Martin Sheen has appeared in a wide variety of films ranging from the embarrassing to the sublime. In addition to appearing in numerous productions on stage, screen, and television, Sheen is the father of a modern dynasty of actors and a tireless activist for social and environmental causes, particularly homelessness. Born Ramon Estevez on August 3, 1940, he was the seventh of ten children of a Spanish immigrant father and an Irish mother. Growing up in Dayton, OH, Sheen wanted to be an actor so badly that he purposely flunked an entrance exam to the University of Dayton so he could start his career instead. With his father's disapproval, he borrowed cash from a local priest and moved to New York in 1959.
While continually auditioning for shows, Sheen worked at various odd jobs and changed his name to avoid being typecast in ethnic roles. "Martin" was the name of an agent/friend, while he chose "Sheen" to honor Bishop Fulton J. Sheen; until his early twenties, the actor had been a devoted Catholic. He joined the Actor's Co-op, shared a loft, and with his roommates prepared showcase productions in hopes of attracting agents. For a while he worked backstage at the Living Theater alongside aspiring actor Al Pacino, and it was there that he got his first acting jobs. Around that time, Sheen married, and in 1963 broke into television on East Side West Side; more television would follow in the form of As the World Turns, on which he played the character Roy Sanders for a few years.
In 1964, Sheen debuted on Broadway in Never Live Over a Pretzel Factory, and that same year won considerable acclaim for his role in The Subject Was Roses, which in 1968 became a film in which he also starred. After making his feature film debut as a subway punk in The Incident (1967), Sheen moved to Southern California in 1970 with his wife and three children. During the beginning of that decade, he worked most frequently in television, but occasionally appeared in films as a supporting actor or co-lead. His movie career aroused little notice, though, until he played an amoral young killer (based on real life murderer Charles Starkweather) in Terrence Malick's highly regarded directorial debut, Badlands (1973). Further notice came in the mid-'70s, when the actor was cast by Francis Ford Coppola to star in a Vietnam War drama filmed in the Philippines. Two years and innumerable disasters later -- including a near-fatal heart attack for Sheen -- the actor's most famous film, Apocalypse Now (1979), was complete, and it looked as if he would finally become a major star.
Although the film won a number of honors, including a Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, and Sheen duly gained Hollywood's respect, he never reached the heights of some of his colleagues. This was possibly due to the fact that during the 1970s and 1980s, he appeared in so many mediocre films. However, Sheen turned in memorable performances in such films as Ghandi (1982) -- from which the actor donated his wages to charity -- and Da (1988), in which he took production and starring credits. He also did notable work in a number of other films, including Wall Street (1987), The American President (1995), and Monument Ave. (1998). In 1999, he could be seen in a number of projects, including Ninth Street and Texas Funeral, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival that year; O, a modern-day adaptation of Othello; and The West Wing, a television series that cast him as the President of the United States (a role for which he would win the Best TV Series Actor in a Drama Award at the 2000 Golden Globe Awards).
Sheen took a supporting role in legendary director Martin Scorsese's crime drama The Departed, and joined the cast of Talk to Me, a 2007 comedy drama directed by Don Cheadle. In 2009, Sheen starred in The Kid: Chamaco, a boxing drama following a father (Sheen) and son's attempt to reconcile their differences to turn a fierce streetfighter into a boxing champion. The following year he would join son Emilio for The Way, an adventure drama featuring Sheen as a grieving father determined to make the pilgrimage to the Pyrenees in honor of his late son. The actor took on yet another lead role in Stella Days (2011), a drama that takes place in the 1950s and stars Sheen as a progressive Irish priest who causes a stir by opening a local movie theater.
In 1986, Sheen made his directorial debut with the Emmy-winning made-for-TV movie Babies Having Babies. All three of his sons, Emilio Estevez, Ramon Estevez, and Charlie Sheen (whom he directed in 1991's Cadence), as well as his daughter, Renee Estevez, are movie and television actors. His brother, Joe Estevez, also dabbles in acting. ~ Sandra Brennan, Rovi