Sunday, October 17, 1999

For a pacifist, Martin Sheen plays a pretty good president




BY JOHN KIESEWETTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Having played John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and a White House adviser, Martin Sheen seemed like the perfect choice to play the U.S. president in The West Wing. To everyone but Martin Sheen.

        “I think I would be the last choice,” said Mr. Sheen, the Dayton, Ohio, native who stars as President Josiah Bartlett.

        “I'm very active in peace and social justice issues. And as a pacifist I believe in conflict resolution through non-violence.”

        In the third episode of NBC's new drama, Mr. Sheen as commander-in-chief suggests bombing Syria for shooting down an American jet.

        Call it great acting. Call him much more of a realist than Warren Beatty and Donald Trump.

        “I consider myself a liberal Democrat, but I'm against abortion,” said Mr. Sheen, a devout Roman Catholic.

        “There's no way that I could be the president. You can't have a pacifist in the White House, and you can't have one in a White House on TV either. I'm an actor. This is what I do for a living.”

        Mr. Sheen, born Ramon Estevez in Dayton 59 years ago, brings an air of authority to The West Wing, TV's best new series from two of TV's best writers, Aaron Sorkin (Sports Night, The American President) and John Wells (ER, Third Watch).

        His Josiah Bartlett is a first-term Democrat from New Hampshire. He's a former three-term congressman and two-term governor.

        Mr. Sheen's White House experience includes playing Robert Kennedy in The Missiles of October (1974); John Dean in Blind Ambition (1979); a presidential adviser in Mr. Sorkin's The American President (1995); and President Kennedy in Kennedy (1983). He also helped Robert Kennedy campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1964, “and got to know him a little bit,” he said.

        “I wasn't old enough to vote for John Kennedy, but I was a huge fan, and was devasted, like everyone was, at his death,” says Mr. Sheen, who graduated from old Dayton Chaminade High School in 1958.

        “When I was asked to play John Kennedy, I refused because I didn't think I could do it, frankly. I didn't think anyone could do it.”

        Finally his wife said: “Maybe you should play John Kennedy because you loved him. And if by your playing him, you prevent someone from playing him who did not love him, it might be a good thing to do.”

        His Josiah Bartlett is surrounded by the fall's strongest new cast. It's also notable because several are older than the networks' 18-to-49 demographic target. The West Wing staff includes John Spencer (L.A. Law); Richard Schiff (Deep Impact); Rob Lowe (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me); and Allison Janney (Primary Colors). Mr. Lowe and Ms. Janney also are from Dayton.

        “That's amazing isn't it?” Mr. Sheen said.

        Ms. Janney, 38, attended Miami Valley High School. Mr. Lowe, 35, was a student at Longfellow Middle School when he left Dayton in 1976. Mr. Sheen has three brothers in Dayton: Alfonso and Francisco (retired), and John Estevez (who calls him “Sheen”), development director for WPTD-TV (Channel 16).

        Dayton's National Cash Register Co. drew Mr. Sheen's Spanish father to Ohio before World War II. His Irish mother was sent to Dayton relatives during domestic strife in Tipperary. They met at a Dayton citizenship school.

        Mr. Sheen's first mentor in Dayton was the Rev. Alfred Drapp, later a longtime pastor at St. Margaret Mary Church, North College Hill.

        “Father Drapp helped me get started once I went to New York,” said Mr. Sheen, who won a trip to New York for his dramatic Bible readings at a Dayton talent show his senior year at Chaminade.

        He stayed in Manhattan, doing odd jobs (elevator operator, busboy, shipping clerk) while establishing an acting career under a stage name taken from Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, the popular 1950s televangelist.

        “I started using Sheen, and it sort of stuck. But I never (legally) changed my name. I was married under Estevez. My children were baptized as Estevez. I have two Social Security cards with the same number, one with Sheen and one with Estevez.”

        His first big break came in 1964 on Broadway in The Subject Was Roses with Jack Albertson. For the next 35 years he has been busy with feature films (Apocalyspe Now, Gandhi, Wall Street), TV movies (The Execution of Private Slovik, Gettysburg), miniseries and voice-over narrations. He stars in The TimeShifters today (8 p.m., TBS) with Catherine Bell and Casper Van Dien.

        Mr. Sheen had just finished O, an update of Othello, when he was asked to appear in four of the first 12 West Wing episodes.

        “After they put the pilot together, they realized that people might catch on that I'd be there only once a month. So they talked to me about a longer commitment.”

        His three-year contract takes President Bartlett through re-election. “Maybe we'll go four more, who knows?” he said.

        He also negotiated time off for the protest rallies and poverty marches that are important to him.

        “I've got two days off between now and Christmas and both of them are for demonstrations. I'll be at Fort Benning, Ga., on the 21st of November, to demonstrate against the School of the Americas,” he said.

        Mr. Sheen was among 2,000 people arrested — but not charged with trespassing — last Nov. 22 at Fort Benning. The Army school has been a target of protests since 1989, when some graduates were linked to the murder of six Jesuit priests and two women in El Salvador.

        After his arrest last year, Mr. Sheen declared: “I make my living as an actor, but this is what I do to stay alive. My faith demands it. I love my country enough to risk its wrath.”

        And to preclude him from being a serious presidential candidate.

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330.