Shit,” says Martin Sheen as the makeup man fusses over him, “I’ve got this deformed left arm, three inches shorter than the right, can’t do a thing with it and, gee, I’m just this little guy, five feet eight, 151 pounds. How can that be a star?” He shrugs his shoulders. “Maybe if I looked like Ray,” he cracks as a member of the crew walks by, “I’d be a star. You know, I have this reputation of being choosy about my roles when, in actual fact, I never got many offers.” He shrugs those shoulders again. “I turned down Magic, but after Apocalypse Now I just didn’t want to do any violence.” Another shrug. “And I turned down Prophecy, but that was easy; had toilet written all over it. I never got offered the biggies. Guys like Tony Harvey, Spielberg, all those other assholes would never hire me. But I tell you, if just one of my pictures had made money, been a hit, I would have had a different career.”
“Relax, Marty,” says director Don Taylor. “You’ll be a big star soon. Whether Apocalypse Now is good, bad or indifferent, it will make you a star.”
We are in Norfolk, Virginia, aboard the USS Nimitz, where Sheen is making Final Countdown. It’s a story about a nuclear aircraft carrier that’s caught in a time warp and winds up in Pearl Harbor the day before the attack, with the military capability to destroy the Japanese fleet and, in the process, rewrite history. As we walk down the long, narrow corridors of the Nimitz, Sheen has words for everyone. He talks nonstop — free associates, really — intense one minute, laughing and joking the next. He looks like someone who’s spent the last few days on speed. He is more attractive than he appears on film, with wonderfully expressive blue eyes and a healthy head of hair flecked with gray.
“I am right about this,” continues Taylor as we make our way through the bowels of the Nimitz. “Apocalypse will make Marty a star.”
Sheen has finished shooting for the day and we are sitting in the dining room of the Lake Wright Motel in Norfolk. He’s making fast work of an enormous bowl of vanilla ice cream and strawberries. It is two p.m. and besides breakfast Sheen has already consumed a bag of licorice, a melon, some cherry cobbler, a second bag of licorice, another melon and cookies. He eats like a pig and has the body of a panther: lean and hard. It helps that Sheen runs a minimum of six miles daily and does 500 sit-ups and 500 push-ups. Moderation seems to be an alien concept to Martin Sheen.
In between spoonfuls of ice cream, Sheen talks about Apocalypse. “I want to tell you,” he laughs, “I was nobody’s first choice.” Indeed. The part of Willard was offered to Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan and Jack Nicholson. Finally Harvey Keitel was cast.
This was January 1976, when Sheen was in Rome making a picture called The Cassandra Crossing. His agent called and said that Francis Coppola was interested in him for Apocalypse. But there was a schedule conflict. Several weeks later his agent called again and told him he must fly to L.A. and talk to someone very important.
“I left Rome on Good Friday,” continues Sheen, “and flew to L.A.” He was to meet the director in the VIP lounge, but by the time he got through customs, only fifteen minutes remained before Coppola’s plane left for the Philippines. Coppola quickly ran down his story and told Sheen he was considering him — along with several other actors — for the role of Willard. “The next day,” says Sheen, “Holy Saturday [he thinks of days in terms of religious feasts], I got a call from Coppola’s associate saying that Francis wanted me.” Sheen said yes (he had not read the script), got drunk with his brother Alphonso, picked up the script on Easter Sunday and flew back to Rome. He wrapped The Cassandra Crossing on Monday, and on Tuesday, his wife, Janet, and their four children flew home to L.A., while Sheen headed for Manila to begin a saga that may indeed make him a star, but very nearly cost him his life.
By this time everyone knows that Apocalypse Now is based loosely on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Sheen portrays Willard, a soldier ordered “to terminate with extreme prejudice” a brilliant Green Beret colonel named Kurtz, who has flipped out and has set up his own renegade army in Cambodia. As Willard makes his journey up the river in search of Kurtz, he makes another journey inside himself. In many ways, Willard’s personal odyssey resembles Sheen’s own life. “Sheen is Willard,” says a crew member simply. “I did identify pretty closely with the character,” Sheen agrees. “Making that film was an ordeal, not just physically but emotionally. I was staying in this hotel, and right outside was all this poverty. Pigs running around, children without any teeth.” He pauses. “God, the world we live in is so strange.”
