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Six definitive films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Martin Sheen

Over the course of his distinguished career, American actor Martin Sheen has shown remarkable versatility and undeniable talent. He has worked with some of the best filmmakers of our time, ranging from Martin Scorsese to Francis Ford Coppola. In recent years, Sheen rose to prominence with starring roles in television series like The West Wing as well as the Netflix show Grace and Frankie.

In a recent interview, Sheen said: “I saw the effect of social injustice in my own life in a deeply personal way. I started caddying when I was nine years old at this exclusive country club in Dayton, Ohio and so I saw how the upper crust lived. And I experienced the degradation, if you will, of being a servant to the overprivileged and I did it for five years. And when I was fourteen, I organised a caddy union and we went out on strike. The entire adventure only lasted about 72 hours, but it was a life-changing experience for me because we were striking for better wages and working conditions… it was the second-longest job I ever had. The longest was The West Wing.”

Adding, “All I asked for were two things. One, that the President would be Catholic and two, that he had a Notre Dame degree (I love Notre Dame and I love being a Catholic). But being a Catholic, for me, in that show meant that Bartlet would frame all of his decisions, public and private, in a moral frame of reference. He would have to take a deeply personal responsibility for his actions, whatever the issue was. And I wanted that specifically and Aaron Sorkin said, ‘absolutely.'”

On his 81st birthday, we revisit Martin Sheen’s illustrious filmography as a celebration of his contributions to the world of cinema.

Martin Sheen’s 6 definitive films:

The Incident (Larry Peerce – 1967)

Starring Sheen and Tony Musante as two hoodlums who harass people on a subway car in New York, The Incident is a largely forgotten yet fascinating insight into the machinations of youthful delinquency. The film picked up several accolades at international film festivals, including a Critics Grand Prize Award at the Mar del Plata Film Festival in Argentina.

Peerce revealed: “The two guys were very nervous, Martin and Tony. They said, ‘You gotta tell everyone we’re really nice guys.’ So I did, I said, ‘They’re just acting.’ I sat down and the two boys came running in, and they started piddle-putzing around, playing games and all sorts of stuff. And I knew, if I couldn’t make this work, if the actors sitting on those chairs didn’t understand the fear these two boys could put into them—that they were capable of killing—the movie didn’t work.”

The Subject Was Roses (Ulu Grosbard – 1968)

Based on Frank D. Gilroy’s eponymous play which won the Pulitzer Prize, The Subject Was Roses features Sheen as a soldier who returns home after the second World War only to discover domestic warfare between his parents. For his performance, Sheen received a Best Actor nomination at the Golden Globe Awards.

“The whole production of The Subject Was Roses was such a total life-changing thing for me and my family,” Sheen said of the theatrical edition. “And not just professionally, but personally. I grew in a lot of different ways, as a husband and a father. I just gained so much confidence, and had so many more opportunities open up to me.”

Badlands (Terrence Malick – 1973)

Terrence Malick‘s brilliant directorial debut stars Sheen in one of the finest roles of his career. He plays Kit, a troubled war veteran who kills his lover’s father and embarks on an epic journey with her. The spiritual successor of Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands is regularly voted as one of the best films of the 20th century.

“At the end of my second year in Los Angeles, I began work on Badlands,” Malick said. “My influences were books like The Hardy Boys, Swiss Family Robinson, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, all involving an innocent in a drama over his or her head. I wanted the picture to be set up like a fairy tale, outside time, like Treasure Island.”

Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola – 1979)

The best adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s seminal literary masterpiece Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now takes Conrad’s existential questions and places them in the context of the Vietnam War. Sheen stars as Captain Willard, a soldier who sets out on a spiritual quest in search of the mythical Colonel Kurtz (played by Brando).

“What is considered avant-garde in one moment, 20 years later is used for wallpaper and becomes part of the culture. It seemed that’s what had happened with [Apocalypse Now],” Coppola explained. “When I was making this, I didn’t carry a script around. I carried a green Penguin paperback copy of Heart of Darkness with all my underlining in it. I made the movie from that.”

The Dead Zone (David Cronenberg – 1983)

Based on Stephen King’s novel, Cronenberg’s 1983 sci-fi revolves around Johnny (played by Christopher Walken) who develops psychic abilities. After discovering that he can see anyone’s future by touching them, Johnny makes it his life’s mission to kill politician Greg Stillson (Sheen) who is destined to become a fascist if he comes to power.

Cronenberg recalled: “The first adaptation I did was Stephen King’s book The Dead Zone and before that, all of the scripts that I had made into movies were my own original screenplays. I was reluctant at first because I thought, if you’re going to be a real auteur you should be the author of your work, you should really write your own screenplays.”

Continuing, “[While] working on The Dead Zone, I realised that there’s a kind of fusion of your sensibility with someone else’s when you’re making a film it could be very productive and you would come up with a creation that would be neither completely his, or hers, or your own.”

The Departed (Martin Scorsese – 2006)

After decades of producing vastly influential masterpieces, it was this 2006 crime thriller that finally got Martin Scorsese his first Academy Award for Best Director. Sheen plays the role of Captain Queenan, a law enforcement officer who convinces a recruit (Leonardo DiCaprio) to go undercover and acquire information about a mob boss (Jack Nicholson).

Scorsese revealed: “I hardly did any press for that film. I was tired of it. I felt it was maddening. I mean, I like the picture but the process of making it, particularly in the post-production, was highly unpleasant. I said, ‘I don’t care how much I’m being paid, it’ll kill me. I’ll die. Very simply.'”