Martin Sheen: Actor, Activist, Pilgrim on the Way

by Melannie Svoboda SND on December 11, 2017

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.)

Sheen speaking at one of the anti-war demonstrations.

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

Sheen and his son Emilio who directed him in the movie “The Way.”

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.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathleen December 11, 2017 at 5:40 am

Wonderful reflection Sr. Melannie!

I have long admired Martin Sheen. A few months ago I watched the movie that he made about Dorothy Day. Martin is such an inspiration for standing up the poor and lowly. His example is so needed in these turbulent political times.

Kathleen

Reply

Ed Johnson December 11, 2017 at 5:40 am

Sister,
Dayton is my hometown, and still have family in the area. I was not aware of many of the details of Mr. Sheen’s family life. Well written biography provides good insights into people’s hearts, minds, and souls. Think I’ll add this book to my Christmas list! I especially liked his quote “I love to ponder the mystery of God’s presence in the world……….” Indeed, and especially during this time of the year. Blessed Advent and Merry Christmas!

Reply

Frances December 11, 2017 at 8:54 am

It is touching to read what he says about his son, Charlie. Waiting with a lit candle at the end of a dark corridor shows the hope and love parents have for a struggling child. We pray for trust and acceptance for God’s will for the loved ones in our lives.

Reply

Marjorie December 11, 2017 at 10:13 am

Let us pray: “We shall live in peace some day. . . .”

Inspiring words – thank you.

Reply

Suzanne December 11, 2017 at 10:17 am

You have piqued my interest in reading the book, Sr. Melannie. Martin Sheen is an example of resilency in his own life and unconditional love in relation to his son. Thank you for sharing about this book.

Advent blessings!

Suzanne

Reply

Marietta Wethington December 11, 2017 at 10:45 am

Sister Melannie,
Thank you so much for this beautiful reflection. I have long been an admirer of Martin Sheen. Any time I notice something on television in which he stars I watch it. I was not aware of the book. I will look for it. I also like Pete Seeger a lot.
May the remainder of your Advent be a meaningful journey leading you to many Christmas blessings.
Marietta Wethington, OSU

Reply

R.C.Salinas December 11, 2017 at 11:36 am

Sister Melanie,
We need more stories like Martin’s. What an incarnational point of view. Its the right thing to hear on an Advent evening. RC

Reply

Ginger Haug December 11, 2017 at 11:48 am

Thank you for highlighting one of my favorite actors, and a truly wonderful man. If people have not seen his movie The Way” it should go right on your viewing list. It is fiction, but Martin’s spirit shows through. Have a blessed holiday season.

Reply

Angela December 11, 2017 at 12:33 pm

Stories like this need to be shared more and more to the general public. I feel that this type of story is a great evangelizing tool!

Reply

Dae December 11, 2017 at 1:15 pm

Thank you Sr. Melannie for giving me a new insight and appreciation for Martin Sheen and all he has stood for. We need more in Hollywood to set good examples.

Reply

Jan December 11, 2017 at 1:54 pm

Hi Sr. Melannie,
Thank you very much for this reflection on the life of Martin Sheen. I have always been a fan of his. I had an opportunity to meet him back in 1983. I was attending Holy Mass at a church in near Malibu, CA and unbeknownst to me, he was sitting in front of me. During the hand shake of peace, he turned around to shake my hand. We spoke briefly after Mass. I will definitely put this book on my wish list from Santa. Thank you for the recommendation and many thanks for all you do to help us on our spiritual journeys.

Reply

Patty December 11, 2017 at 3:33 pm

Thank you, Sister. I will share this reflection on Facebook.

Reply

Sandy Zabierowsky December 11, 2017 at 3:53 pm

Thank you for this wonderful memories, Martin Sheen and the song and Pete Seeger. I’ve always admired Martin Sheen and all his beliefs and work . Pete S. and, We Shall Overcome.

Reply

Joan M. December 12, 2017 at 9:47 am

Thank you Sister Melanie for this and so many other eye-opening meditations. Martin Sheen provides a good example for all of us.

Happy Advent!

Reply

Betty Nagel December 12, 2017 at 2:18 pm

Hi, Melannie!
I’m going to look for the book to which you referred in this post. I’ve always liked Martin Sheen but never knew much about him. He starred in a beautiful movie “The Way” that I highly recommend. It is inspiring and thought-provoking.

Reply

John Hopkins December 12, 2017 at 3:08 pm

I love Martin Sheen! I remember watching him in “West Wing” and wishing he were our president! When I watched “The Way,” I knew that one day I’d walk the Camino. That day came in the summer of 2016, and while I walked only a portion of it (200 kilometers), it will forever be the most profound spiritual experience of my life. Thank you, Martin Sheen!

Reply

Pamela December 12, 2017 at 3:37 pm

What Martin said of his son,“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.” really touched me. I too have children who seem lost in alcohol and partying. I sometimes feel like I failed. I pray for them often and know it’s God will and that his plan is for good and not for evil. I pray for more patience. Thank you sister Melanie. Your post always inspire me.

Reply

Leave a Comment