Theatre yesterday and today



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As long and as varied a career as Martin Sheen has had, he will always be President Jed Bartlet from his seven-year run on The West Wing. With the current battle for who’ll be in the White House for the next four years draining our very souls, enjoy some time reading about the actor who gave us a Commander-in-Chief who felt more real than what passes for real these days, in today’s “Theatre Yesterday and Today.”

Martin Sheen showed up in a movie I was watching last night. Nothing strange about that; at eighty years of age he’s been showing up in movies for the past fifty-three years; ever since he made his debut in a tense, low-budget thriller The Incident (1967). Prior to that, he had guest starred on everything from As the World Turns to My Three Sons to Flipper. But it got me to thinking how impressive it is that he eventually would come to work with film directors of such imposing bodies of work as Terrence Malick, Mike Nichols, Francis Ford Coppola, Richard Attenborough, John Schlesinger, Oliver Stone, Rob Reiner, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Ava DuVernay and Warren Beatty. Not to mention, that when for the first time in his long career he finally agreed to take on a TV series in 1999, it turned out to be The West Wing, with his portrayal of President Jed Bartlet earning him six Best Actor Emmy nominations over its seven seasons.

Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet in “The West Wing” (1999).

One of the reasons Sheen is so prolific is that he genuinely likes to work. If you look at his more than 250 credits on IMDB, you will see that he has rarely taken much time off (not to mention sporadic returns to his stage roots). Only last year, Grace and Frankie, in which he co-starred with Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Sam Waterston over seven seasons, ended its run on Netflix after a record-breaking ninety-four episodes for the streaming service. Of course, Sheen has gone on to shoot two movies since then.

Martin Sheen, born Ramón Gerard Antonio Estévez, is the son of immigrants; his mother was born in Borrisokane, County Tipperary, Ireland and his father in Salceda de Caselas, Galicia, Spain. Raised in Dayton, Ohio, Sheen was the seventh of ten children (nine boys and a girl) and suffered from polio as a child. His mother died when he was eleven and Sheen has spoken of his Catholic faith helping him every step of the way throughout a tumultuous childhood. It was actually a loan given to him by a priest that enabled him to come to New York at the age of twenty to try and see if he could become an actor. In fact, the changing of his name for show business purposes was a salute to Fulton J. Sheen, a famous American Archbishop of his time. “He was remarkable,” Sheen has said. “His delivery was like that of a Shakespearean actor.” Never changing it legally, Sheen’s driver’s license still reads Ramon Estévez, with the reasoning behind a stage name being, in Sheen’s own words, “That it’s difficult enough trying to get started as an actor, and my name kept throwing people — they couldn’t pronounce it. I thought, ‘I’ve got enough problems, I can’t be bogged down with this name.’”

His earliest stage success came two years into his time in New York when, in 1961, he made his stage debut in a 3-character off-Broadway drama by Frank D. Gilroy titled The Subject Was Roses. Good reviews prompted the producers to try and move it, but it took three years, happily resulting in a Broadway production in 1964 with Sheen and the same two actors, Jack Albertson and Irene Dailey. The play won the Tony Award, the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a 1968 film (with Sheen repeating his stage performance). Just as an aside, his understudy during the Broadway run was another up and coming young actor: Dustin Hoffman.

Martin Sheen and Jack Albertson in “The Subject Was Roses” (1964).

Hoffman’s big break came when he was thirty with The Graduate in 1967. For Sheen, his performance in Terrence Malick’s Badlands in 1973 could have done the same (he was thirty-three at the time), but it didn’t because it wasn’t anything close to the box office success The Graduatewas, serving as it did to catapult Hoffman to stardom. Another starring role came Sheen’s way when, in 1976, he replaced Harvey Keitel two weeks into the filming of Apocalypse Now. But by the time the lengthy and physically strenuous shoot (sixteen months with over two hundred hours filmed), was finished, the director Francis Coppola took another couple of years to edit, not releasing it until 1979. By then, Sheen was thirty-nine.

Martin Sheen as Captain Willard in “Apocalypse Now” (1979).

During Apocalypse Now, the extraordinary difficulties of the working conditions i