Martin Sheen Interview
Up Close and Very Personal...
Intimate Talk on Faith, Activism,
Marriage, and Frank Sinatra
By Beverly Cohn
Martin Sheen as Tom in "The Way" carries
his son's ashes which he sprinkles at landmarks on Camino de Santiago
de Compostela. Courtesy Photo.
art 1 of this exclusive interview focused primarily on Martin Sheens
starring role in a new film produced and directed by his son Emilio
Estevez. The Way, is a heartfelt story of Tom, played by
Sheen, whose son dies in the French Pyrenees while walking on the historical
Camino de Santiago de Compostela, and the ensuing personal challenge,
determination, and life-changing experience that sets in for Tom as
a result of that tragedy.
In Part 2 of this deeply personal interview, Sheen candidly
discusses his spiritual re-awakening and the responsibilities it created.
The following conversation was conducted in the Tavis Smiley Green Room
and has been edited for print purposes.
Cohn: Are you religious or spiritual or both?
Martin: Im Catholic. (laughs)
Cohn: Are you a recovering Catholic or a practicing
Martin: Im a practicing Catholic and Im
going to keep practicing until I get it right. (laughs)
Cohn: Youve attended St. Monica Catholic Church
in Santa Monica. What drew you there?
Martin: I love the Sunday evening Mass with the orchestra
and choir. Thats a very, very nurturing place. If you get their
church bulletin every Sunday and read it, youd see all the outreach
programs they have for the homeless, for bereavement, for gays and lesbians,
the unemployed, and the elderly. Its a service-oriented community
and Monsignor Torgerson is one of the most extraordinary men Ive
Cohn: There was a time in your life when you broke
away from the church. What brought you back?
Martin: I was raised Catholic but kind of fell away
in my 20s, which is why my kids werent raised Catholic. My wife
was raised Baptist but didnt follow that religion. For my own
part, I came back to a much different church in 1981, a church that
was a reflection of Vatican II. It opted for the poor, advocated peace
and social justice activism, and gave a voice to the voiceless, and
a presence to the marginal. So, that made all the difference to me.
It was activism and an absolute embrace of the non-violence.
Cohn: Youre a man of great conviction and have
used your celebrity status to protest against social and political injustices
resulting in multiple arrests. What drives you to do this?
Martin: The last 30 years have been, by far, the most
difficult because of the demands for social justice commitment. It has
also equally been the happiest and I wouldnt change it for the
world. Anything of value has to cost you something; otherwise youre
left to question its value. Ive never been happier than Ive
been these last 30 years. I try to live a life of gratitude and praise
and service and my work has been a large part of a reflection of who
I am, I think.
Cohn: How much influence do you think youve
had and how much is society to blame for some of our personal ills and
Martin: I dont have any illusions about it. I
havent changed the world and have no intentions of even trying.
I use to in the old days. You do this for yourself for your own
freedom. You have to take responsibility for your life for the
things you did and the things you should have done and you have to answer
for that. We only find ourselves through each other, and we come to
embrace ourselves in our brokenness by recognizing the brokenness of
others and their humanity. Thats the presence of God. For me,
its such an exciting way to live and I couldnt be happier.
The only regret is that I came to this understanding so late. Theres
an old Irish tale that really emphasizes what Im talking about.
This guy comes to the gates of heaven and asks to be let in and St.
Peter says, Of course, just show us your scars. The man
says, I have no scars, and St. Peter says, What a
pity. Was there nothing worth fighting for?
Cohn: Speaking of happiness, arent you celebrating
your 50th Wedding Anniversary soon?
Martin: December 28th.
Cohn: In Hollywood, its a pure miracle for
any marriage to last 50 years. Whats kept yours together?
Martin: I was lucky enough to marry a lady who, just
by her daily journey, lived an honest life. She told the truth, the
whole truth, and nothing but the truth, all the time. I couldnt
measure up for the first 20 years because this woman was, frankly, someone
I realized I could never live up to because I was filled with so much
pretense and so much image and so much ego. It was only after 20 years,
and a serious illness that she helped me overcome, that I surrendered
to live an honest life and stop the pretense and let go of the anxiety
and the fear and to embrace this wonderful mystery called life. I learned
to give thanks and praise, keep walking, and not to expect to have an
effect on anyone or anything. I was asked the other day what would I
like to be remembered for, and I said, For about five minutes.
I dont want to be remembered for anything by anyone except those
who knew me and really loved me. Ive only been truly married
for 30 years but shes been married for 50.
Cohn: I heard this rumor that you know every Frank
Martin: Ive had a life-long admiration and love
for Frank Sinatra. Hes the greatest crooner who ever lived and
I believe he set the bar for all the rest. Hes the most distinctive
song stylist and the most gifted voice in recording history. I wont
say ever because we dont know what came before they started recording.
Cohn: I believe that Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand
were hailed the pop voices of the last century. So would you like to
hum a few bars of your favorite song?
Martin: (laughing) Oh no. I dont know all
of them, but I could probably identify every song; some I love better
than others. One of my favorites is In the Wee Small Hours.
Cohn: Have you ever done a musical?
