Probably best known for his seven year portrayal of President Bartlet in The West Wing, the prolific actor has done everything from Apocalypse Now to voicing the Illusive Man in the later Mass Effect games. He’s played a priest on seven different occasions; five of those roles come after his rebirth in the faith.
To understand his spiritual journey, one has to recognize the troubled person he was in 1979’s Apocalypse Now, as further evidenced in Francis Coppola’s Hearts of Darknes: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, a documentary on the film’s disturbed set. In an interview for the National Catholic Register, Sheen says of the role:
…That sequence was in large part a reflection of my own personal brokenness. I was not a practicing Catholic at the time, and I had no clue as to what I was getting into with the film… A year later, I had a heart attack, a really close call.
In 1981 he did a film in Paris, and it was there he met up with an Episcopalian friend, Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, Tree of Life). After a series of life delving discussions, he went knocking on St. Joseph’s Church in Paris, and said to the Irish priest, “I have been away from the church for a long time and I’d like to go to confession.”(NCR)
I was playing a frightened, confused professional killer [Capt. Benjamin Willard], an unstable frightened alcoholic. I didn’t have a clue who this character was supposed to be and the director [Francis Ford Coppola] said to me: “It’s you. Whoever wants to arrive at any kind of certainty as an actor brings themselves.” I realized I could wrestle this demon… My poor wife, Janet, got a glimpse of this poor devil in that sequence, the anger, fear, resentment, disappointment that had built up over 36 years.
Since then Sheen has been very active in social justice, taking inspiration from Daniel Berrigan, SJ, and his founding of the Plowshares Movement, which brought together people of varying faiths to nonviolently oppose the Vietnam war. He carries a rosary to help keep him from swearing and to comfort him on flights. According to Irish Central, he did not support Barack Obama in 2008 because of the candidate's pro-choice stance.
His latest spiritual foray into film is his starring role in The Way, which is written and directed by his son Emilio Estavez:
Martin Sheen plays Tom, an American doctor who comes to St. Jean Pied de Port, France to collect the remains of his adult son (played by Emilio Estevez), killed in the Pyrenees in a storm while walking the Camino de Santiago, also known as The Way of Saint James. Rather than return home, Tom decides to embark on the historical pilgrimage to honor his son's desire to finish the journey. What Tom doesn't plan on is the profound impact the journey will have on him and his "California Bubble Life."
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Fun fact: His actor's surname is taken from Bishop Fulton Sheen.
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