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Martin Sheen on playing gay, sobriety and son Charlie's "desperate situation"

The West Wing veteran opens up about his Netflix show, and the pain of watching his son repeat his mistakes

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Published: Saturday, 30th May 2015 at 7:00 am

On paper at least, Grace and Frankie, a new TV comedy starring Martin Sheen and Jane Fonda, didn’t look like much of a project when Sheen was first approached. The show’s premise – two men in their 70s leave their wives for each other – sounded as contrived as the worst 1980s sitcom; there was a script for only one episode available; and, biggest stumbling block of all for Sheen, Grace and Frankie wasn’t even going to air on television.

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“I don’t even know anyone who has Netflix,” says the 74-year-old, in the manner of a man who gets a kick out of admitting to his own shortcomings. “This is all new to me. I became aware of Netflix because of a show called House of Cards, which I understand is about a president.” He looks off vaguely into the distance. “But I couldn’t tell you. I’ve never seen it.”

What one wants from Sheen is The West Wing’s Jed Bartlet, standing behind a desk in the Oval Office making a thunderous speech about Iran. What one gets is the large, affable face, prominent teeth and abundant hair of the fictional US president, but with the florid speech of the actor. Sheen pads about a New York hotel room in double denim and bare feet, espousing his causes and quoting the gospel. “That’s really the vigour of Christ on Earth, to be that human,” he says, of Pope Francis. “Man, this guy, Francis. Give thanks and praise.”

Oh, boy. Grace and Frankie has been largely well reviewed and it’s an interesting show, illuminating as it does the gap between the depiction of young gay life in HBO’s Looking and the terrible old-queen clichés of ITV’s Vicious, with a little examined in-between: that is, men in their 70s who are only now coming out after a lifetime spent in heterosexual drag. It is poignant and insightful and the best lines are real zingers. When Robert, Sheen’s character, and Sol, played by Sam Waterston, announce to their wives that they’re leaving them to marry each other because “we can now”, Sol’s wife Frankie, played by Lily Tomlin, says, “I know. I hosted that fundraiser.” It is also a little stagey and over-produced, a little too pleased with its own conceit.

But while Fonda mugs furiously, the two men play their roles with a necessary understatement. Anything too camp and Sheen and Waterston risked doing the sexual equivalent of blacking up. “Robert is a conservative,” says Sheen. “He’s probably a Republican, which I certainly am not – I’m an extremely liberal Catholic. But I’m also a husband and a father, and a grandfather and a great-grandfather, and I have great love and affection for people in the gay community.

So I had a real sense that it was important to get this right. Don’t fool around with this. There’s no camping here. No flashy stuff.” He told the show’s creators as much – “no fishnet stockings, no parading about” – and the script is more or less true to his wish. “This was a sincere relationship – these men have fallen in love with each other. But they don’t have any image of what they should act like. It’s just that they have chosen to live an honest life.”

Honesty is a very big word for Sheen, as it is for most recovering alcoholics. He has been sober for almost 30 years now, a journey that began when Sheen had a heart attack in 1977 in the Philippines filming Apocalypse Now, although it took him another ten years to quit drinking. He was ultimately helped by returning to the Catholic Church and by his commitment to work, the two great religions of his life. Making a series for Netflix is a shrewd move for an actor in his 70s. In the past year or two, some of the most successful new shows – Orange Is the New Black, the US version of House of Cards, Transparent – have been made for online providers rather than TV networks.

Sheen said yes for other reasons, mainly the pedigree of the show’s co-creator, Marta Kauffman, who had a hand in Friends – which may explain its slightly 90s feel. The last TV show Sheen made, Anger Management, bombed. It was supposed to be the vehicle for his son Charlie’s rehabilitation after he was fired from hit show Two and a Half Men, but the new show’s failure only compounded his humiliation.

It was not, says Sheen Senior, a great experience. “Anger Management didn’t set the bar that high. I was delighted to work with Charlie – I adore him, and he asked me to do it. But we all knew that it was pulled together very quickly to get Charlie [involved], rather than to have a more interesting theme. It was too surface.” I interviewed Charlie for that sitcom and also saw his disastrous one-man show at Radio City Music Hall, New York. “Is that when he was on his” – Sheen makes the motion of a rollercoaster with his arm – “tour?”

Yes, I say. The show was crazy; unscripted, rambling, and when the crowd turned on Charlie, booing and heckling, he looked very small on stage, and terribly alone. “I didn’t see that,” says Sheen, quietly. “What he was going through at that time, we were powerless to do much. Except to pray for him and lift him up.” Presumably it’s no longer Sheen’s role to lecture his son; he’s an adult, after all.

“You try to be as present as possible. But you have to be aware of the circumstances. You have to be aware of many things that the public is not aware of. And you’re right: this is a very lonely man. In a very desperate situation.” There is a long pause. “Only those of us that knew him understood what was going on. I’m talking about steroids, at that time. He was in a very desperate situation. And he was doing what he felt would get him out of it – going public. And it was very painful. No less painful for him.” I wonder if Sheen, as a recovering alcoholic, was angry with his son for repeating his mistakes?

“I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t have very, very deep feeling for him. And there’s something that I understand about that, something the programme [Alcoholics Anonymous] has taught me that’s vital in trying to help someone – you can assure them you’re there and you love them, but you cannot effect change. That’s your ego, for the most part. You pray for a moment of clarity, you trust in a higher power and you never, ever give up hope.

Because that is a measure of despair.” The influence of neither AA nor Catholicism has interfered with Sheen’s famed liberalism. (Although he’s not in Jane Fonda’s league, he says. “She was the most courageous among us.”) The Church appeals to him for its “powerful liberation theology and social justice and prophetic witness.” And he believes in gay marriage. “I am not against anybody expressing their love to anyone else; it’s none of my business.” Abortion is up to the woman, and so on.

Radical honesty is where Sheen is at right now, which is why his marriage to Janet, an artist, has survived for more than 50 years. “I was fortunate enough to marry the scariest person I’d ever met. She did not know how to lie. It was impossible. For me, the truth was a sometimes thing. For her, it was eternity. She would always call me out, thank God.” I suggest that, during Sheen’s drinking years, Janet must have had her work cut out. “Yeah, it wasn’t very endearing. I was a known alcoholic, and obviously troubled in a lot of areas.” The one gap in Sheen’s liberalism is on the subject of manners. “I’m a prude,” he says, and he admits he struggled with some of the scenes in Grace and Frankie.

Perhaps when a giant pink penis is installed on Robert’s lawn, as a joke for the couple’s bachelor party? “Yes!” he says. “I would not participate. Such vulgarity. And I told dear Marta, the writer, it’s awful and it’s a bad choice. I was honest with her, and I’m glad I was. She looked at me and said, ‘Well that’s your opinion.’ And I said, ‘Yes it is, and I’m not participating in that sequence’.”

For Sheen, the greater obscenity, one suspects, would be to play against his politics. During the height of The West Wing’s popularity, he was asked if he’d have played Bartlet if the character had been a Republican. “I said, as long as Aaron Sorkin wrote it.” Whether you’re in a hit show like The West Wing or a flop like Anger Management, the thing is, says Sheen, “it’s about being honest to your commitment”. Of course. “You’re not always going to be happy,” he says. “You’re not always going to be successful. But you’re always going to be responsible.” And there he is, briefly, the Sheen that we loved in the Oval Office. The eyes flash; there is no resisting him.

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Grace and Frankie is available on Netflix now

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