The Committed Life of Martin Sheen

Times Arts Editor

On Mother’s Day, Martin Sheen was arrested for the 16th time for civil disobedience: for demonstrating in good causes. The site, again, was the gate to the underground nuclear test site in Nevada, and Sheen’s colleagues in protest included Sean Penn’s mother, Eileen, and actor-director Matt Clark.

At breakfast in Santa Monica a few days after the most recent pinch, Sheen, who has been arrested in several locales, said he is frequently asked what it’s like to be arrested.

“I always quote what Father Dan Berrigan told Mike Wallace during an interview,” Sheen said. “Being arrested is like a spiritual enema.”

The demonstrations in which Sheen is a principal are always, at his insistence, prayerful and nonviolent. In Nevada the arrests, the makeshift barbed-wire holding pen and the bookings have become a kind of ritual, although an arrest is still an arrest and Sheen spends a certain amount of time in courtrooms.


By now, Sheen said, “I’m a felon. I just got off probation on April 15th from an earlier arrest.” One of his fellow arrestees in Nevada was an activist priest, Father Bill O’Donnell, who said Mass just outside the gate.

“Bill’s been arrested more than anybody. My trouble is that I’m far too serious for that crowd,” said Sheen. “I wish I had their sense of joy.”

Sheen has brought much the same kind of commitment to his work as an actor. I still remember his performance, three years after “The Subject Was Roses,” in a low-low-low-budget Civil War drama called “No Drums, No Bugles,” in which he was virtually the only performer and which was so independent it does not even survive in Halliwell’s “Film Guide.”

For six years Sheen has had his own company, now called Symphony Productions, with partner William Greenblatt, a friend since Greenblatt did publicity for “The Subject Was Roses” on Broadway in 1964. Their first feature, “Da,” based on Hugh Leonard’s long-running play, is scheduled to open in Los Angeles in early June.


Sheen co-stars with Barnard Hughes, who created the title role on Broadway. In the autobiographical work, Sheen is a New York playwright called home to Ireland to attend the funeral of his father, a retired gardener whose life had never amounted to much but whose death forces the son to confront his own life and their life together.

The film was shot in Leonard’s home village in Ireland and was made, astonishingly, for less than $5 million. It was financed and is being distributed (a maiden effort) by the enterprising Film Dallas organization, which underwrote “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” and “The Trip to Bountiful.” (“Da” is another instance of the vitality and courage independent production is injecting into the film scene.)

The film was directed by Matt Clark, a veteran of many Westerns whose face may be more familiar than his name. It is his first feature as a director, which created resistance among the financiers.

“But I’d seen a production Matt directed of ‘Portrait of the Artist.’ I heard his reverence for words and I knew he was the only one to do the movie.” Sheen won his point.


Sheen and Greenblatt were also among the co-producers of “Judgment in Berlin,” the dramatization of a true story about an East German who sought to escape by forcing a Polish airliner to land in West Berlin and who was put on trial. Sheen and Sean Penn (whose mother played his mother in the film) played the judge and the pilot. It is currently in release and has earned respectful reviews.

Their first production was a daytime television special, “Babies Having Babies,” a drama about teen-age mothers. Sheen’s daughter Renee, now the fourth of his children to act, made her debut in the film.

Last week the Sheen-Greenblatt partnership began another television production, a “CBS Schoolbreak Special” called “No Means No,” about date rape and the dilemma of a teen-ager whose sister has been raped by a “friend.”

“Everything else is on hold because of the writers’ strike,” Sheen said. But in time they hope to produce “Out of Control,” a story about big city corruption with Al Pacino playing the mayor. They have already had a warning note from Philadelphia, Sheen remarked, that there had better not be a close resemblance to that city and its mayor.


Sheen also has plans, awaiting the strike’s end and a finished script, for a co-production with the Soviets on “Wild Children,” about the rescue, aided by the American Red Cross, of hundreds of Russian children stranded in the mountains during the Revolution. It would be a miniseries directed by Jeremy Paul Kagan (“The Journey of Natty Gann”).

The partnership has acquired “Illusions” by Richard Bach, who wrote “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” It is a fantasy but, Sheen said, “If we can figure out a way to do it, we’ll do it.”

The “Da” project was the first feature Sheen and Greenblatt undertook when the partnership was formed in 1982.

“We were amazed the rights were available,” said Sheen. There then began a 5-year struggle to find backing.


“We went to all the studios and many other sources, and the response was always the same: It’s nice but not commercial,” Sheen said, remembering.

“Yeah,” Greenblatt agreed during the breakfast conversation, “no gratuitous violence, no violence period, no sex worth the name. Marty, we should’ve had a car chase.”

“Right!” Sheen said with a fierce grin. “The old man could have gotten into a car in New York, let’s say.” He shook his head. “No, I wouldn’t have done it any differently. We didn’t change a line except for the first and last scenes, which weren’t in the play.

“I knew that if we were faithful to Leonard’s beautiful words, the movie would have a life of its own. No special effects, just a little faith.”