He is considered one of the best actors never to be nominated for an Academy Award despite his acclaimed performances. In film he has won the Best Actor award at the San Sebastián International Film Festival for his performance as Kit Carruthers in Badlands.
Sheen was born in Dayton, Ohio, the son of Mary-Ann (née Phelan; 1903–1951) and Francisco Estévez Martínez (1898–1974). During birth, Sheen's left arm was crushed by forceps, giving him limited lateral movement of that arm, which is three inches (7.6 cm) shorter than his right (Erb's palsy). Both of Sheen's parents were immigrants; his mother from Borrisokane, County Tipperary, Ireland; and his father was born in Salceda de Caselas, Galicia, Spain. After moving to Dayton in the 1930s, his father was a factory worker/machinery inspector at the National Cash Register Company. Sheen grew up on Brown Street in the South Park neighborhood, one of ten children (nine boys and a girl). Due to his father's work, the family lived in Bermuda on St. John's Road, Pembroke, where five of his brothers were born. Martin was the first child to be born in Dayton, Ohio, after the family returned from Bermuda. Sheen contracted polio as a child and had to remain bedridden for a year. His doctor's treatment using Sister Kenny's method helped him regain use of his legs.
Sheen was drawn to acting at a young age, but his father disapproved of his interest in the field. Despite his father's opposition, Sheen borrowed money from a Catholic priest and moved to New York City in his early twenties, hoping to make it as an actor. He spent two years in the Living Theatre company. It was in New York that he met the legendary Catholic activist Dorothy Day. Working with her Catholic Worker Movement, he began his commitment to social justice, and would one day go on to play Peter Maurin, cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement, in Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story. Sheen deliberately failed the entrance examination for the University of Dayton so that he could pursue his acting career.
Sheen was greatly influenced by the actor James Dean. He developed a theatre company with other actors in hopes that a production would earn him recognition. In 1963, he made an appearance in Nightmare, an episode of the television science fiction series The Outer Limits. In 1964, he co-starred in the Broadway play The Subject Was Roses; he later reprised his role in the 1968 film of the same name, and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor. Sheen also starred in the television production Ten Blocks on the Camino Real (1966), an adaptation of Tennessee Williams' play Camino Real directed by Jack Landau and presented by NET, a PBS predecessor.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, Sheen honed his skills as a guest star on a number of popular television series, including My Three Sons (1964), Flipper (1967), The F.B.I. (1968), Mission: Impossible (1969), Hawaii Five-O (1970), Dan August (1971), The Rookies (1973), Columbo (1973), and The Streets of San Francisco (1973). He also had a recurring role as "Danny Morgan" on Mod Squad (1970–1971). By the early 1970s, Sheen was increasingly focusing on television films and motion pictures.
Sheen portrayed Dobbs in the 1970 film adaptation of Catch-22. He then co-starred in the controversial Emmy Award-winning 1972 television film That Certain Summer, said to be the first television movie in America to portray homosexuality in a sympathetic light. His next important feature film role was in 1973, when he starred with Sissy Spacek in the crime drama Badlands, playing an antisocial multiple murderer. Sheen has stated that his role in Badlands was one of his two favorites, the other being his role as a U.S. Army special operations officer in Apocalypse Now. Also in 1973, Sheen appeared opposite David Janssen in "Such Dust As Dreams Are Made On", the first pilot for the television series Harry O.
In 1974, Sheen portrayed a hot rod driver in the television movie The California Kid, and that same year received an Emmy Award nomination for Best Actor in a television drama for his portrayal of Pvt. Eddie Slovik in the television film The Execution of Private Slovik. Based on an incident that occurred during World War II, the film told the story of the only U.S. soldier to be executed for desertion since the American Civil War.
Sheen's performance led to Francis Ford Coppola's casting him in a lead role as U.S. Army Captain Benjamin L. Willard in 1979's Apocalypse Now, gaining him wide recognition. Filming in the Philippine jungle in the typhoon season of 1976, Sheen admitted he was not in great shape and was drinking heavily. For the film’s legendary opening sequence in a Saigon hotel room, Sheen's portrayal of Willard as heavily intoxicated was aided by Sheen's celebrating his 36th birthday on-set that day, and being actually drunk. Twelve months into filming, Sheen suffered a minor heart attack and he had to crawl out to a road for help. While recovering, his younger brother Joe Estevez stood in for him in a number of long shots and in some of the voice-overs. Sheen was able to resume filming a few weeks later.
