Martin Sheen Regains Faith After Heart Attack

Actor Martin Sheen talks about what he learned from a frightening health crisis on the set of Apocalypse Now.

By Martin Sheen, as told to Charles-Edward Anderson, Malibu, California

As appeared in

In the summer of 1976 I flew out to the Philippines to begin work on a film that, to my way of thinking, was a great step upward in my career.

I had a leading role in Apocalypse Now. At last—a really important movie for this boy from Dayton, Ohio. From now on it was going to be big parts and a taste of real fame. How was I to know it would nearly be the end of me?

From its inception, Apocalypse had all the earmarks of success: Francis Ford Coppola, with his worldwide recognition and glittering record of box-office hits, was at the helm as director, Marlon Brando was the costar, Robert Duvall had a supporting role, and the film's financial budget was way up in the millions of dollars.

I had been assigned the role of Captain Ben Willard, an Army intelligence officer and hit man, who, although on the brink of emotional and psychological collapse, had been ordered by his superiors to travel through war-torn Vietnam into Cambodia, where he was to assassinate an American Green Beret colonel. That colonel, played by Marlon Brando, had, from all appearances, gone mad and was operating his own private renegade and bloodthirsty armies in the wilds of the Cambodian jungles.

Just before the filming of Apocalypse began, Janet, my wife of 15 years, and our four children joined me in the Philippines, where movie set designers had transformed the lush, green tropical vegetation outside Manila into amazingly close replicas of all the actual photographs I had ever seen of Vietnam and Cambodia.

For as long as I can remember, I have always taken my wife and family along to live with me during extended periods of time on location. I had never wanted my acting role to get in the way of my being a good husband and father. This time was to be no different.

From the first moment I read the script of Apocalypse, I was fascinated by the character of Captain Willard. I generally try to create a character I'm portraying in my own image. In "becoming" Willard I had no idea how dangerous this would be, for Willard was emotionally burnt out, insensitive to those around him, uncaring, hard-drinking, overly ambitious, self-centered and single-purposed. Were these menacing attributes of this on-camera character, coupled with the intensity of my own pursuit of success, beginning to boil over into my off-camera life? Or was I really more Willard than I wanted to admit?

Janet tried to talk out the wrinkles growing in our relationship and tell me what I was doing to others around me, but I vehemently denied that anything was changing—least of all me. Then Janet tried to reason with me that she and the kids didn't mind making some sacrifices for my success, but now this role, this Willard thing, was making me lock them out. I was making them more and more miserable. Even Francis Coppola was beginning to find me difficult to deal with, but I couldn't seem to help myself.

Although I was raised in a devout Catholic home, the thought of praying about my family problems never entered my mind. And I wasn't about to go near a church—I had given that up in my mid-20s.

To understand where all this was taking me, let me explain where and how it all began. First, Martin Sheen is only my acting name. Born and christened Ramon Estevez 45 years ago, I was the seventh of 13 children of Francisco Estevez and Mary Ann Phelan Estevez. My father, a Spaniard, met my mother, an immigrant from Ireland, while the two attended citizenship training classes in Dayton, Ohio.

I was 11 years old when my mother died. My father, a factory worker for the National Cash Register Company, never remarried, and single-handedly raised us (ten boys and one girl; two boys died in infancy) in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Dayton. I attended Holy Trinity grade school, run by the Sisters of Notre Dame, and Chaminade, a Catholic high school for boys. Early on I served in the parish church as an acolyte. It was our life in the church that helped keep our family together.