Martin: No, never. I almost did, but I dont sing.
I was almost in the original cast of Hair. I auditioned
for Joe Papp at the Public Theatre in New York. That was the first presentation
of that play. I was in the second production that was a musical version
of Hamlet called Hamlet Is A Happening and did
sing one song in that production.
Cohn: Have you had moments where you were frightened?
Martin: Ive always been uncomfortable flying.
If the turbulence started, I would get the beads out (Rosary)
and make all sorts of promises to the Lord that I would do if the plane
landed safely. One time we were in Washington, D.C. We hadnt had
a day off in seven days and I was working 12 14 hours a day.
I was exhausted. I got to the plane, was the first one on, got in my
seat, buckled up, and fell fast asleep. The next thing I know, I was
jolted awake the plane is rolling and everything is rattling,
and the plane is ready to take off. Just in case, we didnt make
it, I said a quick prayer, Thank you, its been wonderful.
I couldnt have asked for a happier life.
Cohn: What do you say to people who dont have
a religious or spiritual belief system?
Martin: I say, well you stop at a stop sign or a red
light. Isnt that an act of faith that everybody is going to stop?
Everything is about living in the state of faith. You cant see
the un-seeable and youre not always entitled to it. Would you
like to know when youre going to die?
Cohn: Well actually I would like to have the opportunity
to get my hair done the day before.
Martin: (Laughs) Seriously, we dont want
to know anything like that. Were only given life and the effort
for me is to find a way to live it in an honest, balanced way. Its
important to understand that we dont grow without suffering and
that the only people who have any contribution to make to the human
race have suffered, and those who suffered the most, generally have
the most to offer. Think about Nelson Mandela. He spends 27 years in
a prison cell and becomes the most powerful man in the country, and
has no vengeance.
Cohn: Do you have one outstanding memorable family
Martin: When Emilio was born, I was in the labor room
until I was told that my wife was ready to deliver. I wanted to be with
her but they said I couldnt stay and slammed the door. You must
train for this. Subsequently, we had moved to Staten Island and decided
that we were going to have our next child on our own do it ourselves.
We couldnt have been more stupid. Now, I had never seen a baby
born, not even on film, and didnt have a clue. We dropped Emilio
off at a neighbors house. Were in the bedroom and Janets
ready. I had a bottle of alcohol and a copy of the New York Sunday Times.
Its going down. Normally the head comes first and the baby turns
on the final journey through the birth canal. Ramons head was
quite large and he got stuck. Im thinking, Oh Jesus, this
is the worst. He needs to breathe, and quickly. So I got in front
of Janet and pulled down with each contraction and I became possessed.
I cant tell you how I got there but I knew they were both in big
trouble. I just pulled down and forced him out. He flies out and there
was a lot of blood and she was ripped badly. Im trying to hold
him and realize that we have an emergency and I cant leave to
make the call. Then I looked and thought here comes the twin and I said
to Janet, Oh my God, heres comes another one. She
said, No fool, thats the placenta. (laughter)
I didnt have a clue. Anyway, I made the 911 call and they got
there in ten minutes. They cut the cord and we all pile into the ambulance
and head to the Staten Island Hospital. They had to put Janet in isolation
because the baby was born outside of a sterilized environment. Early
that evening, around 6:00 pm or 7:00 pm, I leave the hospital and Im
walking home. In those days, New York had seven or eight daily newspapers
and they use to have what they called Extras, and would
print four or five editions a day with stars on them. Thats where
the term Extra, Extra, Read All About It comes from that
youve seen in movies. Anyway, the guy shouts out: Extra,
Extra, Jackie (Kennedy) Has a Boy. That was August 7, 1963
and we followed that awful tragedy because Patrick Bouvier Kennedy died
on August 9. I thought Oh my God; heres the President of
the United States desperate to have a child and loses it in 48 hours,
and we go through Ramons delivery with a copy of the New York
Times and a bottle of alcohol. We were both two idiots.
Cohn: I assume you never tried a do-it-yourself home
Martin: (laughs) No. We took natural childbirth
classes. Years later, I had a meeting with one of my heroes, Justice
Ruth Ginsberg and she said, by the way, say hello to Janet for me. I
asked her how she knew Janet and she said that they were in the same
birthing class together.
L-R: Trekkers played by Yorick van Wageningen, Deborah
Kara Unger, James Nesbitt, and Martin Sheen take a moment to enjoy the
Cohn: Do you set your intention every day on how
you would like the day to unfold?
Martin: I know that I dont have a prayer. (laughs)
I have a phrase: We must accept the cup as offered not
altered. I always wanted to put a little more sugar in there or
pour some out. No. You have to accept the cup as offered and thats
the only way we can become ourselves the only way to become free.
Some people deserve a standing ovation for dealing with their lives,
which sometimes are so difficult and painful. I dont have any
solution for how one should go about ones day how you begin
it, and how you end it. They call it the presence its a
gift a present. So I accept the day as it unfolds, but begin
with thanks and praise Im alive. Im awake. Im
standing up. All the parts are working. Now go out and serve somebody
and lift someone up.
Cohn: You are an extraordinary person.
Martin: It takes one, to know one.