Sheen got sick, lost weight. He would be all jokes and laughs on the outside, but on the inside he was being eaten alive. “Francis had this way of directing,” says one crew member. “He would tell Martin, ‘You’re evil. I want all the evil, the violence, the hatred in you to come out.’ You tell that to a guilt-ridden Irish Catholic and he hasn’t a chance. Martin is so pliable.
“Francis,” the crew member continues, “did a dangerous and terrible thing. He assumed the role of a psychiatrist and did a kind of brainwashing on a man who was much too sensitive. He put Martin in a place and didn’t bring him back.”
As Apocalypse Now opens, Willard is naked and drunk in a Saigon hotel room, waiting for his mission. He moves around the room doing karate exercises, then stops in front of a mirror. The vision he sees so repels him that he chops out at the mirror, smashing it. His hand is bleeding and he smears the blood over his face and body.
Powerful stuff. “Francis,” continues the crew member, “kept Martin drunk for two days before that scene, kept him locked up. Francis kept telling him terrible things like how evil we all are, that we are all killers. It was devastating.” Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, writes about this scene in Notes (her running account of the making of the film):
Yesterday Francis shot the scene in the hotel room. He let Marry get a little drunk, as the character is really supposed to be. He and Marty both knew they were taking a chance. The first layer of the character Marty played was the mystic, the saint, the Christlike version of Willard. Francis pushed him with a few words and he became the theatrical performer, Willard as Shakespearean actor. Francis prodded him again and he moved to a street tough, a feisty street fighter who has been at the bottom, but is smart, knows some judo, is used to a scrap. At this point, Francis asked him to go to the mirror and look at himself and admire his beautiful hair, his mouth. Marty begins this incredible scene. He hit the mirror with his fist. Maybe he didn’t mean to. Perhaps he overshot a judo stance. His hand started to bleed. Francis said his impulse was to cut the scene and call the nurse, but Marty was doing the scene. He had gotten to the place where some part of him and Willard merged. Francis had a moment of not wanting to be a vampire, sucking Marty’s blood for the camera, and not wanting to turn off the camera when Marty was Willard. He left it running. He talked Marty through the scene. Two cameras were going… finally… Francis and Marty were alone. Marty was lying on the bed really drunk, talking about love and God. He was singing an old hymn called “Amazing Grace” and trying to get Francis and me to sing with him, holding our hands and crying. He was strong and wiry like a boxer. Francis was trying to be with him and see that he didn’t hurt himself. His cut finger had been bandaged. It started to bleed again because he was squeezing our hands, hard, and sometimes hitting the edge of the bed. The nurse came in… Marty asked the nurse to pray and sing and I could see she was praying dead seriously… Janet came with their oldest child and Gary [Morgan]. Marty wanted us to hold hands and pray and confess our fears. There was that stiffness that exists when someone is drunk or on dope and you’re not. They’re in a different space… . Marty was preaching and carrying on, singing. Everyone was trying to sort of ease him toward the car. The Filipine nurse was praying out loud and saying, ‘Jesus loves you, Marty.’ It took about two hours to get him in the car and back to the hotel in the rain.
As Sheen was beginning to fall apart, a typhoon came and wiped out all the sets, closing down production. Sheen and his family returned home to Malibu. Sheen did not want to go back to the Philippines. “I held out,” says Sheen. “I fought for more money.” He smiles. “Never got it, the bastard. Francis and I battled over that and had a very heavy falling-out. We reconciled and I went back.”
Recalls his friend, actor Gary Morgan, “When Marty came home after the typhoon he was real scared. He said, ‘I don’t know if I am going to live through this. Those fuckers are crazy, all those helicopters and really blowing things up.’ It was freaky; at the airport he kept saying goodbye to everyone.”
Sheen’s gruesome premonitions were not groundless. He returned to the Philippines and his heart collapsed. “I nearly died,” he says quietly. “I was alone. Janet had gone to Manila for the weekend. I was under a lot of tension. I had terrible eating habits and I was smoking a lot. I had been up and down like a yo-yo all night. I was reading several books at the time: William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, William Saroyan’s Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang In Forever, a book on the Fonda family and Tennessee Williams’ biography. I kept getting up and picking up one book and then another, and I had this severe pain in my inner elbow. Then my chest started to hurt and I thought, ‘I’d better quit smoking.’ All the while the wind was howling. The pain grew more and more intense as the night went on.
