... I got a job on The Defenders. And I was filming The Defenders in New York City on November 22nd, 1963, which was the day that President Kennedy was assassinated. And you know, we just went through that horrible time, we were living in Staten Island at that [point].

Then in late December, I remember, a couple of weeks before Christmas, I had to go back and finish the episode of [My Three Sons]. So, I got on a Greyhound on 42nd Street in New York City and started the journey, and it was like a funeral dirge crossing the country, the whole country was in mourning. And when we got out to New Mexico, I think it was around Albuquerque, or somewhere like that, in the wilderness, and it was winter, and it was cold. And there was a huge billboard on the side of the road, out in the open space, and it just said in black lettering on a white background, “We Mourn Him.” Just those three words, “We Mourn Him.” And it had a black border on it, and I thought, “Oh my god.” That just was reflective of the entire world and that lonely spot out in the New Mexico desert, and that was the whole journey. It was just like, it was like losing a parent, you know? It was like the darkest of times. We were all in a fog, and the country was reflecting it all the way across Route 66. I’ll never forget that journey.

I remember other journeys too. I remember once when the bus broke down in Flagstaff, Arizona, and they asked us to get off and help push it. (Laughs)

There were about a dozen Native Americans on-board and me, and we were all woken up in the middle of the night and we all got out and pushed it.

And thankfully we got it to a downhill stop there in the [mountains] and then we got it started again.

They had a service called the Golden Eagle on Route 66. It went through St. Louis and all. It was very interesting because I guess that it was a trial thing. They had first class on-board the Greyhound. (Laughs)

Really?

Yes! I mean, people may not remember this, but some of your older readers might recall, they used to have attendants on-board who served coffee and snacks throughout the entire journey. And they were dressed in uniforms just like you were on an airplane.

On a Greyhound bus?

Yes, and it was called the Golden Eagle service. I don’t know how long it lasted, but I used to love to go on that one because the whole bus was like first class, you know? And we had all these special privileges, I think there were two toilets on-board and there was fancy seating with more head room. And they had little doilies on the top of the [seats] so that your head wouldn’t spoil the seat covering. (Laughs) It was amazing.

You and Janet had four kids and you were very busy much of the time working, but were you a road trip family?

Oh yeah! You know, Emilio and I wrote a memoir called Along the Way: The Journey of a Father and Son... it was published a few years ago. But in it he recalls a lot of these road trips, many that I had forgotten, and there’s a couple of pictures in there of us on the road. We had an old Ford station wagon that we drove on one trip to West Virginia.

A friend of mine wanted to do a low budget, independent film out there. And we made that trip a couple of times because we went back when the weather changed because the film was supposed to take place over a couple of years, so we’d go back and forth. We did road trips with the kids where we were on the road and we’d put them in schools. (Laughs)

I learned the country in a car. I didn’t get a driver’s license until I was 28. I never drove as a boy. When we were in Mexico in 1969 doing a film, we took a train back up to the Arizona border. There at the crossing we rented a car and drove to California, the first time with the whole family. Emilio remembers a lot of these trips, and he talks about them in the book. It’s a bit of a record of our time on the road.

Were you one of those fathers that refused to stop for bathroom breaks?

(Laughs) Oh gosh, yes! You’ve got to read the book because Emilio talks about that a lot, about how I wouldn’t let anyone touch the dashboard, I was afraid the car would break down or something. I didn’t know how to dim the headlights; I didn’t have a clue. I was terrified of passing someone on a two-lane road. But the kids remember. (Laughs)

Your generation is notorious for some of those things.

(Laughs) Yeah, we’ll stop when we can all go together. I’m not stopping for you and then have to stop for someone else. You just have to hold it awhile, yeah. And how many times did we have to stop on the side of the road! (Laughs)

You’ve driven Route 66 many times. Do you stay on the route the entire way?

We never get on the Interstate unless we absolutely have to.

Isn’t it interesting, because some of those places are forlorn now, you know, particularly through Arizona and New Mexico.

Actually, 85% of the old road is still very drivable. We love every stretch of the old highway.

Isn’t that extraordinary?

Did you and Janet find it difficult trying to raise a family being in the public eye so much? Did you think they would get the acting bug too?

Yeah, it’s just the nature of the business. But I didn’t have any idea that the kids were at all interested. I mean, I was focused on the work and the travel and the commitment and the need to make a living. So, I wasn’t really aware of their interest in becoming a part of it, I was always surprised.

I remember one day I was doing a show and Emilio showed up and I thought he was there to visit me, and he was on the show! He’d gotten it on his own and no one told me a thing, he’d gone and read for a part and showed up to do it and suddenly we were working together, and I had not a clue that he was interested in the least.

Is it harder to act opposite someone you know really well, like a close friend or family member?

