Nuclear-Free Future

in the Category


is presented to



New York City
29 September 2010

Martin Sheen

August 9, 1999, the fifty-fourth anniversary of the dropping of Fat Man on Nagasaki. A yellow cord strung up by Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL) security marks the point to which protestors can advance. “This isn’t about civil disobedience,” says Greg Mello into a blow horn, “this is about civil justice.” Armed police and security forces on one side; approximately 400 demonstrators on the other. To cross the line means jail. John Tucker, chief of the LANL security division, stands at the cord looking impervious, models for a Roman coin to be pressed in his likeness. A fifty-nine year-old protestor tells a journalist: “We’re the generation that brought the bomb, and we’re called on to do away with it.” He embraces Helen Caldicott, then steps up to the microphone of the demonstrators’ improvised stage and recites a poem by Rabindranath Tagore:

My Country Awake

Where the mind is without fear
and the head held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been
broken up into fragments
by narrow domestic walls;
Where words spring from the depth
of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches
its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason
has not lost its way into the
dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward
by Thee into ever-widening
thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father,
let my country awake.

He is the first to step over the line. Surrounded by demonstrators, journalists, news cameras, he falls down to his knees and repeats the Lord’s Prayer. The activist we witness in Willem Malten’s YouTube segment, Cry13, Final Cry, is none other than Martin Sheen, star of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, the man who played President Josiah Bartlet in the TV-series West Wing. “I’m all yours,” he tells Tucker. “You going to beat me up?” Taken away in plastic handcuffs, Sheen laughs, “Free at last! Free at last!” He tells Amy Goodman, “I work for NBC to make a living. I do this to stay alive.”

“We’re the generation that brought the bomb and we’re called on to do away with it.”

Martin Sheen was born Ramón Antonio Gerard Estévez on August 3, 1940, the seventh of ten children to a Spanish-born father, Francisco Estévez, born in Galicia, Spain, and an Irish mother, Mary Anne Phelan from County Tipperary. His mother fled from Ireland during the Irish War of Independence due to her family’s IRA connections; his father immigrated to the United States via Cuba. Sheen grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and to become an actor was always his dream. He tells the story that he purposely flunked the entrance examination at the University of Dayton to forego the future his father had planned for him. Instead, he borrowed money from a local priest and moved to New York City. The year was 1959; working at odd-jobs and showing up at auditions, Ramón Estévez took the stage name Martin Sheen to escape being typecast in ethnic roles. The name Martin he adopted from Robert Dale Martin, a casting director for CBS he much admired; the surname Sheen he took from the popular tele-evengalist Bishop Fulton J. Sheen.

While working on Apocalypse Now, at the age of 36, Martin Sheen suffered a near fatal heart attack. He was given his last rights. Coppola: “Marty is not dead until I say so.” Sheen later said that the heart attack helped him to focus on what is important in life, helped him to separate the wheat from the chaff. For his work on the film Gandhi he donated his entire wage to charity. About Robert J. Oppenheimer and the Trinity Test, the first atomic detonation, Sheen reminds us: “Those guys watching that test, who had built that bomb, were not sure that the atmosphere would not burn and that the universe would not catch fire. And they didn’t know that, and yet they risked that. Now that is the epitome of insanity.” For his activism on behalf of a saner planet, Martin Sheen has been arrested more than sixty times.

It is fitting that Frida Berrigan gives Martin Sheen’s laudatory address. Her father, Philip Berrigan, was one of Sheen’s mentors. Martin remembers the first time he was arrested, when he joined the Berrigans on a demonstration against Reagan’s Star Wars program. He recalls, “We placed our bodies at the doors so the employees on the project couldn’t get through and I remember being terribly frightened by what was going to happen.” Our Lifetime Achievement Award laureate tells us: “It was one of the happiest moments of my life.”

– Craig Reishus