I have just finished reading Sr. Rose Pacatte’s book, Martin Sheen: A Pilgrim on the Way. I have admired Sheen both as an actor and a social activist. This book reinforced my admiration.
Sheen was born Ramon Gerard Estevez on August 3, 1940 in Dayton, Ohio. His father Francisco was born in Spain in 1898, growing up very poor. He entered the United States via Cuba in 1919 and got a janitorial job at the National Cash Register Company (NCR). Sheen’s mother Mary Ann Phelan was born in County Tipperary, Ireland in 1903. She came to the United States via Ellis Island in 1921, moving in with relatives in Dayton. Francisco and Mary Ann met while taking citizenship classes. They were married Sept. 5, 1927.
Their first two children (a girl and a boy) died in infancy. Then they had seven sons. The seventh was Ramon, the future Martin Sheen. During birth, his left arm was crushed by forceps, leaving it two inches shorter than the other. He managed this challenge gracefully throughout his life. A daughter Carmen was born in 1942 followed by two more sons. The Estevez house was lively, disciplined, and thoroughly Catholic. All the children attended Catholic schools for twelve years. Later on, all the children also struggled with alcohol.
Sheen’s mother died suddenly in 1951 of a cerebral hemorrhage, leaving Francisco with eight children still at home, the youngest being five. Without Mary Ann, an air of sadness pervaded the house. Sheen’s father wanted him to attend the University of Dayton, but Sheen was determined to become an actor despite his father’s objections. In high school, he entered a local talent contest reciting the poem “The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson. He won the grand prize: a trip for two to New York City and an audition at CBS television headquarters. Afterwards Sheen moved to New York and began to get some small acting roles. He quickly learned that having a Hispanic name did not open doors for him. So he changed his name to Martin (after a friend at CBS) and Sheen (after the famous TV televangelist Bishop Fulton J. Sheen.)
As an aspiring actor, Sheen had very little money. A friend introduced him to Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement where he got free meals—and became acquainted with her work. Eventually he earned better roles on TV shows including Route 66 and The Defenders. In 1960 he met his future wife, Janet Templeton, a Southern Baptist. They were married in 1961 and had four children: Emilio, Ramon, Carlos (known as Charlie Sheen), and a daughter Renee. All four eventually went into acting. (The Sheens now have 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.)
Sheen’s acting career began to take off. At the same time, he ceased practicing his religion. In addition, his problems with alcohol became more obvious. Sometimes he would show up drunk on the set. At age 36, while making the award winning film, Apocalypse Now, Sheen suffered a heart attack and a nervous breakdown. After weeks in recovery, he finally admitted: “I am an alcoholic” and joined AA. At the same time, he came back to his Catholic faith saying, “I needed Catholicism… Coming back wasn’t about fear, it was about love and commitment.”
His Catholic faith rekindled Sheen’s interest in social justice. He adheres to the consistent ethic of life, opposing all forms of violence, including war, nuclear weapons, the death penalty, racism, sexism, and abortion. His acts of civil disobedience got him arrested about 65 times. Says Sheen, “While acting is what I do for a living, activism is what I do to stay alive.”
Sheen knew and/or worked with people like: Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela, Dan and Philip Berrigan, Elizabeth McAlister, Sr. Helen Prejean, Mike Farrell (star of M*A*S*H), John Dear, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to name a few.
From 1999 to 2006 Sheen starred in the acclaimed TV series, West
Wing, in which he played Josiah Bartlet, the president of the United States. Many groups tried to convince him to run for a political office in real life, but he always declined. Over the years he was nominated and won countless acting awards. His son Charlie Sheen has made the news with his own struggles with alcohol and HIV. Sheen says of him, “He is a loving, deeply sensitive man trying to find his way in a very dark corridor. We, his parents, will be waiting at the end of the corridor with a lit candle.”
Let me end with two quotes by Martin Sheen: “I love to ponder the mystery of God’s presence in the world, this huge demented inn that has no room for him, yet Christ comes, uninvited. Think of it—how much God loves us, to come uninvited.”
And: “Receiving the sacraments is such a joyful experience. I just give thanks and praise. That’s all I can do. I am just so happy to be alive.”
Is there anything that stands out for you in this reflection about Martin Sheen?
How does your personal faith overflow into actions for others?
I reached back into history for today’s song. It’s “We Shall Overcome,” which has been called the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. This version is sung by folk singer and activist, Pete Seeger. It’s a song of hope for all individuals, like Martin Sheen, who work for peace and justice in our world.
Is there anything you’d like to say about this reflection or song? If so, please do so below.