Gosh, you know, there is a different level of commitment then, because you’re very sensitive to their presence and their needs, and yet you don’t want to play favorites, so you have to be professional. And at the same time, you can never not be a father. So that was always a concern. There were a couple of times that I was enormously proud - as an actor and a father – like in one film in particular called Cadence, which is the only film I ever directed.

Charlie [Sheen] played the lead in the brig, and my son Ramon was one of the top guards, I don’t know if you realized that, but he was playing Gessner, the guard who was such a sycophant to me, the kid with the glasses, that’s my son Ramon. And a lot of people didn’t realize that. He of course is using his real name; he’s never changed his name. But that’s the reason we asked him to wear glasses, because we would all look less alike, because there was a scene where the three of us are playing together, a couple of scenes in fact, and we had to make sure that people were not thinking that it was father and two sons rather than these separate characters. But that’s a very good example of how sometimes it was a very, very kind of thin line between family and profession, it had to be maintained while we were filming. And it was one of the best times I ever had, I was so proud of both of them and the family thing never interfered with the picture, they were as professional and as skilled as you could possibly be. I think it’s one of Charlie’s best performances.

One of my favorite films is a more recent one from 2010, The Way.

Oh gosh, yes. That’s the best thing I’ve ever done. That’s the thing I’m most proud of. The Way has been the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done.

People travel Route 66 these days for various reasons. We had one reader who wrote in and said: “I’m doing [Route 66] this summer, [retracing] the trip that my grandmother took by herself in 1961 when she was 69 years old.” This lady wanted to retrace the steps of her grandmother. Your dad was from Galicia, Spain, and was born 70 kilometers from Camino de Santiago. Was doing this film a little like walking in your father’s footsteps?

Oh, very much so, yeah! He was the foundation of the entire project. My father was never comfortable with my having changed my name, although I never changed it officially, my show business name really kind of distracted him. And so, I was trying to get back in his good graces, with his spirit, by doing The Way. It was a very conscious family effort and it stretched to my grandson Taylor.

Taylor and I were in Spain in 2003 and we were driving the Camino because I didn’t have time to walk it, yet I wanted to experience it as much as possible. I had to get back to LA to do the next season [of] The West Wing. And when we got to Burgos, one of the major cities, and a main stop along the Camino, we stayed in a refugio there called El Molino, which means, “The Mill”. At the pilgrim’s supper, Taylor met his future wife who worked at that stop and he lived there, and they married there. He lived there for nine years.

And so, Emilio would have to go over there to see him, because he wasn’t coming home that often and [Emilio] got interested in what was going on there and started to follow the Camino and began to write about it, and he eventually settled on a father-son theme. He had this image that he’d lost his son to the Camino and he didn’t quite know what it was. And so, he wrote about it and eventually it became known as The Way and that was the story.

All along The Way there’s family and old friends [involved], but it has definitely a connection to my father, and it was like we were moving towards him the whole time. And when we entered Galicia it was like we’d come home. Honestly, it is the most satisfying film I’ve ever done.

It’s such a special film that I believe many parents and sons can relate to it.

Very much so. I always recommend that fathers and sons watch it together and so many have done the journey, you know, fathers and sons, and also so many people who have lost someone, maybe not a son, but a husband, a grandfather, a wife, a daughter and who knows what, and they go along.

Maybe you should consider doing it. How old is your son?

He just turned 12 in February.

Oh my, you should consider doing it. That would be a lifelong journey that you could share together that is unequal anywhere.

Other than Route 66!

Other than Route 66, okay. (Laughs) That is a pilgrimage too, isn’t it?

Fathers and sons have had complicated relationships for time immemorial. Is it different with a daughter versus, let’s say, the three boys? I only have one son, but you’ve done this four times. Is it different between fathers and daughters or is every relationship unique?

You know, I think that every parent who has multiple children is asked, do you love one more than another.

And Janet and I have both said and feel that you love them all equally, but differently. Each one has different needs and you have individual relationships with each one and you have a family relationship with the whole. Individual relationships are normal and with each [come] individual problems and concerns and needs. And they must be met. So, you’re working kind of on two levels: as a unit and as an individual. I’m reminded of an old Irish phrase that says, “We never get over our fathers, and we’re not required to.”

I’m extremely close to Emilio, but I’m not any closer to him than I am to Charlie or Ramon or to Renee, it’s just on a different level. I know them in different places at different times doing different things. Does that make any sense?

It does, very much.

