May 1 is an important day for actor and activist Martin Sheen.
Sheen, 74, said he returned to his Catholic faith on May 1, 1981, while filming in Paris, and it is also International Workers Day, observed in many countries around the world.
So when he was asked by leaders of Arise Chicago to speak at a fundraising event May 1, it seemed a good opportunity to Sheen to honor both occasions.
“For me it’s an anniversary, and it’s also an anniversary and celebration of labor,” he said.
Sheen, an actor whose credits span more than 50 years, said it was the faith he returned to in Paris that allowed him to integrate all the facets of his life.
“My life was fragmentated,” he said. “I was a father here, and a husband there, and a brother there, and then I was an actor and then I was a Catholic and then I was an activist. I lived in these pigeonholed kinds of definitions. But I managed to unite them. That was what was so important about my return to the church, because I could do everything on that level. It was all nourished and inspired and focused by my faith.”
The faith that he returned to was informed by Catholic social justice advocates of the 20th century, including Daniel and Philip Berrigan and Dorothy Day.
“I came back with a whole different vision of Catholicism,” he said. “As a result, since then my life has been extremely difficult but equally happy because I have been able to unite the will of the spirit with the work of the flesh if you will.”
He may have met Dorothy Day in 1959 or 1960 when he was a young man working for a pittance in an avant-garde theater in Greenwich Village and eating the free meal provided every night by the Catholic Worker.
“They had a breadline, and you didn’t have to pay and you didn’t have to listen to a sermon, you just showed up five nights a week and you got a free supper,” he said. “Now, I could have met Dorothy Day. I can’t say for sure because I went there for months and months, but I was only there for the food. Eventually, I came to a far better understanding of the Catholic Worker and it became a very powerful force in my life and a great source of inspiration and I’m still to this day very supportive of the Catholic Workers all over the United States.”
His history of labor activism also goes back to his early years, he said, when he and his brothers worked as caddies at a private golf club in Dayton, Ohio. He is one of nine sons and one daughter born to immigrant parents — his mother from Ireland and his father from Spain — who lived on modest means.
“All my brothers in front of me were caddies at a local golf club, and when I was 9 years old, I joined the ranks of the caddies,” he said. “I caddied at this private golf club from 1949 until 1958, and it was a very important time of formation in my life. I got a pretty good idea of how the other half lives, and it wasn’t anything that I aspired to. There were a lot of good and decent people there, but most of them were unconscious.”
When he was 14, Sheen organized a union for the caddies and they went on strike for higher wages and better working conditions. The golf club responded by firing all of them.
“It taught me that if you go up against the powers that be on a moral issue or an issue of justice or human rights or labor rights, it’s going to cost you,” Sheen said. “And I’ve learned that if your efforts in social justice don’t cost you something, then you’re left to question their value.”
Sheen’s legal name is still Ramon Estevez. He started using his professional name when he was starting out to help get roles, taking the name Martin from an agent who helped him and Sheen from Archbishop Fulton Sheen. He and his wife, Janet, have been married since 1961, and have four children, all of whom work in the performing arts.
Perhaps best known for his roles as Captain Willard in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1979) or President Josiah Bartlett in the political television drama “The West Wing” (1999- 2006), Sheen said his favorite project was the 2011 film “The Way,” which tells the story of a father who travels to Spain to bring home the remains of his son, who died on “el camino,” the walking pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. When he arrives, the father — played by Sheen — decides to complete the pilgrimage himself.
“It was a family project. It’s one that I’m immensely proud of,” Sheen said.
Sheen’s son Emilio Estevez wrote, directed and acted in it, and his wife, Janet, produced it. Emilio’s oldest son, Taylor Estevez, met his wife when scouting el camino with Sheen a few years earlier and moved to Spain; he provided logistical support and worked with local authorities.
“We had our difficulties along the road,” he said. “We were just a day or two outside of Santiago when the word came that we could not film in the cathedral. They don’t allow filming in there, except for newsreels and documentaries, for obvious reasons. … We assured them that we were very, very devout and very, very serious about the camino. We submitted the script, and Taylor and I went to see the archbishop, and he gave us permission. Never been done before.”
The film didn’t get very wide distribution when it was released in 2011, but it has taken on a life of its own since then.
“There are people all over the world who get it in all their different languages,” Sheen said. “To this day, we still get people who are discovering the film in their churches, their parishes, their union halls, their groups. It’s used as a reflection for Lent. Gosh, it’s just enormously gratifying.”
Sheen said his work for causes ranging from the environment to nuclear non-proliferation to labor rights is as integral to his life as acting. “We didn’t think of it as social justice back in the day. It was simply a measure of your commitment to the community to do something when you saw or witnessed a wrong. That was embedded in me since my childhood,” he said. “You can’t live an honest life and be blind to the suffering of those around you. You can’t come to the altar until you’ve mended with your brother.
The actor said he feels called to speak out against injustices even if there are backlashes.
“There are those who stand and speak truth to power, and I would rather stand with them and be crushed than to stand with the affluent and not have a spine really.”
It’s a message he hears from Pope Francis, with his emphasis both on serving the poor and the joy that faith brings.
“Every now and then, we’re lucky enough to get a pope like Francis in our lifetime, and that’s very encouraging and inspiring,” Sheen said.
He acknowledged that he sometimes has problems with the institution of the church — as does Pope Francis, he said.
“At the same time, the faith is what I’m nourished by. That’s far older than the institutionalized church, and it’s about your conscience,” he said, adding that his faith has brought him joy and freedom.
“It has united every part of my life. I’m the same man on the set acting as I am on the line demonstrating or serving here or there or as a husband, a father, a brother, a parishioner,” he said. “Wherever my life takes me, I come as the same person, I’m not divided and my faith has made that very clear.”