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spacer Martin Sheen, Fairmount, Indiana, 1979
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Martin Sheen, Fairmount, Indiana, 1979

I had met Martin Sheen in the Philippines when he was filming “Apocalypse Now.” He marveled at the ease with which I could engage director Francis Coppola, to whom I had been introduced while he was filming “The Godfather.” This was merely an Irish American’s bafflement at the non-verbal communication that goes on between those of Italian descent. During the “Godfather” production, there had been constant struggles between the studio and the Italian American community in New York. My father was the president of an Italian social club in Greenwich Village, Tiro A Segno, which translates as “point and shoot,” although not in the photographic sense. The place had a rifle range in the basement and a huge mural of Capri in the dining room; several production issues were amicably resolved in both settings. I saw Martin again a few years later; this time he was being arrested at a demonstration at the Pentagon. He was no stranger to jail cells. “One night in San Francisco,” he told me, “I tied one on and decided to take this restaurant apart, and my ass wound up in jail. And I’m sitting there with this black woman, who’s trying to get me to take some aspirin and apple juice for my hangover. Thinking that I’m in really big trouble now, I ask her what she’s in for. And she says, ‘I shot my fella.’ Just like that. ‘I shot my fella.’ Now the irony of all this is that she probably should have shot that guy, because he treated her terribly. But she was going to get stuck in jail. And I – the guy who took on the whole bar, the guy who should have been in jail – I was going to get out because I had a good lawyer.” Although Martin often seemed to be on a movie set, it did not mean that he was a movie star. On a road trip in the heartland, he and I stopped at a McDonald’s, and while waiting for our orders to be filled, the champion of social justice started asking the girl behind the counter whether she was being paid minimum wage. She didn’t quite get the question, nor recognize her inquisitor. “We get real good pay, and we still have a lot of openings,” she said. And then, with all the sincerity of the Midwest, she added, “Look mister, if you’re looking for a job, I’ll give you an application.” One day Martin called to say he was holding an actor’s workshop at the University of Dayton in Ohio, and why didn’t I come join him there. We were driving through town, past the National Cash Register building, where all eight of his brothers had worked, where his father had worked, and he said, “I used to think that building was so big. They used to show movies there for the kids of employees, and they’d have a Christmas party every year. Once they gave each of us a silver dollar, and I kept that big, beautiful dollar for years and years. I used to think that company was so wonderful. Now I realize those bastards wouldn’t let a union in there for years.” At the acting workshop, when a kid named Lee seemed a little too wooden delivering Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy, Martin said to the class, “The whole motive of acting is to not be acting. What I find interesting is the road we have to travel to get where we’re going. Acting is doing in public what everyone else does in private. That’s what an audience responds to.” After the workshop we headed to Fairmount, Indiana to attend an annual memorial service for James Dean, who had been born there. Martin had been asked many times to play the actor, which he considered impossible. “You can’t play James Dean; he played himself,” Martin said. As we were pulling into Fairmount, we went past an abandoned drive-in theater on the outskirts of town, and I asked Martin to stand in front of the screen for this portrait. “Are you trying to make me look like Dean, or Charlie Starkweather,” he asked, referring to the serial killer he had played in the 1973 film “Badlands.” I told him I was just trying to make him look like Martin Sheen.

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