Ramón Estévez was baptized moments after having his left shoulder crushed by forceps during his delivery. He was supposed to die, but Ramón (who would later be known as actor and social activist Martin Sheen) survived and thrived but not in the way his father envisioned. It took 55 years for Sheen to fulfill his immigrant father’s American dream for him: being awarded a degree from Dayton University, his hometown school.
Sheen said the ceremony, in combination with a family reunion the day before, resurfaced his father, Francisco, in a deeply personal way and reminded him of the connection between the University and his family. Many members of his extended family were in attendance including sons Ramon and Emilo, grandchildren, four siblings and a host of other extended family members. “I was not prepared for the deep emotional crack it made in me,” he said in an interview after the event. “This was about my dad. I had to come here. I had to celebrate him. I had to recognize him.”
In an exclusive interview with OutlooK- 12’s Mary Ann Cooper, Sheen once reflected on his childhood and that time in 1958 when he and his father were at loggerheads over Sheen’s decision to head to Broadway and forgo a college education. It sheds new light on why this honor has been so special to him.
“My mother and father met in citizenship school. She taught him English. She [Mary Ann] was an Irish immigrant, and her family members were members of the IRA. My father [Francesco] was a proud Spanish immigrant. He worked long hours as a punch press operator at the National Cash Register Company in Dayton, Ohio. My mother died when I was 11, and my father worked even harder just to keep the ten of us, nine boys and a girl, close to each other and hold us together as a family.
I was always different from my brothers and sister because of my left arm [weakened and 3 inches shorter than his right]. My father always told me ‘Work with your mind, not with your body.’ My father thought of me as a cripple. I was deformed. Pop would put a little money aside each week – just for me. Not for the other brothers. Most of the guys when they turned 18 or 19 joined the army. He wanted me to go to the University of Dayton. But I had a different idea. My father knew I wanted to be an actor, but he didn’t know if I was any good. He thought it was a fantasy, and he couldn’t support my decision. We had some terrible arguments about this.”
Sheen says, when he couldn’t convince his father to see things his way, he tried a more radical approach. “I took the entrance exam for the University of Dayton but deliberately flunked it. I threw the test to finally get through to him. And I did. When I showed him the letter, he suspected foul play.”
But, instead of letting it go, Francesco dug his heels in and demanded an explanation. Sheen explains, “He scheduled an appointment with the dean and took me with him. It was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. My dad sat there as serious as stone. And the dean was trying to tell my dad, ‘Look, this boy doesn’t want to go to school.’ My father still wouldn’t buy it. He said, ‘Okay, maybe you’re not ready for this. You go to junior college, and then you’ll qualify for college.’ He wasn’t giving up.” Like father, like son, notes Sheen. “I wasn’t giving up, either.”
When the subject of going to New York came up after that, he was more opposed than ever to my plan.” [Martin imitates his father’s big basso profundo voice and Spanish accent] “Oh honey, [he called all his kids, ‘honey’] you can’t do this. You don’t dance, you don’t sing, you don’t play the music.’And I said to him, ‘Pop, you watch TV every night, and you watch westerns. How many guys do you see singing and dancing or playing a musical instrument on those shows? And you know what he said? He said, ‘Well, you don’t ride a horse neither.’ I swear he said that. And it was an explanation as if to say, you can’t even do that! You’re all wrong for this. He was unbelievable.
I went to New York anyway and changed my stage name to Martin Sheen. In 1965, I was on Broadway in “The Subject Was Roses,” and it was a big hit. My dad was visiting us. I wanted him to see the show, but he never would. ‘Oh no, I couldn’t,’ he’d say. There was always a promise to come and an excuse not to come – that’s how shy he was.
But then one evening, he did come. This was so important for me. My father was leaving to retire in Spain in a few days, and he might not ever see me on stage again. Now, that play was about fathers and sons, and I gave what I thought was the best performance of my life that night. The last scene in the play, I tell my father that I love him. And we hug each other. That’s the curtain line. So I played it to him through Jack [Albertson]. It was pretty powerful.
My father never came back stage. By the time I got home,
I was just exhausted from the performance and waited for my father, but he still never came out to see me. I sat on the couch, exhausted, looking down and in my peripheral vision I saw my father’s feet coming in the frame. He was a walker. He’d put his hands in his pockets and pace endlessly. He walks past me, and he never says a word.
Then suddenly I see his feet and become aware that he’s standing right over me. So I look up, and he’s looking right at me. It’s like he’s looking at me for the first time. Like who are you, where did you come from, what’s your story? He just stared at me until I got really nervous. And I broke the gaze. He left a few days later for Spain and never said a word to me about the play.
But that was not the end of the story. In 1969, I’m doing the movie “Catch 22,” and I had to go to Italy to complete the film. I took Emilio and Ramón with me and decided we just have to go to Spain to see my dad’s homeland and meet his brothers. And so we do.
It was a tiny little house made of stone that looked like they carved it out of the mountain. There was no electricity, and they weren’t prepared for us, so they led us to a room with one bed, and we all slept in the same bed. It was so dark, we couldn’t see anything in this room. The next morning I wake up, and the first thing I see on the wall was the poster for “The Subject Was Roses.” I was stunned.
And although I couldn’t speak much Spanish, I was made to understand that the bed we had slept in was the bed where my father was born. Here I am with my two kids sleeping in my dad’s bed and room. I later found out he was bragging about me to his family there. I never knew it. See, he could never express himself emotionally. That was the best he could do. He was so proud of me, and he never told me.
Many years have passed since that trip to Spain, and although Sheen has gone on to achieve great artistic accomplishments, his father’s American dream of having him go to college has always stayed with him. That’s why Dayton University awarding Sheen with an honorary doctor of humane letters degree for his commitment to “peace, social justice and human rights, exemplifying the Catholic, Marianist university’s mission” means so much to him.