Part 1 of this exclusive interview focused primarily on Martin Sheen’s 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: I’m Catholic. (laughs)
Cohn: Are you a recovering Catholic or a practicing Catholic?
Martin: I’m a practicing Catholic and I’m going to keep practicing until I get it right. (laughs)
Cohn: You’ve attended St. Monica Catholic Church in Santa Monica. What drew you there?
Martin: I love the Sunday evening Mass with the orchestra and choir. That’s a very, very nurturing place. If you get their church bulletin every Sunday and read it, you’d see all the outreach programs they have for the homeless, for bereavement, for gays and lesbians, the unemployed, and the elderly. It’s a service-oriented community and Monsignor Torgerson is one of the most extraordinary men I’ve ever met.
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 weren’t raised Catholic. My wife was raised Baptist but didn’t 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: You’re 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 wouldn’t change it for the world. Anything of value has to cost you something; otherwise you’re left to question its value. I’ve never been happier than I’ve 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 you’ve had and how much is society to blame for some of our personal ills and addictions?
Martin: I don’t have any illusions about it. I haven’t 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. That’s the presence of God. For me, it’s such an exciting way to live and I couldn’t be happier. The only regret is that I came to this understanding so late. There’s an old Irish tale that really emphasizes what I’m 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, aren’t you celebrating your 50th Wedding Anniversary soon?
Martin: December 28th.
Cohn: In Hollywood, it’s a pure miracle for any marriage to last 50 years. What’s 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 couldn’t 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 don’t want to be remembered for anything by anyone except those who knew me and really loved me.” I’ve only been truly married for 30 years – but she’s been married for 50.
Cohn: I heard this rumor that you know every Frank Sinatra song.
Martin: I’ve had a life-long admiration and love for Frank Sinatra. He’s the greatest crooner who ever lived and I believe he set the bar for all the rest. He’s the most distinctive song stylist and the most gifted voice in recording history. I won’t say ever because we don’t know what came before they started recording.
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 don’t 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 don’t 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: I’ve 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 hadn’t 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 didn’t make it, I said a quick prayer, “Thank you, it’s been wonderful. I couldn’t have asked for a happier life.”
Cohn: What do you say to people who don’t have a religious or spiritual belief system?
Martin: I say, well you stop at a stop sign or a red light. Isn’t that an act of faith that everybody is going to stop? Everything is about living in the state of faith. You can’t see the un-seeable and you’re not always entitled to it. Would you like to know when you’re 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 don’t want to know anything like that. We’re only given life and the effort for me is to find a way to live it in an honest, balanced way. It’s important to understand that we don’t 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 moment?
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 couldn’t 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 couldn’t have been more stupid. Now, I had never seen a baby born, not even on film, and didn’t have a clue. We dropped Emilio off at a neighbor’s house. We’re in the bedroom and Janet’s ready. I had a bottle of alcohol and a copy of the New York Sunday Times. It’s going down. Normally the head comes first and the baby turns on the final journey through the birth canal. Ramon’s head was quite large and he got stuck. I’m 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 can’t 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. I’m trying to hold him and realize that we have an emergency and I can’t leave to make the call. Then I looked and thought here comes the twin and I said to Janet, “Oh my God, here’s comes another one.” She said, “No fool, that’s the placenta.” (laughter) I didn’t 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 I’m 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. That’s where the term “Extra, Extra, Read All About It” comes from that you’ve 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; here’s the President of the United States desperate to have a child and loses it in 48 hours, and we go through Ramon’s 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 delivery again.
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.
Cohn: Do you set your intention every day on how you would like the day to unfold?
Martin: I know that I don’t 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 that’s 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 don’t have any solution for how one should go about one’s day – how you begin it, and how you end it. They call it the presence – it’s a gift – a present. So I accept the day as it unfolds, but begin with thanks and praise – I’m alive. I’m awake. I’m 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.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Photo