“At dawn I got up and I looked at myself in the mirror. My eyes were down to here.” He points to his cheeks. “I looked bad. Then I really began to feel strange and went into the toilet and started feeling faint. I dressed myself, lying on the floor, pulling on my clothes and my combat boots. I crawled to the side of the road and propped myself up and waited. A public bus stopped and loaded me in. I made myself stay awake because I was sure if I lost consciousness I wouldn’t come back. Then the wardrobe van passed and I was loaded into it. We drove to the production office and Dean Tavoularis, the production designer, stuck his head in the van, looked at me and started to cry. A doctor came in and he looked real worried. I just said, ‘Get me a priest.’ And he came and gave me the last rites. Here I am confessing and he couldn’t understand a word of English.” Sheen looks away. He smiles. “Well, who cares. That’s all right.” He smiles again. “I am one of those cliffhanging Catholics. I don’t believe in God, but I do believe that Mary was his mother.”
Sheen takes a deep breath. Talking about this period remains difficult. He continues, “I just wanted to get to Janet. I was lying there for hours. They were trying to decide if they should risk taking me up in a chopper. I said yes and we flew to Manila. An ambulance met us, and as we drove to the hospital I remember getting up and untying my shoes. The doctors were yelling, ‘Lie down,’ and I said, ‘Don’t say another word until I get my boots off.’ I untied one boot and threw it to the floor and then the other. See,” says Sheen, “when I first went to New York twenty years ago, I was on the Bowery one day and watched these morgue people cart away a dead man. This one guy took off the shoes of the dead man and I’ll never forget that. And all the while I was lying there I kept thinking, ‘Take those fuckers off yourself and you’ll make it.’ “
Sheen not only had a heart attack but a nervous breakdown as well. “I completely fell apart. My spirit was exposed. I cried and cried. I turned completely gray — my eyes, my beard — all gray. I was in intensive care. Janet slept on the floor beside me. She called a therapist in New York and I talked to her every day and those two ladies pulled me through. I knew I would never come back until I accepted full and total responsibility for what had happened to me. No one put a gun to my head and forced me to be there. I was there because I had a big ego and wanted to be in a Coppola film.”
A radio that has been playing softly in the background is interrupted by a news report on Jimmy Carter. Suddenly, as if someone had thrown a switch. Sheen begins a harangue.
“I love this country a lot, but we have no leadership. That’s the lesson of Vietnam. We have to examine it and understand it so it will not happen again. And you know the villain who got away? Henry Kissinger. He aided and abetted the recent administration in the bombing of Cambodia. He was getting off killing Asians, like most of this country was, and now that son of a bitch is aiding the shah. I may not be helping, but at least I’m not helping the shah. I like Carter. I think he is an honest man. But there is still killing going on in Vietnam and there are people responsible, goddamnit. It’s no accident. We have to be reminded all the time, and that’s what Apocalypse Now will do. It is the first film that has taken the war and shaken it in our face.”
And, just as abruptly, click, Sheen is laughing and telling heart-attack stories. Coppola had sent over some films and a phone number to call when Sheen wanted them run. One night he and Janet called, saying they wanted a projectionist at eight that evening. The projectionist, a Filipino, arrived promptly at eight — the next night. Just as the film started to roll, the guy grabbed at his chest and fell to the floor. “I swear to God,” laughs Sheen. “Right in front of us, in my room.” Janet ran out to get a nurse and the man was carried away. About ten minutes later, he returned to Sheen’s room. “He looked awful,” recalls Sheen, “and I asked the nurse if he was okay. She said no, he had had a severe heart attack. I said, ‘What the fuck is he doing here?’ The nurse said that he had no money. Well, Janet went crazy. She grabbed her purse and pulled out all her money and shoved it at the nurse and screamed, ‘Get this man to intensive care immediately!’ ” Sheen laughs. “He actually took my old room in intensive care.
“And then,” Sheen’s blue eyes light up, “three days later, around six in the morning, I awoke and the bed was shaking and I thought it was Janet fooling around, but it was an earthquake. I thought, ‘Oh God, I have survived all this to die in an earthquake.’ I had been reading this book on Howard Hughes and how he had been in Santo Domingo during an earthquake and how all his guys were sneaking him on a stretcher through the rubble to safety. Well, I ran to the door, naked as a jaybird, and all the nurses and doctors were abandoning their patients, and suddenly I imagined that I was going to be this big hero and lead all the people out of there, down the streets, just like they did with Howard Hughes, except that I needed my combat boots because I knew I couldn’t walk over the rubble in my bare feet. I kept yelling, ‘Janet, get my boots,’ and she laughed and put me back in bed.”
