Martin Sheen’s activist roots in the DNA, interview, Who Do You Think You Are?

American actor Martin Sheen (legally Ramon Estevez) ushers in a compelling third season of NBC’s documentary series, “Who Do You Think You Are?” on Friday when he investigates his Irish and Spanish roots.

The journey for Sheen takes him to his mother’s Irish side, where his uncle had a role in the Irish War of Independence as a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Mr. Sheen is no stranger to standing up for people and ideas, as the actor is a longtime social activist who has seen the inside of jails.  Sheen has been arrested or cited 68 times for peaceful protest. This March, he joins George Clooney, Jamie Lee Curtis and Jesse Tyler Ferguson in the Los Angeles premiere of the play “8,” based on the court fight over California’s gay marriage ban, Proposition 8.

Season 3 of Who Do You Think You Are? premieres Friday at 8 p.m. on NBC.

Martin Sheen’s journey leads him to both Ireland (mother’s side) and Spain (father’s side), where he uncovers another relative who also fought for social justice and was wrongfully imprisoned during Franco’s fascist regime. As he continues to trace his Spanish roots back to the 1700s, he unearths an unexpected family secret.

Tonight, NBC’s acclaimed alternative series “Who Do You Think You Are?” follows a fortunate group of selected celebrities which for this season include Martin Sheen, Marisa Tomei, Blair Underwood, Helen Hunt, Reba McEntire, Jerome Bettis, Rita Wilson, Edie Falco, Rob Lowe, Rashida Jones, Jason Sudeikis and Paula Deen.

During each episode, viewers will be taken on a personal and often mysterious quest following some of America’s best-known celebrities into their ancestral pasts, as they uncover stories of heroism and tragedy, love and betrayal, secrets and intrigue that lie at the heart of their family history.

From executive producers Lisa Kudrow, the series is an adaptation of the award-winning hit British television documentary series from Wall to Wall Productions, created and executive-produced by Alex Graham. Jennifer O’Connell and Al Edgington also serve as executive producers.

Tonight sees Mr. Sheen, a star of 65 films include some of the most memorable American movies of all time: Apocalypse Now, Bobby (with William H. Macy), Wall Street, Catch 22, Badlands, Gandhi, Catch If You Can, The American President and many others.

A few years ago, Mr. Sheen enrolled at University in Dublin for a semester, and his film “Stella Days” received an Irish Academy Film Award nomination for Best Actor. Currently, he can be seen in The Way, written and directed by his son Emilio Estevez. The film chronicles the story of an American man whose son dies while on pilgrimage on El Camino de Santiago—the Way of St. James. This summer, Sheen stars as Uncle Ben Parker in the big budget feature The Amazing Spider-Man.

For television, Mr. Sheen is perhaps best known for playing fictional U.S. President Josiah Bartlet on the long-running NBC series “The West Wing.” For his acting on film and TV, Sheen has garnered dozens of major awards and honors including a Tony Award nomination, a National Board of Review Award, 13 Emmy Award nominations, 13 SAG Award nominations and eight Golden Globe Award nominations.

Martin Sheen – his legal name is still Ramon Estevez – and Janet Sheen have been married for 50 years. They have four children: Emilio, Ramon, Charlie and Renee.

Monsters and Critics participated in two conference calls with Lisa Kudrow and Martin Sheen about tonight’s surprising episode.

Monsters and Critics: [To Lisa Kudrow] Martin Sheen has an interesting background. I know his people are from Galicia, that northern part of Spain, and I was wondering if you could share any tidbits from that particular segment?

Lisa Kudrow:  There are two segments in Spain. The first segment is in Ireland. But the first segment in Spain is he’s finding out more than he ever knew about his uncle, his father’s brother, who was the only one of the Estevez siblings in Spain who didn’t leave the country. And he was actually stuck there, he got caught up in Franco’s coup and actually tried to put it down. He was involved in trying to put it down very early on. So that was interesting and he was imprisoned many times for that.

And it’s also something that Martin really related to because he’s an activist, he’s been jailed a couple times for that, and he could absolutely relate to and be proud of families who sacrificed for their beliefs in social justice and that.

M&C:  [To Mr. Sheen] I’m so curious to know why professionally you took an Irish moniker. Sheen versus Estevez, and also your son Charlie too. And then your other son retained the Spanish surname.  I was wondering why that was and culturally where your family falls? Do you feel that they are more Spanish or Irish or a full blend?

Martin Sheen: Yes. Well my real name is Ramon Estevez and in fact I have never changed it. It is my official name. It is on all contracts and my driver’s license and our marriage license and all the children were baptized under that name Emilio, Ramon, Carlos is Charlie’s real name and my daughter Renee.

When I went to New York in 1959, frankly I had a great deal of difficulty projecting a Spanish heritage because there was so much prejudice against the Puerto Rican community, never mind that they were Americans but they were newly considered immigrants in New York City and there was a great of difficulty with that community.

Now of course they are very much an integral part of the city. But at the time I started they were prejudiced against and I was feeling a lot of pressure for assumed a part of that community.

Mind you I was no less proud but I was equally concerned about how that would affect me trying to pursue a life in New York City and so I decided to kind of invent a new character, Martin Sheen.

I took the Martin from the only guy that I knew in the industry at that time, Robert Dale Martin who was very encouraging to me. He was a casting director at CBS and I had auditioned for him when I first came to New York and he was very encouraging.

So, to honor him and our friendship I took his last name as my first name and I took Sheen from Bishop Fulton J. Sheen who was at that time the Auxiliary Bishop of New York and he was a very famous tele-Evangelist if you will. He was the first successful tele-Evangelist.

He had this popular television show in the 50s at primetime called, “A Life is Worth Living” and he was an astonishing character.

He was like a Shakespearean actor, very handsome man with riveting delivery and fierce eyes. And I thought of him as more of an actor than a clergyman and so I took his name and put them together and it sounded Irish and people said I looked Irish. Okay fine.

But I didn’t change my name officially and frankly I never will. Now when the kids started to come into the business I advised them to keep their name because so much had changed since I was a boy.

And one of the big regrets that my father had was that I had changed my name professionally. And so I tried to encourage them and Emilio got that message and he kept his name and, you know, is very happy that he did.

And Charlie decided to go with Sheen and his motivation was to keep my name going because he didn’t want to be separated in the profession from me. And so I was honored equally by him choosing to do that.

So sometimes it gets a little confusing but, you know, as I was saying to a caller earlier I feel an equal measure of cultural nourishment if you will both from the Spanish and my Irish ancestry because I am first generation from immigrants in America.

I am very close to European roots of Spain and Ireland and very proud, equally proud of both sides and I can’t separate myself from them and that’s I think is as it should be.

I am equally comfortable in both cultures and I am equally proud to be an American and happy about the way I was brought into the world and nourished in it.


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