Actor Martin Sheen gets back to the stage for the production of "The… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)
A man many Americans still think of longingly as President Josiah Bartlet is waiting for a light to change at the intersection of Washington Boulevard and Hughes Avenue in Culver City. He is on foot and in conversation with a companion, on his way to Saturday evening mass, but when he sees the people in a car parked at the light waving through the windshield at him, he turns and waves back, offering them a glimpse of his open face and very good set of teeth before hurrying into the crosswalk.
He's just like on TV, the smiling people in the car might be thinking, because Martin Sheen, in jeans and windbreaker, is very much the Everyman he brought to the fictional White House of "The West Wing" for seven seasons on NBC.
No need to genuflect. He'll be doing the genuflecting once he's inside St. Augustine Catholic Church a few blocks away.
Though a resident of Malibu, Sheen has been rehearsing the play "The Subject Was Roses" on this recent day, and unable to get back home in time for his regular Saturday mass, he's found a neighborhood church to attend instead.
"It's a weekly affirmation for me," he says, walking briskly. "To be with others thinking about God."
"The Subject Was Roses," which opens at the Mark Taper Forum next Sunday, marks Sheen's return to the stage (other than readings) for the first time in almost 20 years, and he's coming back in the play that launched his career in 1964, on Broadway. Written by Frank Gilroy, "The Subject Was Roses" is an emotionally raw family drama about an unhappily married Irish American couple and their only child, a son just returned from World War II. The son finds that he has left one war only to come back to another, but that what he learned in Europe makes it possible for him finally to escape the war at home.
On Broadway, Sheen played the son; 46 years later, he's playing the father.
"That play changed my life so thoroughly," he said earlier, after finishing his scene work for the day with Frances Conroy ("Six Feet Under"), who plays his long-suffering wife in the Taper production, directed by Neil Pepe. "It was the first success I had, and the only Broadway success I ever had. It gave me such confidence. An actor needs some measure of success. It was the first confirmation of my talent and my possibilities. I was 24."
A native of Dayton, Ohio, the seventh son of a Spanish factory worker and politically active Irish mother, Sheen, who was born Ramon Estevez, had gone to New York at 18 and found his way into the avant-garde Living Theatre run by Julian Beck and Judith Molina as well as Joseph Papp's Shakespeare in the Park. Papp insisted on calling him "Ramon" even after he took the stage name "Martin Sheen" in an effort to get more work.
Sheen spent 10 years, from 1959 to '69, in New York. His children -- Emilio, Ramon, Charlie and Renee, all actors at one time or another -- were born there. He is still married to their mother, the former art student Janet Templeton.
"The theater was predominant in terms of acting," Sheen said, "but then came people like James Dean and a different cinema acting technique that was just revolutionary because it was about behavior -- Montgomery Clift, Brando. Those three changed cinema all over the world."
Dean in particular, in the 1955 film "East of Eden," was a powerful influence on him. "You see this guy and you think, 'Oh . . . my . . . God.' Wow. And I never really appreciated what he did until I did my first on-camera stuff, and how you had to repeat everything and hit marks and have the camera move with you." Sheen even changed his brand of cigarette. "I was smoking Camels or something, but James Dean smoked Kools. I had to switch."
But it took success in the theater, in this play, to win him the notice that led to his eventually moving to L.A. and a prolific career in television and film that has stretched from a small role in "The Mod Squad" to "The West Wing" and included the movies "Badlands," "Apocalypse Now," "Gettysburg" and "The Departed." Long identified with liberal causes and social justice, he has portrayed his share of real political figures in addition to President Bartlet, often endowing them with a bristling sense of patriotism. On television Sheen has played John Kennedy ("JFK") and Robert Kennedy ("The Missiles of October"), not to mention John Dean ("Blind Ambition").
"When we did this play in '64 in New York, there were a limited number of venues -- the three networks, soap operas, commercials, off Broadway, summer stock, Broadway," Sheen said. "And then Hollywood, which was a completely different animal. Maybe people didn't want to admit it who were pursuing careers in the theater but we all wanted to be movie stars, you know," he laughs, "where you could have your cake and eat it too -- become known and then come back and do Broadway.