Sheen’s heart attack jolted the production company to their senses, and filming in Manila wrapped eight weeks later. Sheen had spent nearly two years in the jungle, and it still wasn’t over for him. His life had changed profoundly. He couldn’t shake Willard. He slipped into a deep depression. He and Janet separated. (They’ve since gotten back together.) He started drinking heavily. “It all culminated in an arrest in San Francisco. I tried to beat up a couple of cops. I got rolled, lost all my money. Francis had to bail me out. It was terrible, horrible. I had to publicly confess my sins to the judge. It was the worst day of my whole life.”
Sheen looks away. “It was a warning. I have taken a vow not to drink for a year and I am in better shape now than I’ve ever been. I have to avoid stress situations and I can’t smoke. As soon as I got out of the hospital in the Philippines I was right back smoking because Willard was smoking. When I got home and was examined, the doctor told me I had to quit and I did — for nine days. Then, in September 1977, I went to Smokenders for five weeks and was off cigarettes for ten months. But then I had to go to San Francisco to shoot some inserts for Apocalypse and I had this cigarette in my mouth and I just took a little drag and smoked straight for the next six months, right through Blind Ambition. Then I went back to Smokenders this past January and quit smoking on February 22nd, and I haven’t had a cigarette since,” Sheen sighs. “And I miss it every day.”
To even begin to understand Martin Sheen, it is necessary to go back thirty-nine years to Dayton, Ohio, where he was born Ramon Estevez. His father was from Spain, his mother from Ireland. Mrs. Estevez had twelve pregnancies: ten survived, nine boys and one girl. Martin is the seventh son. The Estevez children grew up in a three-bedroom house, sleeping two to a bed. Both parents were deeply religious Catholics and Mrs. Estevez would recite the Rosary to the family each night after dinner. She died when Martin was eleven. Says Alphonso, his older brother, “My father didn’t know what to do. There was all this talk about foster homes and orphanages, and he would just go week to week, and at the end of each week he had somehow managed to keep the family together.”
The Holy Trinity parish supplied the glue. Sheen would get up each morning at six to serve Mass and he can still recite the entire ceremony in flawless Latin. “We were really poor and belonged to a very poor parish and the Church was the most important part of our lives,” says Sheen. “We were taught by the Sisters of Notre Dame, sweet people and I loved them. They were strict disciplinarians. Boy, they beat the hell out of you and then slipped you money under the table for something you really needed. They had charity and compassion. To this day, when I see nuns I respond to them with that same feeling.”
There was little time for fun and games growing up. All the children had jobs. At the age of nine, each boy caddied. Sheen would caddy eighteen holes in the morning, eighteen holes in the afternoon and then shag balls until dark. He attacked his first job with a seriousness and determination that would remain with him long after he left Dayton. And just as these qualities surfaced early on, so did his sense of right and wrong, his empathy for the underdog and his religious convictions.
When Sheen was fifteen he led the caddies out on strike. There were two golf clubs in Dayton, and Sheen and his buddies were not being paid as much as the caddies at the other club. “The strike lasted one day,” says Alphonso. “Sheen led us out on Tuesday, but, see, Wednesday was the day all the doctors and lawyers played, and the pro sweet-talked everyone back and then fired Sheen.”
His older brother Michael remembers playing in a golf tournament and Martin, who was then fifteen, was his caddy. Michael was down three holes with three left. He won the sixteenth, the seventeenth and he was lining up a ten-foot putt on the eighteenth when he looked up and there holding a rosary was Martin. “I got so nervous,” laughs Michael, “I could barely concentrate. I sank the putt and went on to win the match in extra holes. Martin told me later that he had promised God that if I won the match he would make a novena.”
It was touch and go for a while whether Sheen would become an actor or a priest. When he finally settled on acting, says Sheen, “There was never any question in my mind that I wouldn’t become an actor. I knew it.” He smiles. “Serving Mass was really theatrical. We dressed up in costumes. It was a performance.” And Sheen was always performing, doing plays without props, standing up on boxes reciting poems. All the kids would laugh at him, but he didn’t even notice.
Sheen’s freshman year in high school and the arrival of a young priest, Father Alfred Drapp, was a turning point. Holy Trinity was Father Drapp’s first parish and Sheen served his first Mass there. “The students organized a teen club,” recalls Father Drapp, “and Ramon [as he still calls Sheen] was the first president. He was so serious and yet at the same time had this very comedic streak. And from the beginning he had this sense of ‘I’ll show them. I’m different.”‘
“He became my dear friend and confessor,” Sheen says. “He was most influential and instrumental in my becoming an actor.” When Sheen was seventeen he won the year-end award on a local TV talent show called The Rising Generation, reading from the book of Genesis. First prize was a trip to New York, and Sheen returned to Dayton knowing it would not be for long. He had taken to the city like a cowboy to the range.
“My senior year was one of the best times of my life,” says Sheen. “I knew I was going to New York and spent the entire year dreaming about it. I let my hair grow long, listened to a lot of music and was very aware of the times. There were two big influences on me, James Dean and Elvis Presley, and no one who had that kind of effect came along until Bob Dylan.” He pauses. “Dylan is my patron saint. I went to one of his concerts last summer and was going to go backstage to meet him and then I got scared. I figured there wouldn’t be enough time for him to get to know me and I was afraid he wouldn’t like me.” Sheen gets a faraway look on his face.
His acting ambitions were a great disappointment to his father, who had managed to stash away some money for Sheen to go to the University of Dayton. Sheen, incapable of hurting his father, deliberately flunked his entrance exam. But Father Drapp interceded. Not only did he talk to Sheen’s father, but he loaned him enough money to get him started in New York.
“Those were rough years for Ramon,” says Father Drapp. “For two summers I went to New York to see him with every intention of bringing him back, but when I got there I just couldn’t. Nothing could deter him from becoming an actor.”
Rough is a mild adjective to describe those early years in New York, but despite the lack of money Sheen threw himself into the life and rhythm of the city. “It was the start of my adult life,” he says. “The day after I got to New York, Buddy Holly was killed. I remember reading the headlines.” He drifts off. “But it was all so exciting. Everything seemed to be happening.”
Sheen landed a night job as a stock boy at American Express at forty dollars a week and spent his days auditioning at every casting call he could. As Ramon Estevez, he felt he was being typecast, so he changed his name for the stage. He took Sheen from a man he greatly admired, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, and Martin, well, it just seemed to go. He was too poor to take acting lessons but he and some friends formed a group called the Actor’s Co-Op under the guidance of Vasek Simek, and performed showcases in a loft next to the old Madison Square Garden building.
“Barbra Streisand was in our group,” recalls Sheen. “She was this sweet kid from Brooklyn, very shy, funny, and no one knew she could sing. And then, lo and behold, she was on Broadway as a star.” He pauses. “I see her occasionally, but I never mention it. I wonder if she remembers.”
An actor in the group landed a role on Broadway and asked Sheen if he wanted his night gig pulling the curtain and setting up props for a play in repertory at the Living Theatre called Tonight We Improvise. “Then began,” says Sheen, “a relationship with two of the best people in the human race, two of the first real Christians I’ve ever met, Julian Beck and Judith Malina. I spent three years at the Living Theatre. That’s where I met Al Pacino. We worked together, cleaning toilets, sweeping, painting. We moved props for Allen Ginsberg and John Cage, all those wonderful, crazy people. I met Larry Rivers. The first time I ever got paid for acting was there, in a play called Purgatory, by William Butler Yeats. Five dollars.
“Everything was so exciting. Kennedy was trying for the White House. Dylan was just being heard from, the music was changing and you just knew things were not going to stand still. Here I was from Ohio and meeting all these weird people. I didn’t know what a vegetarian was. I didn’t know anything. I thought junk was garbage. I met Dorothy Day, the saint of all time, and started hanging out at the Catholic Worker.”
In 1961, Sheen replaced Gary Goodrow in the role of Ernie in The Connection and went to London with the play. In 1963 he landed his first television role as an alcoholic wife beater in a segment of East Side, West Side, scarring George C. Scott. Sheen made his Broadway debut the following year in Never Live Over a Pretzel Factory and later that same year broke through, starring with Jack Albertson in The Subject Was Roses. He was nominated for a Tony.
