Martin Sheen has played a real president, a fictional president, a president’s brother and even one of the president’s men.
The 77-year-old Emmy winner returns to that comfort zone March 11 as the narrator of CNN’s new six-part documentary series “American Dynasties: The Kennedys,” which explores the fame and foibles of the most dominant political family dynasty of the 20th century.
Sheen suggests calls for him to participate in political projects are partly due to his activism on social justice and civil rights, which he attributes to having come of age during the era of President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert.
“They were my generation,” Sheen said in a telephone interview. “I was in New York in the ‘60s. All of that history is part of my life. The war in Vietnam. The Cuban Missile Crisis. The assassinations. The civil rights movement. All of it was part of our daily lives, and it still has a powerful effect.”
When the news broke on Nov. 22, 1963, that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Sheen was at work on the upper Manhattan set of “The Defenders,” the legal series starring E.G. Marshall that was one of the topical series inspired by the new administration. He remembers feeling numb after the mournful weekend of the president’s funeral — and how there was more mayhem in the years that followed.
“The effect that loss had on all of us was a raging open wound,” he said. “And it was compounded just a few years later with the Rev. Martin Luther King’s murder, and of course Robert Kennedy. Change only came from the bullet, not the ballot. We were staggering around, constantly subjected to this horrible violence that became part of our culture. We never really recovered from those three assassinations.”
Sheen played Robert Kennedy in “The Missiles of October,” a 1974 ABC docudrama about the Cuban missile crisis. But he initially turned down the role of John Kennedy in NBC’s 1983 miniseries “The Kennedys” when it was first offered to him.
“I didn’t think I could do it, and I didn’t think anyone should do it,” Sheen recalled. “I kept turning it down and [the producers] kept coming back, making changes in the script and assuring me that they were going to do an honest portrayal. And finally my wife said, ‘Maybe it’s a good idea that you play him because you loved him — and if that prevents someone from playing him who did not love him, it would be a good thing.’ That made great sense to me.”
While Sheen prefers the leadership of JFK to the current administration (“I have been part of ‘The Resistance’ since I came into the world,” he said with a laugh when asked about President Trump’s agenda), “American Dynasties: The Kennedys” is far from being a hagiography.
Developed by the British TV production company Raw, the first three installments go deep into the manipulations of patriarch Joseph Kennedy to move his children into power after his own aspirations were derailed by his favoring appeasement of Nazi Germany before World War II.
A later episode addresses the 1969 scandal involving Sen. Ted Kennedy when he crashed his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Mass., and fled the scene. His young passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, was trapped in the car and died.
Amy Entelis, executive vice president of content and talent development for CNN, noted that some Kennedy clan members declined to participate in the series. But several other family members are interviewed along with former White House staffers, academics and authors
Sheen, who is an executive producer of the series, said he was drawn by the candid approach in “The Kennedys.” He believes the family’s ability to confront their flaws is part of their legacy.
“We don’t stop being human when we are lifted to higher office or we’re successful in our endeavors,” he said. “It makes the story that much more powerful that the Kennedys were human beings just like everyone else despite the privileged life and responsibility. They embraced that humanity and they were not afraid to show emotion.”
Sheen has been getting a lot of fan mail lately from young viewers about another president — Josiah Bartlet, whom he played from 1999 to 2006 on the hit NBC drama “The West Wing.” The series is being rediscovered by viewers of Amazon and Netflix (Sheen co-stars in Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie”).
He speculated that anxiety over the Trump administration is creating new Bartlet fans.
“In the last year and a half, the reaction to ‘The West Wing’ has been phenomenal,” Sheen said. “I think it has been a source of inspiration and comfort to a lot of people. It is, in essence, a parallel universe.”
If “The West Wing” ever joins the line of classic TV series that have been getting revived lately, Sheen said he would be interested in playing Bartlet again.
“I don’t know how much time I’ve got left,” he said. “But I wouldn’t mind spending it making a positive contribution in a public way. That would be very satisfying.”