I would go to Emilio’s soccer games and Charlie’s baseball games. I would go to Renee’s horse shows and I would go to Ramon’s dance recitals and concerts. And they were all of equal importance to us and them, but it was always on their level. And we had such unique experiences because we chose to travel together to so many different places. We’d wrench them out of school and take them to faraway places and they would object, you know, they had friends, they had investment in their studies and in their communities, and we would just foreclose that: “No, dad’s got a job, we’ve got to go, pack it up, let’s go.” (Laughs) That was the end of it, either get in a plane or in a car or on a train or a bus, but we’re out of here. And that was a foregone conclusion. If Pop got a job and it didn’t happen to be in town, you knew you were gonna be stuck somewhere for a while. And that’s just the way it was. I remember we were in Rome in the mid-seventies and Spain and Italy, all for a large amount of time. And then the Philippines, I went there for over a year, and they were anxious to get back and kind of split up the time here and there.

That book [Along the Way: The Journey of a Father and Son] gives very good insight into what we were going through as a family and what Emilio was able to articulate [about] it. And now, when we get together, of course we are all so much older and you know, now we are not just grandparents, we’re great grandparents now. And Charlie’s a grandfather and Emilio’s a grandfather and you know, it’s like we have a reservoir of common ground that we… I guess it’s something where we go over it like you do Route 66, “Oh, do you remember this time we went there? What was that guy’s name, remember him? And wasn’t that? No, no, he was the other guy.” (Laughs) But everybody has a memory and a contribution, and a lot of the times they objected to going to faraway places for long periods of time, but now they’re glad they did, because they had personal experiences in foreign countries or faraway places in the states that no one else knew. Their college, their school chums, their classmates, had no idea. And they had these experiences as a family and sometimes personally.

Sometimes, I would take just one or two of them because the rest of them wouldn’t go. (Laughs) I remember being in Mexico for three months with Charlie on a film where we had some experiences that are just, you know, that belong to he and I, that are deeply personal and powerful; time together, just the two of us, in the wilderness in Mexico.

I went to Kenya in 1988, and we delivered two circus elephants back into the wild on a show called ABC’s Wide World of Sports. We delivered these elephants to Tsavo National Park. A guy picked them up in Seattle, Washington, and he sailed them over and he asked me to be part of the adventure. I said “yes,” and they filmed it for this ABC show. Charlie and Ramon went with us on that trip and they both had a profound experience in Africa, in Kenya.

I was rereading Rob Lowe’s book, Things I Only Tell My Friends, the other day and he shared a lot about growing up with Emilio and Charlie. He spoke a lot about all of the energy in the Sheen household. You were working on some high- profile projects and the boys were busy shooting their own 8mm films! It was a real time of creativity and energy.

You know, they were all so talented. Every single one of them had... we didn’t think of it as potential, we didn’t know that they were going to be actors, but they were just so instinctively talented. And that all came out later, but we saw it in their childhood relationships and their relationships to Janet and me. We were just deeply involved in their lives and glad that they were a part of our family, you know.

Emilio was friends more with Rob. But Chad [Rob’s younger brother] and Charlie were very, very close and they played Little League together and I got to know him and was very fond of him, and still am. He was very, very shy and very polite and I would take them to their practices and their games for Little League. Chad’s a big political supporter of the Democrats and I’ve gone out on the road with him to support Democrat causes and we worked for Al Gore when he ran for President and so forth, and we’ve done things together. He’s a very, very dear man. I remember he invited us to his wedding, and he married a girl who was living in a car with her mother. And it was Hilary Swank. She was not known at the time, but he was crazy about this girl. We met her and we said, “Oh, of course.”

In my forties I look back to everything and I’m kind of nostalgic over a lot of the stuff from my youth that is sort of behind me now. Coming into 80 this year, a milestone year for many people, what do you find yourself nostalgic about, Martin?

I have to honestly say that I’m not really nostalgic, per se. I have periods of it, I’ll see something or be reminded of something, see a book, a picture, a magazine, something that takes me back to a moment. But for me, I’m not comfortable staying there because that’s not who I am. The older I get, the more I love life in general, even the difficult parts. It’s still life and it’s still an opportunity for growth and sharing and love and commitment. I never tire of just the experience of waking up each day, and no matter what I have to face that day or what went on the day before, I get another day, you know? And it just knocks me out, from the smallest thing to the most awe-inspiring thing.

The other day I watched a hawk here take a bath in the swimming pool. Now, I have never seen a hawk go in the water anywhere, at any time. My daughter said, “Well, he was going in to shake off the mites.” But I’ve never seen a wild hawk do that, you know? Gosh, we couldn’t stop watching him. Every day is a new adventure and I’m sort of privileged to be a part of it, no matter how much of it I’m aware of. I think it’s a problem to dwell in the past because you miss what’s going on right in front of your eyes. You can’t do anything about yesterday and you have no possibility of affecting tomorrow. This is all you get to experience.

Make sure to check out Martin in Grace and Frankie on Netflix and keep an eye open for numerous films in 2020.

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