It was at this point that his career began its curious twists and turns. Sheen acted in lots of episodic television: The Defenders, Route 66, Medical Center, The Mod Squad and The FBI, as well as playing a running part in the soap opera As the World Turns. He hooked up with Joseph Papp, appearing in many of his productions, including Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. And in 1967 he made his first feature film, The Incident, in which he and Tony Musante played two drunken hoods who terrorize subway passengers. He later appeared in the screen version of The Subject Was Roses and played the small role of Lieutenant Dobbs in Catch-22.
By this time he’d married Janet Templeton, an art student at die New School. “I just adored her,” says Sheen, “but she was pretty shitty to me. I had this long hair, no clothes, no money. I wasn’t thinking about getting married so much. Actually,” Sheen fidgets, “I was thinking about getting laid. That was uppermost in my mind. It is true. I had never had that experience — Janet was my first.” He rolls his eyes. “I don’t think she’ll mind my saying that, do you? I was really happy about that. We went together, lived together for a year and then got married.” He pauses. “Now, I am embarrassed.”
Sheen was in this new, strange, exciting world, but his roots ran very deep. He faithfully attended Mass and his sense of outrage at injustice remained. He was offered a part in Bertolt Brecht’s Drums in the Night, but quit when the director was, he felt, unjustly fired. The civil-rights movement was growing while Sheen was on Broadway in The Subject Was Roses, and he was deeply affected by it. He went to the general manager of the theater and suggested that they do a benefit performance for the civil-rights movement. The manager said fine, but that they really wouldn’t make much money. Sheen went across the street to where Sammy Davis Jr. was starring in Golden Boy and got him involved, and then went up the street to where Barbra Streisand was knocking them dead in Funny Girl and got her aboard. The rest of Broadway soon followed. The result was a huge success, and the night of the benefit, Martin Luther King Jr. came backstage. Sheen desperately wanted to meet him. “I was stuck between these two people and he walked right by me.” Sheen looks off. “I never got to meet him.”
In 1972 Sheen, who was by then living in Malibu, reluctantly auditioned for yet another low-budget, independent film, Terrence Malick’s Badlands. The part called for a nineteen-year-old, and Sheen was thirty-one and already gray. But something in his reading caught Malick’s eye.
Recalls Sheen, “I was driving to the studio the next morning to shoot an episode of Mannix. The sun was just coming up and it was beautiful and suddenly Bob Dylan was on the radio singing ‘Desolation Row’ and I started to weep, so much so that I had to pull the car over. Suddenly I realized what Terry was doing, and I knew, I knew that he was going to make a classic film and I told him so. I told everyone. Hearing that song, I knew that I was going to be tapped.” Sheen becomes more animated. “God, Dylan is a genius. I saw Renaldo and Clara twice in the same day and then went to see it again. The movie was sometimes confusing, but never boring. The critics, those sons of bitches, really clobbered him.”
Sheen finished shooting Mannix, rushed to San Francisco to film the ABC movie That Certain Summer with Hal Holbrook, then flew back to L.A. Janet and the kids met him up at the airport and they headed for Colorado and Badlands. “From every standpoint, but financially,” says Sheen, “Badlands was perfect. I wouldn’t have touched one frame. I was terribly proud and excited and I thought it was going to be hugely successful.” It wasn’t, and Sheen was discouraged. This film, he felt, was his shot at becoming a star. His friends and contemporaries were making it and he wasn’t. Dustin Hoffman, who replaced him in The Subject Was Roses, had made The Graduate. Al Pacino, with whom he had swept floors, had made The Godfather. Sheen went back to television, making films like Catholics, The Execution of Private Slovik and The Missiles of October. Each garnered good reviews, each predicted Sheen would be a star.
It is late and Sheen, his brother Joe, several members of the crew and I make our way to a local steak joint for dinner. There is a kid playing guitar and singing in the background. Sheen, who has not stopped eating all day, attacks his dinner like a man coming off a four-month fast. He is wound up tight, joking and laughing. Martin Sheen is a complicated man, at once childlike, mature, naive, worldly. And obsessive.
He is obsessed with religion and his own loss of faith. “He’s angry with the Church,” says his younger brother, actor Joe Sheen. “It did so much good and it caused so much pain.”
He is obsessed with his family. Says his brother Michael, “I think my father struggling so hard to keep us together had a lot to do with all of us being so close and feeling responsible for one another. I think it’s why Martin is so devoted to his own family.”
