Shooting a big party scene for NBC's West Wing last spring, Martin Sheen, who plays President Josiah Bartlet, proved himself a man of the people—or at least the 200 extras. "In most situations you get a couple hundred of them on a set and it's a nightmare," says one guest performer from the first-season episode. "But Sheen had every person in that room completely captivated. He stood there and started singing 'Danny Boy.' You just thought of a happy leprechaun."
Millions of Sheen's fellow Americans prefer to imagine him as the ideal chief executive—warm, feisty, darn entertaining—even if his real-life politics fall to the left of Ralph Nader's. "He's a good guy," says Robert Duvall, Sheen's (conservative) costar in the Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now. "He's the only liberal I've ever liked." The West Wing has also reminded audiences that the 60-year-old Sheen, Emmy-nominated last year, is a punchy, powerful actor—not just Dad to actors Charlie Sheen, 35, and Emilio Estevez, 38. "He's having a great time," says his brother John Estevez, 57, a retired TV executive in the actor's hometown, Dayton. "This is the icing on the cake."
Despite the twinkle in President Bartlet's eye, Sheen has, over the course of a tumultuous lifetime, tasted the bitter with the sweet. "It has not been a sprint to the top of the mountain," says Tom Wesselkamper, who taught Sheen physics at Dayton's Chaminade High in the '50s. Sheen suffered a near-fatal heart attack before he was 40 and, nearly three years ago, a recovering alcoholic himself, intervened dramatically in Charlie's own substance-abuse battle, landing the younger Sheen in a lockdown detox center. "I risked his hating me forever," he told the Los Angeles Times last year, "and put his ass away."
Sheen admits to having been hauled off for drunk and disorderly conduct himself in the past. But he has most often been arrested—some 70 times—under the influence of his own demanding moral principles. While Sheen was only one among many celebrities who stumped for Al Gore, for years he has joined street-level rallies, protesting migrants' working conditions, the arms race and homelessness. Just last October he was charged with trespassing during a rally against military space technology at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base. A committed Roman Catholic—and a major reason President Bartlet wound up Catholic as well—"he believes that what you do to the least of these my brethren, you do to me," says Wesselkamper.
Indeed, according to one West Wing actor, Sheen personally saw to it that a food-service employee was dismissed for being rude to an elderly man on the set. "He treats people he doesn't even know like gold," says another insider, "so imagine how he treats the people close to him." When son Emilio had two children with lover Carey LaSalle in the '80s, Sheen provided them with housing. "It's generosity of the soul," says LaSalle, now a yoga instructor.
Sheen grew up with precious little to give away as one of 10 children—nine boys—in Dayton. Born Ramon Estevez, Sheen was the son of a Spanish-born father, Francisco Estevez, a cash register repairman, and an Irish-immigrant mother, Mary Ann. Her health was never strong, and she died of a cerebral hemorrhage when Sheen was 11.
Although his was a blue-collar household, Sheen dreamed early on of an acting career. "He idolized Jimmy Dean," says a high school friend, Thomas Schaefer, and copied Dean's pompadour and mannerisms. After high school he moved to New York City, changing his name along the way (with a nod to TV sermonizer Bishop Fulton J. Sheen). It was there that he met and wed his first and only wife, Janet, in 1961. "She's a strong person," says LaSalle, "and a very committed wife."
Janet saw Sheen through the lean years before he established himself on Broadway (in The Subject Was Roses, in 1964), on TV (in That Certain Summer, the landmark 1972 ABC movie in which he and Hal Holbrook played gay lovers) and in movies (1973's Badlands, with Sissy Spacek). He and Janet set up home in a ranch-style Malibu house and have lived there ever since, raising Charlie, Emilio, Ramon Estevez, 37, a songwriter, and Renee Estevez, 33, who plays a staffer on The West Wing. Holbrook recalls the home as "a wide-open, active, casual place. It was a real family being a family."
Unfortunately, Sheen was living almost as wildly as his idol Jimmy Dean—until he nearly died during the problem-plagued Philippines shoot for Apocalypse Now, in 1977. Sheen, who was drunk when he filmed the movie's opening breakdown scene, went off to a hill alone one evening. "That's when he had his heart attack," says Thomas Schaefer. "He had to crawl back for almost a mile. And while he was doing it he told the Virgin Mary, 'If you can help me, I'm going to change my life from this day forward.' "
Sheen was true to his word. Shooting the 1982 film Gandhi later in India, he met Mother Teresa and reportedly gave his salary to charity. He went on to work with activist priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan and migrant-worker organizer Cesar Chavez, and stopped drinking completely more than a decade ago. "It's not easy," he told a British interviewer last year. His youngest son learned the same hard lesson when his father walked into a Malibu courthouse in 1998 and reported that Charlie, on probation after pleading no contest to '97 battery charges, had not only violated his parole by taking drugs—he'd been hospitalized with an overdose. "It was a matter of saving Charlie's life," says LaSalle. Charlie, who made a comeback this fall on ABC's Spin City, says he has stayed clean ever since. "We have a very open and honest relationship now," Sheen said recently—even though Spin airs opposite the more popular Wing.
Sheen's journey to the Bartlet White House began with the 1995 movie The American President, in which he played Michael Douglas's adviser. When the film's screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, dreamed up The West Wing a few years later, he first envisioned a chief executive who'd be little more than an occasional face in a sea of staffers. "But we wound up having so much fun with Martin," Sorkin told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel last year, that the part has grown from week to week.
It's unlikely, though, that Sheen will get carried away and follow his polar political opposite, Ronald Reagan, into running for office. "They've talked to him here about the U.S. Senate in Ohio," says his brother John. "He said no, that's not what he does." For Sheen, acting will always be the ticket of choice.
Mark Dagostino in Los Angeles and Champ Clark in Chicago
On Newsstands Now
- Amy Robach: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'
- Paul Walker: Inside His Tragic Death
- Julia Roberts: Choosing Family Over Hollywood
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine