A Star's Activism, on Screen and Off

Martin Sheen's causes have made the past nine years the `most difficult and happy' of his life. FILM: INTERVIEW

MARTIN SHEEN careened around the freeways in his 4-wheel drive Land Cruiser looking for the Los Angeles General Hospital. He wanted to visit a man who had been nearly killed by Los Angeles Raiders football fans while he walked through their rooting section shouting support for the Pittsburgh Steelers. ``I really love football,'' said Mr. Sheen as he drove off the Santa Monica freeway. ``I would hate for American fans to become like England's soccer hooligans. I admired that guy's guts for going right into the Raiders' section and not caring about the consequences.''

Sheen found the room of Steeler fan Paul Albreicht and tried talking to him. But Mr. Albreicht wouldn't realize Sheen had visited until he woke up later and found an autographed photo.

But all the nurses and doctors in the ward certainly knew Sheen was there. As word spread down the corridors, the staff lined up to get autographs - and he signed every one.

At age 50, Sheen still sets hearts athrob. With a full shock of hair and an athletic physique, he exudes perpetual Hollywood good looks.

It was a typical day for Sheen. Earlier he had donated his time for two TV spots to help the homeless. Later he visited a friend to urge him to act in Sheen's next movie project.

Sheen keeps a busy schedule of moviemaking and political activism. After years of personal tumult, Sheen has finally found peace by combining the two.

Driven by strong Christian beliefs, Sheen discovered a sense of community in the movement for peace and social justice.

`I DON'T stop being an actor when I attend a demonstration,'' says Sheen. ``I don't stop being an activist when I go to work as an actor.''

Sheen was not always at peace with himself. Son of a Spanish factory worker father and Irish mother who died when he was 11, Sheen's real name is Ramon Estevez. Growing up poor, he worked as a golf caddie in Dayton, Ohio, from age nine to 18.

``I learned a lot of respect for the game [of golf],'' he reminisces, ``and very little respect for the rich.''

With nothing but high school acting experience, Sheen moved to New York hoping to get into theater. He changed his name to Sheen.

``If I wanted to work commercially,'' says Sheen, looking back on those years, ``I [thought I] had better get a name people could pronounce and connect with...''

Sheen now regrets the decision. When his children became actors years later, he urged them all to use the family name. Emilio, Ramon and daughter Rene all use Estevez (pronounced es-TEH-vez).

``Charlie (Sheen's) real name is Carlos Estevez,'' says Sheen. ``I wish he had used his name, but that's his business. I don't love him any less.''

Sheen's first big Hollywood success came with ``Badlands,'' a 1974 film which is also one of his favorites. He played a James Dean-esque loner who goes on a kidnapping and killing spree in the Dakotas.

Playing opposite a very young Sissy Spacek, Sheen exuded a power and fury that marked him for stardom.

His next big Hollywood role coincided with a physical and mental breakdown during which he almost died. It was 1976 and he spent over a year filming ``Apocalypse Now'' in the Philippines.

While both the film and his acting were critical successes, Sheen's personal life fell apart.

He began abusing alcholol, landed in jail several times, and separated from his wife. ``I was my own worst enemy,'' he says. ``I was setting my hair on fire and putting it out with a hammer.''

His life changed radically in 1981 when he filmed ``Gandhi'' in India. He met Mother Teresa and rediscovered the Roman Catholicism of his youth.

He also came to support the grassroots, politically radical Catholicism of the Berrigan brothers, former Catholic priests who have organized numerous anti-war protests.

`I CAME out of India knowing I had to find a community to find myself,'' Sheen remembers. ``I came back to the faith ... and immediately became involved with peace and justice.''

Sheen describes the last nine years as ``the most difficult and by far the happiest'' of his life. He has been arrested numerous times protesting nuclear weapons testing.

He has lent his support to Cesar Chavez' farm workers union, to homeless organizers, and most recently to a boycott of Salvadoran coffee to protest that country's political repression.

Sheen has starred in films portraying radical homeless organizer Mitch Snyder and a progressive union official in ``Wall Street.'' Sheen said he prefers to take roles that reflect his political and spiritual commitments. But he doesn't always have the choice.

``I would rather act than dig ditches to earn a living,'' he notes.

Sheen says he takes roles simply for the money. ``I'm just as much in love with luxury as the next one. I love my house, my pool, my credit card, my power.''

Nevertheless, he won't take parts in movies with excessive violence, explicit sexuality, or ones that ``tell non-truths.'' He says his most effective performances are those where he can identify with his character. To have greater control over his scripts and characters, Sheen has just completed directing his first feature film, ``Cadence.''

Cadence tells the story of a GI jailed in an army stockade in 1965. Charlie Sheen portrays the stockade's only white prisoner, and he gradually comes to identify with the black inmates. Martin Sheen plays the stockade commandant, and Ramon Estevez plays a prison guard. ``Cadence'' is scheduled for release early next year.

With production work completed on that film, Sheen is now planning to direct the story of an American bullfighter hoping for success in Madrid. Emilio Estevez will star as the bullfighter. Sheen said he hopes to rediscover part of his Spanish heritage by making the film. He knows that animal-rights groups may well object to a film on bullfighting, but Sheen said he ``doesn't care what others think.''

In some ways he sees himself like that Pittsburgh Steelers' fan who was beaten up at the Raiders' game. He's willing to risk disapproval by others if he feels strongly enough about an issue.

``I don't think my arrest will stop nuclear testing,'' said Sheen. ``But I've got to do it.

``Same with making a bullfighting film.''

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