The first time I met Martin Sheen was in the summer of 1999, a couple of months before “The West Wing” premiered. NBC was hosting a garden party for TV writers with much of its on- and off-screen talent present. I had worked arduously with an NBC publicist to get some interview time with Sheen during the party. And just as I was getting started, actor Robert Davi (he was on the drama “Profiler” at the time) interrupted, as he just had to confer with Sheen about some miraculous occurrence in Davi’s life.
By the time I got to my “exclusive” interview with Sheen, it became far less exclusive. Other writers started hovering around us, eventually planting their cassette recorders on the table in front of Sheen. (By comparison, nobody but me seemed interested in actor Mike O’Malley.) By and large, the other writers weren’t even asking questions. They just wanted to hear Sheen rhapsodize about what was on his mind.
When I recounted this to Sheen Feb. 18 at Georgetown University, he retorted, “Oh, so I was a windbag!” Maybe, but his recorded comments were parlayed into a couple of articles, including one that won me a prize from the Catholic Press Association for best personality profile.
Following a post-interview hiatus, I returned to Georgetown to take in a screening of “The Way,” which stars Sheen and is directed by his son, Emilio Estevez. Sheen plays a doctor who impulsively makes the 500-mile pilgrimage from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, in the place of his son, who dies in a storm on the first day of the journey.
I sat in the back row, which was reserved for media types, sitting dead center so that others would not have to scooch past me. After a litany of pre-screening welcomes, including a joint thank-you from Sheen and Estevez, the lights dimmed. As the film began, there was a figure trying to climb over the back of the empty seat next to me. It was Sheen! I offer him my hand so he could clamber over a little more gracefully. Joe Cosgrove, Sheen’s attorney and friend (and a sometimes “West Wing” bit player), was sitting on the other side of that empty seat. “This is Mark,” Sheen told Cosgrove in a hoarse whisper. “He’s a journalist.”
I tried to observe Sheen’s reactions to a movie he’s undoubtedly already seen plenty of times. But it’s hard to read what you’ve written in a dark movie theater. Personally, I found it amazing that he laughed, chuckled or winced at all, given the repeated in-person screenings of ”The Way” he has attended, with countless more still to come while he promotes the film for an April 15 opening in England, Ireland and Malta, and a Sept. 30 opening in the United States.
After the movie was over, Sheen had to get back to the auditorium floor to join Estevez in taking questions from the audience. I stood up and leaned back against my chair to give Sheen room to make his way past the others in our row. Instead, he went out the way he came in — climbing over the seat back to get to some carpeted terra firma.