Sheen takes 'West Wing' into a fourth season
By Bridget Byrne
The guard at the entrance to the location shoot in Los Angeles wouldn't let Martin Sheen in.
It's not often that the actor who plays the president of the United States on television isn't recognized. "You need a dose of that now and then," laughs Sheen, who eventually was cleared to enter the abandoned airport for the filming of a promotional spot for "The West Wing."
He is relating the experience later that morning while sitting barefoot and tieless for an interview in his location trailer. Yet he still looks presidential, with neatly coiffed hair and a crisp blue shirt.
Now in reruns, "The West Wing" inaugurates its fourth season with a two-hour episode on Sept. 25.
Sheen, who plays chief executive Josiah "Jed" Bartlet in the highly-rated NBC series, received his third Emmy nomination for the role in July. It was one of 21 Emmy nods the drama is up for this year; awards are to be presented Sept. 22. "The West Wing" has won 17 Emmys since its 1999 debut, including two for best dramatic series.
Hard on the campaign trail when the new season starts, President Bartlet presumably wins another term in office because Sheen has signed a new three-year contract that reportedly awards him around $300,000 per episode.
"I signed an agreement to keep it secret, and as far as I'm concerned it's still a secret," Sheen says, declining to confirm the trade-paper reports and clearly distressed that somebody "broke that bond."
On the first season of "The West Wing," Bartlet was to appear only about once a month. "The only thing the contract said I could not do was play another president elsewhere. I was fine with that," says Sheen, who in 1983 starred in the title role of the TV miniseries "Kennedy."
But it quickly became apparent to "West Wing" producers that "the old man," as Sheen calls Bartlet, should be a full-time, anchoring presence on the ensemble show created and written by Aaron Sorkin.
For Sheen, the high-profile role has been a life change "career-wise, personally, economically. When you get as lucky as I've been on this, the money is for all the years that you prepared."
The 62-year-old actor was smitten by the movies as a child.
"I just knew instinctively I could do that thing those guys were doing up there," he says. "And if I didn't do that, some measure of me would die."
His varied career has included dozens of film and TV appearances over 35 years, as well as occasional stage work. He won an Emmy for a guest shot on the CBS sitcom "Murphy Brown" in 1994, and he next plays an "old cracker" lawyer in Steven Spielberg's upcoming feature, "Catch Me If You Can."
Sheen and wife Janet have four children, all actors: Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Renee Estevez and Ramon Estevez.
Born in Dayton, Ohio, to politically conscious, working-class parents of Irish and Spanish heritage, Sheen says he developed a concern about social justice early on. One of 10 children, he supplemented his father's factory-worker income by caddying at a country club.
"I was formed in large measure during those years. They were difficult, but I wouldn't trade them for anything in the world because I was working for the over-privileged, the insensitive, and I learned that there were two different societies," he says.
Still politically active, Sheen pleaded guilty last year to trespassing on government property during a protest against missile defense at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base. He was fined and placed on three years probation.
The actor says he's uncomfortable when President Bartlet uses the military "because I think violence is a reflection of despair." But he never tries to change a "West Wing" script.
"Aaron (Sorkin) knows exactly what he wants to hear and if you deviate from it even a note, it's something else, it's not what he wrote," Sheen said. "So I trust his instinct and his talent far more than I trust my own."
Overall, the actor who describes himself as "a radical, a liberal Democratic, a practicing Catholic" feels compatible with this fantasy president, who he believes incorporates the "very best of John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton."