The Meaning Of Life with Gay Byrne

Programme 5

Gay Byrne with Brendan O'Carroll

Hollywood Acting Legend, Martin Sheen
On Saturday 26th February, tabloid front pages and web chatter were dominated by the news that Charlie Sheen's show, Two and a Half Men, had been axed by CBS, following a spate of erratic behaviour and an outburst against the show's creator.

His father, Martin Sheen, had to cut short a visit to Europe, promoting his own latest film, The Way, to get back to the family in Los Angeles. He could easily have cancelled his scheduled interview with Gay Byrne for The Meaning of Life, or else tried to lay down pre-conditions about no-go areas. Instead, he turned up early and stayed late, recording a remarkable interview, in which he spoke candidly about his family, his faith and his film career. Far from Charlie's behaviour being an elephant in the room, Martin was the first to raise his "personal family problems" and soon showed that, stripped of all the salacious coverage, that's exactly what they are for him:

"I'm just getting this now in just the last 24 hours, so it's devastating. We're going to cut short our journey to Malta because of it. My wife is just back against the wall... so, I've been asked to come home. It's been a rough week."

When Gay asked him if he was praying for Charlie, he said simply,

"Yeah, yeah, every day. Every day. And I've been doing so for quite a while."

GB: "And what do you think will be the outcome?"

"I dread to think. I don't know."

Having nearly died of a heart attack brought on by his own excesses, during the making of Apocalypse Now, in 1977, Sheen is not about to give up on his prodigal son. He described to Gay how his own near-miss was the start of a four-year journey back to the Catholicism of his youth, a faith rooted as much in radical activism as piety, which has introduced a welcome sense of humility, balance and purpose to his other life as a movie-star.

"If you believe in an issue and you're willing to sacrifice yourself for it and you're willing to accept the consequences, there's nothing better than that. If you believe in something that's worthy, that's something that's important to you, it's got to cost you something. And if it doesn't cost you something you really have to question its value."

He's been arrested more times than he can remember for acts of protest and civil disobedience in pursuit of his various moral and religious passions: workers' rights, women's rights, children's rights, gay rights, homelessness; anti-nuclear and anti-war campaigns and anti-abortion protests. That last issue may seem to go against the grain of his other liberal causes, but for Sheen, there's no contradiction and, as he reveals to Gay, he has strong personal reasons for his beliefs, not least of which is the fact that three of his grandchildren were born after his sons got their respective girlfriends unexpectedly pregnant.

"Well, we welcomed these children and encouraged the mothers to have the children and gave them support. And, you know, the lads were not happy at the time, but they came to love these children. And we have three grown grandchildren and two of them are married and they're the greatest source of joy in our lives. And people would say, 'These are your grandchildren. Where are the parents?' And I said, 'Well, we don't have any in-laws, we have outlaws!'"

Famously, Sheen has been married to his wife, Janet Templeton, for over fifty years. He tried to explain the secret of that partnership, in an industry not renowned for life-long relationships:

"She was always honest and that was just who she was. You knew where you stood with her all the time. She told you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth all the time. So, she made me very uncomfortable! Because marriage, my take is that it's not about becoming one, because in the Western culture you have to decide which one is it going to be: him or her? And we give up ourselves and there's resentment in that. The idea is to love me enough to risk my wrath,by telling me the truth so that I know myself, and then we'll have a happy marriage then we'll have an honest relationship. I once asked her, 'Would you marry me again today?' just a few years ago. She said, 'Are you kidding?!' .I adore her. I do. Absolutely adore her. I can't imagine my life without her. I really can't."

Martin Sheen was in Dublin with two of his sons, Emilio and Ramon Estevez, for the premiere of The Way, which opens on 13th May. It's a film which Emilio wrote and directed, and is all about a father trying to come to terms with the death of a son he realises he barely knew, after the son dies while walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostella, the medieval pilgrimage route across northern Spain. It was clear that, for Martin Sheen, this was much more than just another movie. His own father, Francisco, to whom the film is dedicated, came from that part of Spain.

"Actually,it's a deeply personal journey. I had become intrigued with the Camino and had been looking forward to an opportunity to walk it. And in the summer of '03. I invited everyone [his family] to come to Madrid and we'd go out together on the Camino and go as far as we can. But we only had like two weeks. I had to get back to LA to begin the new season on The West Wing. So, we did the only thing that an American with any ingenuity would have done. We rented a car and we drove the Camino and we did it in about ten days. But it just inflamed my imagination. I went home. I nudged Emilio. I said, you know, that you've got to suss this out. And he began to work on it and read on it and he began to write scenarios. And finally he landed on the scenario that you saw called The Way. And it's a father/son journey."

The film follows four unlikely pilgrims, searching for peace from their respective demons. As one of them says, the journey is "not about religion," and yet it is about faith and that's an important distinction for Martin Sheen. His Catholicism is at the core of everything he does and though he readily acknowledges the awful impact of abuse scandals on the institutional Church, he says they haven't impacted at all on his faith:

"The Catholic Church is run mostly by men and they're, you know, they're flawed. You find an institution anywhere in the world that's run by people where they're not flawed! And the Church is no exception. But it doesn't interfere with my faith. Somebody once asked me,'Well,if the Church were to close its doors tomorrow and dust off and say, "You're all on your own.There's no more organised Catholic faith," what would you do?' I said, 'I'll still be a Catholic.' I love the faith, you know. It was there before I came. It'll be here after I leave, you know. And no amount of shortcomings on the part of the Ministers or its servants is going to stop me from, you know, searching: you're yearning for the Divine. And that's what it's all about. That's why it's there. It's not there because it's organised or it's an institution. It's a natural progression of the need for transcendence. That's the way I accept it."



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