Martin Sheen is a pacifist, a social and political activist who has not shied away from putting his body on the front lines, and a devout Roman Catholic. After rediscovering his faith twenty years ago, he began his activist work in earnest. "I learned I had to stand for something so I could stand to be me," he said as we talked.
The star of The West Wing and a winner of a Golden Globe award for his role on that show, where he plays U.S. President Josiah Bartlet, Sheen has used his fame to call attention to many causes. Recently, he was one of the most visible celebrities against the U.S. war against Iraq. "I am not the President. Instead, I hold an even higher office, that of citizen of the United States," Sheen wrote in The Los Angeles Times on March 17. "War at this time and in this place is unwelcome, unwise, and simply wrong." Sheen says that NBC executives have told him they're "very uncomfortable" with his activism, although NBC denies this.
Sincere, modest, down to earth, Sheen is a reformed drug and alcohol abuser. The heart attack he endured during the filming of Apocalypse Now in the Philippines led him on a four-year spiritual journey that culminated in his return to Catholicism. He carries a rosary in his pocket ("Keeps me from cursing," he says) and is an almost daily communicant. Known worldwide by his stage name, this son of immigrant parents (his father was from Spain, his mother, Ireland) was baptized Ramón Estevez. His early years were spent in Dayton, Ohio. The Estevez family was poor and, from an early age, instilled Sheen with strong Catholic morals and working class values. By age nine, he was earning extra money as a golf caddie at a local country club, with hopes of becoming a pro. In 1958, at eighteen, he borrowed bus fare from his local parish priest and headed for New York to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. To avoid ethnic bias in hiring, he chose the first name Martin after a good friend, and Sheen after Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who had a popular TV show in the 1950s. He remains proud of his Hispanic heritage and is quick to say that he never legally changed his name.