The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Martin Sheen

Martin Sheen has had an illustrious career spanning decades, playing iconic roles from inspirational presidents to cold-blooded killers and founding an acting dynasty along the way. Yet the actor's life has been filled with struggles both minor and major — some fleeting, and some following Sheen for years.

Sheen was born Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez on August 3, 1940, to a Spanish father and Irish mother in Dayton, Ohio (via Legit). He was the seventh of 10 children in a poor, working-class family that had recently moved from Bermuda for their father's factory job. According to IMDb, an accident at birth left Sheen's left arm crippled and about 3 inches shorter than his right arm, and he later contracted polio. According to Ron Fassler, tragedy struck the future actor again when his mother died when he was just 11 years old, putting even more financial stress on Sheen's father, Francisco, who now had 10 children to feed on his menial factory salary. At this point, Ramón Estévez would already show an interest in acting, but his father was against the idea.

Sheen adopted a new name to get work

Against his father's wishes, Ramón Estévez set off for New York in his early 20s to pursue his lifelong dream of acting, getting the bus fare to the Big Apple from their family's parish priest (via Brief Biographies). He took on a variety of low-income jobs while responding to auditions and casting calls but soon found that he was being held back by his name. In an era where few producers could even pronounce Ramón Estévez, let alone cast him, he decided it was time to pick a stage name. According to The Guardian, Estévez combined the names of two men who inspired him: CBS casting director Robert Dale Martin and American Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

Sheen has always maintained that he never legally changed his name and is still proud of his Hispanic heritage, but the change was necessary for a man with a distinctly foreign name and no formal acting training in the early 1960s. He joined some experimental acting troupes, performing custodial duties while working as an understudy until his first roles started coming in. In 1964, the actor co-starred in the Broadway play "The Subject Was Roses" and also appeared in its film adaptation. Both performances earned award nominations, and the struggling career of Mr. Estévez-turned-Sheen was taking off.

He feuded with his father over acting

The relationship between Martin Sheen and his father was complicated, and not just because the actor relinquished the family name for his professional life. Though they struggled for money, Francisco Estévez set aside money every month so that his son Ramón could one day attend the University of Dayton, along with many others from the family (via the University of Dayton). Sheen had his heart set on acting and purposely failed the entrance exam so he could claim that college was not for him. Francisco never supported his son's acting career, and it took a movie screening at the local drive-in theater for him to even watch his son perform (via IMDb). Sheen would later accept an honorary degree from the University of Dayton out of respect to his father.

Meanwhile, Sheen's acting career would steadily grow. After a handful of guest appearances on television shows throughout the 1960s, he began to net roles in films. Most notably, he earned a lead role in acclaimed director Terrence Malick's debut "Badlands." An Emmy-nominated performance in "The Execution of Private Slovik" caught the eye of Francis Ford Coppola, who was planning to adapt the novel "Heart of Darkness" as a Vietnam War movie. Thus would begin one of the most iconic roles in Sheen's considerable career, and one of the darkest chapters of his life.

Apocalypse Now was a nightmare for Sheen

"Apocalypse Now" is a legendary, unflinching movie that combines the somber themes of "Heart of Darkness" with the plight of those affected by the Vietnam War. Martin Sheen was offered the lead part — though he was not Francis Ford Coppola's first choice — of Captain Willard, a young officer tasked with the special mission to sail deep into the Vietnamese jungle and kill a rogue officer, played by Marlon Brando (via Brief Biographies). The process of filming the movie was a notorious, well-documented nightmare for the cast and crew. Brando arrived distinctly overweight, and Sheen was in no better shape, struggling with alcohol abuse.

According to The Daily Telegraph, the film's opening scene, where Willard destroys his Saigon hotel room in a fit of drunken rage, was shot when Sheen turned up to set that drunk on his 36th birthday. His heavy drinking and woeful filming conditions likely contributed to the heart attack he suffered, stranded alone in the middle of the jungle. Sheen had to crawl for a mile to get help and eventually recovered to continue filming a few weeks later. The harrowing experience saw Sheen vow to change his ways.

His children have gone through tragedy as well

Martin Sheen's three sons — Ramón Luis Estévez, Emilio Estévez, and Charlie Sheen, along with sister Renee Estévez — have all had acting careers of their own, with Charlie and Emilio having the highest profiles. According to The Guardian, Charlie Sheen was once one of the highest-paid actors on the planet for his starring role on the hit sitcom "Two and a Half Men" before a highly-publicized meltdown in 2011 saw him spiral into his drug and alcohol abuse while getting fired from his most notable role. Martin Sheen, who had since had a memorable stint as the honorable president Josiah Bartlet on "The West Wing," underwent counseling as he dealt with his son's drug problems, which weren't unlike his own issues back in the '70s.

While Martin was able to recover himself after the rock bottom of his heart attack at the age of 36, his son Charlie has struggled to recover from his vices. While he doesn't dominate the headlines as much as he used to a decade ago, whenever Charlie ever does make the news — like for sexual assault allegations against him — it is rarely positive (via Consequence Film).

Martin Sheen has stuck with his activist values

After his alcohol and drug-fueled half-decade, Martin Sheen's return to Catholicism saw the actor return to activist values. Sheen has protested the Iraq War, political oppression in Central America, the death penalty, abuses by the Israeli Army, and engaged in more pacifist and liberal causes (via The Progressive). His dedication to nonviolent civil disobedience has followed him throughout his career, leading to over 70 arrests throughout his life, according to IMDb.

Sheen has had a long and illustrious career in film and television, with iconic roles under his belt that show his impressive rise from having to pick a Caucasian-sounding name just to find some work. After a difficult childhood and battle with drug abuse, Sheen was able to overcome his vices and stick to his pacifist values throughout his career. However, he now has to deal with his son going through the same issues with drinking and drugs as he once did, with no sight of Charlie's problems letting up.