He is obsessed with the inequities of the world. Gary Morgan tells how one day Sheen was walking past the lunch wagon on location when he saw some peas left on a plate. He ate them. “Marty,” Morgan said to him, “I’ll get you some peas,” and all he did was point to the plates and the garbage can, saying, “Do you believe all the waste?”
In the Philippines Sheen became friendly with a local priest and through him set up a fund in memory of his father. He donated a percentage of his salary and each month sends money to keep the fund going. The first purchase — 5000 toothbrushes for the children.
“Martin,” says Joe Sheen, “can get heavy at the drop of a hat. He needs people around him who are up all the time because he is so serious. He’ll read about Angola in the morning paper and begin to cry. We will be talking and he goes off into his own little place. I just let him go. I used to take it as an insult, but now I just leave it. He feels responsible for everyone. People are always coming to him with problems and he gives them his money, his car, his home. When he was making Apocalypse, he was carrying a lot of people. He rented a house for his driver.” Joe pauses. “But then, Apocalypse was a crazy madness. Martin paid a lot of penance for that film. Willard is symbolic of his life. Martin is such a lonely man.”
And he’s obsessed with acting. He loves his work and certainly has had a successful career. During one year alone he was offered seventeen different television series to star in. He has been nominated for one Tony and four Emmys, all of which he pulled out of. And now there is talk of an Oscar. “I don’t believe in them,” he says. “They put actors in competition with each other. Leave that to athletes and politicians. I mean, how can a De Niro, who was perfectly brilliant in The Deerhunter, be a loser? How can Gary fucking Busey, in his magnificent performance in The Buddy Holly Story, be a loser? I won’t join the Academy. Fuck that horseshit.”
Sheen may eschew awards, but those close to him say he is frustrated and wants recognition — wants to be a star and is really banking on Apocalypse Now to do that. Maybe it will.
Like most of his performances, Sheen’s work in Apocalypse Now is wonderfully considered, thoughtful, not in the least fly-by-night. But as gifted and talented as he is. Sheen hasn’t blown us away — yet. It is curious. Like the faceless narrators that writers have to put in bad novels to keep them going, he’s always there but you never really notice him. It is almost as if he doesn’t expect people to remember him.
The singer in the background starts playing a Bob Dylan song. Sheen sings along and invites the kid to join us. He had been in a special-forces unit in Vietnam and has had a rough time since. Suddenly, click goes the switch and Sheen gets intense. “Where are Goldwater and the rest of those sons of bitches now? Why aren’t Monsanto, Du Pont, Chrysler hiring the vet?” This goes on for about forty-five minutes, and then we all get up to leave. Sheen finishes the leftover desserts.
The next day we go to a cookout at Bob Huffman’s house. Huffman is a navy pilot and he and Sheen have become friends. Sheen is excited and buys two water-melons and three bags of potato chips to take along. Earlier, Sheen had been uncomfortable at the admiral’s party, but this will be fun.
The cookout is rolling along and Sheen is really up. He talks about Coppola. “I have a lot of mixed feelings about Francis. I am very fond of him personally. The thing I love about him most is that he never, like a good general, asked you to do anything he wouldn’t do. He was right there with us, lived there in the shit and mud up to his ass, suffered the same diseases, ate the same food. I don’t think he realizes how tough he is to work for. God, is he tough. But I will sail with that son of a bitch anytime. There is only one other director I would go that far with, and that’s Terry Malick. You bet your ass. I won’t get to work with a Malick or a Coppola too many times in my life and, my God, I consider it an honor. I took some bumps. I just wish I had been about ten years younger.
“Eventually everyone has to eat some shit, and Francis, if he’s going to eat shit, at least it is going to be of his own making. He has such tenacity and I love that about the guy. I hope he breaks the bank on this one. Why the hell not? You’d rather give the money to some special-effects shark or some asshole swatting planes in the sky or some guy who flies? No. I’d rather deal with a moral question any day. This is the first war movie made that is a trip inside a man’s head. We have such a short period of time here, and there are two things I have accomplished in my professional life: Badlands and Apocalypse Now. If my grandchildren get interested in what I did, I’ll show them these.”
The party is in full swing now and Sheen is way up, fooling around with the kids, posing for pictures with the neighbors. Suddenly he becomes quiet, almost sad, and the next minute he has disappeared. No one knows where he has gone and he doesn’t come back.