Sheen has played U.S. President John F. Kennedy in the miniseries Kennedy; Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in the television special The Missiles of October; White House Chief of Staff A.J. McInnerney in The American President; White House Counsel John Dean in the Television mini-series Blind Ambition; sinister future president Greg Stillson in The Dead Zone; the President in the Lori Loughlin-Chris Noth television mini-series, Medusa's Child; and fictional Democratic president Josiah "Jed" Bartlet in the acclaimed television drama, The West Wing.
In November 2010, Sheen was cast as Uncle Ben in Sony's 2012 reboot of the Spider-Man film series, The Amazing Spider-Man, directed by Marc Webb.
Sheen has performed voice-over work as the narrator for the Eyewitness series and as the "real" Seymour Skinner in the controversial Simpsons episode "The Principal and the Pauper." In addition, he played the role of the Illusive Man in the highly acclaimed video game Mass Effect 2, and the sequel, Mass Effect 3. Martin Sheen is also the host of In Focus, a television program whose Facebook page claims airs on PBS affiliate stations on Public Television, but in fact does not, according to the company's spokesperson, as reported in the Washington Post on December 27, 2012.
In 2009, Sheen travelled to Mexico City to star in Chamaco with Kirk Harris, Alex Perea, Gustavo Sanchez Parra and Michael Madsen. In 2010, he filmed Stella Days in County Tipperary, Ireland, near the birthplace of his mother. Thaddeus O'Sullivan directed and Irish actor Stephen Rea also starred.
Sheen appeared in Martin Scorsese's The Departed as Captain Oliver Queenan, a commanding officer who is watching an undercover cop (Leonardo DiCaprio). Martin Sheen and son Ramon Estevez combined both their real and stage names to create the Warner Bros.-affiliated company, Estevez Sheen Productions. The company’s latest film is The Way, written and directed by Sheen's son Emilio Estevez who also stars in the film as Martin’s on-screen son, who dies while hiking the Camino de Santiago. His daughter, Renée, also has a part in the film. Driven by sadness, Martin’s character, an American doctor, leaves his Californian life and embarks on the 800-km pilgrimage from the French Pyrenees to Spain’s Santiago de Compostela himself, with his son’s ashes. The Way premiered at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival.
Sheen appeared in the Irish Film Stella Days directed by Thaddeus O'Sullivan, along with IFTA award-winning actress Amy Huberman. Sheen plays parish priest Daniel Barry, whose love of movies leads him to help set up a cinema in Borrisokane. Sheen plays a starring role in Netflix's Grace and Frankie (2015–present).
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In 2010, Sheen first spoke to 18,000 young student activists at Free The Children's We Day, explaining "While acting is what I do for a living, activism is what I do to stay alive."
Although he did not attend college, Sheen credited the Marianists at University of Dayton as a major influence on his public activism, as well as Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Sheen is known for his outspoken support of liberal political causes, such as opposition to United States military actions and a hazardous-waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio. Sheen has resisted calls to run for office, saying: "There's no way that I could be the president. You can't have a pacifist in the White House.... I'm an actor. This is what I do for a living." Sheen is an honorary trustee of the Dayton International Peace Museum.
He supported the 1965 farm worker movement with Cesar Chavez in Delano, California. He is a proponent of the Consistent life ethic, which advocates against abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment and war. He articulated this view further in an interview with The Progressive: "I'm inclined to be against abortion of any life. But I am equally against the death penalty or war." He also stated at the same occasion: "I personally am opposed to abortion, but I will not judge anybody else's right in that regard because I am not a woman and I could never face the actual reality of it." He also supports the Democrats for Life of America's Pregnant Women Support Act. In 2004 along with Rob Reiner, Sheen campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, and later campaigned for nominee John Kerry.
On May 16, 1995, Martin Sheen and Paul Watson from the non-profit environmental organization Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, were confronted by a number of Canadian sealers in a hotel on Magdalen Islands over Sea Shepherd's history of attacks on sealing and whaling ships. Sheen negotiated with the sealers while Watson was escorted to the airport by police. In 2000, Sheen got involved in support of gun control after the National Shooting Sports Foundation hired his politically conservative brother, actor Joe Estevez who sounds like Sheen, to do a voice over for a pro-gunmaker commercial earlier in the year. In early 2003 Sheen signed the "Not in My Name" declaration opposing the invasion of Iraq (along with prominent figures such as Noam Chomsky and Susan Sarandon); the declaration appeared in the magazine The Nation. On August 28, 2005, he visited anti-Iraq War activist Cindy Sheehan at Camp Casey. He prayed with her and spoke to her supporters. He began his remarks by stating, "At least you've got the acting president of the United States," referring to his role as fictional president Josiah Bartlet on The West Wing. Cindy Sheehan had been demanding a second meeting with the President, George W. Bush.
Sheen endorsed marches and walkouts called by the civil rights group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) to force the state of California to honor the Cesar Chavez holiday. On the day of the protests (March 30), thousands of students, primarily Latino from California and elsewhere, walked out of school in support of the demand. Sheen also stated that he participated in the large-scale immigration marches in Los Angeles in 2006 and 2007.
On April 10, 2006, the New York Times reported that members of the Democratic Party in Ohio had contacted Sheen, attempting to persuade him to run for the United States Senate in Ohio. Sheen declined the offer, stating, "I'm just not qualified. You're mistaking celebrity for credibility." On November 26, 2006, the Sunday Times in Ireland, where Sheen was then living as a result of his enrolment in NUI Galway, reported on his speaking out against mushroom farmers exploiting foreign workers by paying them as little as €2.50 an hour in a country where the minimum wage was €7.65.
Sheen's latest activism includes attendances at meetings of the environmentalist group Earth First! and speaking appearances at youth empowerment events called We Day on behalf of Free The Children, an international charity and educational partner. Sheen has been named an ambassador of Free The Children and has supported such initiatives as the We are Silent campaign, a 24-hour pledge of silence. Speaking about his work with Free The Children, Sheen has said, "I'm hooked! I told them whenever I could offer some insight or energy or whatever I had, I'd be delighted if they would call on me, and they have."
Sheen has also endorsed and supported Help Darfur Now, a student-run organization to help aid victims of the genocide in Darfur, the western region in Sudan. He also appears in the recent anti-fur documentary "Skin Trade."
Sheen has appeared in television and radio ads urging Washington state residents to vote 'no' on Initiative 1000, a proposed assisted suicide law before voters in the 2008 election.
Sheen initially endorsed New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson in the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election, and helped raise funds for his campaign. After Richardson dropped out of the campaign, Sheen stated in a BBC Two interview with Graham Norton that he was supporting Barack Obama.
In March 2012, Sheen was featured with George Clooney in a performance of Dustin Lance Black's play, '8'—a staged reenactment of the federal trial that overturned California's Prop 8 ban on same-sex marriage as attorney Theodore Olson. The production was held at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre and broadcast on YouTube to raise money for the American Foundation for Equal Rights.
In September 2012, Sheen reunited with the cast of The West Wing to produce a video tasked with explaining Michigan's ballot and its partisan and nonpartisan sections. The video doubled as a campaign ad for Bridget McCormack, who was running as a nonpartisan candidate for Michigan's Supreme Court.
In 2015, it was announced that Sheen narrated the trailer for a proposed documentary film about the controversial prosecution of former Alabama governor Don Siegelman.
"I am pro-life"
Sheen married Janet Templeton on December 23, 1961, and they have four children, three sons and a daughter, all of whom are actors: Emilio, Ramón, Carlos, and Renée. All but one decided to keep their own names when they began acting – Carlos, calling himself Charlie Sheen, made the decision to Anglicize his first name and take his surname from his father's stage name.
Charlie and his father jointly parodied their respective previous roles in the 1993 movie Hot Shots! Part Deux when their river patrol boats passed each other, at which point they both shouted, "I loved you in Wall Street!" a film they both starred in as father and son in 1987.
He has played the father of sons Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen in various projects: he played Emilio's father in The War at Home, In the Custody of Strangers and The Way, and Charlie's father in Wall Street, No Code of Conduct, two episodes of Spin City, and Anger Management. He also appeared as a guest star in one episode of Two and a Half Men playing the father of Charlie's neighbor Rose (Melanie Lynskey), and another as guest star Denise Richards's father; at the time that episode aired, Richards was still married to Charlie. Martin also played a "future" version of Charlie in a VISA TV commercial. Martin has played other characters with his children. He starred in the film Bobby, which was directed by Emilio, who also starred in the movie alongside his father. Renée had a supporting role in The West Wing, as one of President Josiah Bartlet's (Sheen) secretaries. Emilio also appeared, uncredited, in an episode of The West Wing portraying his father's character, President Bartlet, in home movie footage.
Sheen became a grandfather at age 43 when his son Emilio had a son named Taylor Levi with his girlfriend, Carey Salley. Sheen has a total of ten grandchildren, the other nine being: Paloma Rae (from Emilio), Cassandra, Sam J, Lola Rose, Bob and Max (from Charlie) and Katherine, Luis Jr. and Christopher (from Ramón) and one great-granddaughter Luna (from Cassandra).
He celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary in 2011.
In 2012, Sheen was a guest on the U.S. version of Who Do You Think You Are?, tracing his Irish and Spanish ancestry.
He underwent a quadruple heart bypass operation in December 2015.