Q&A: Martin Sheen Talks ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ and Why He Changed His Name

Martin Sheen is the featured guest on tonight’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, NBC’s show that traces the ancestry of celebrities.

Brought to America by Host and Executive Producer Lisa Kudrow, the episode follows Sheen as he travels to Ireland and Spain to investigate his family roots.

I talked to Sheen on a conference call where he told me that he went on this journey because for his children and grandchildren. He said that, “I felt like I had a responsibility to go to this place at this time. I’m 71 years old and I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around and if something could be uncovered that would be meaningful to future generations then I would be a part of passing that on and that would be very, very satisfying.”

In this Q&A, Sheen talks about his roots, his time in Ireland and why as a young actor he changed his name.

Who Do You Think You Are? airs at 8/7c on NBC

After taking the journey like this does it make you feel more like a whole individual as far as giving you perspective about who you really are?

Martin Sheen: Well of course that is the fundamental purpose is to try and identify personally to your foundation. I think anyone that goes on one of these journeys whether it is in front of a camera or on the Internet is really looking for a personal identification with the past.

And what is amazing about that is that as you go back further and further into your lineage in generation and generation and you begin to look at the dates and you start to realize oh like for example, one of my great, great, great grandparents died just at the onset of the American Revolutionary War.

So in that sense it gives you some perspective that you rarely think about in terms of historical value.  When you first started entertaining the idea of going on the show did you have any trepidation about doing it in a public forum and what might be found out? Because it is family history and you don’t know what is going to come up?

Martin Sheen: It’s true. Let me answer that first because yes that was a concern. You know the worst thing – somebody once told me said, look if they discovered that, you know, like your great, great grandfather was a slave trader we are not going to expose you to that if that embarrasses you.

But it is part of your history that cannot be changed. It can only be learned of and then you deal with it but they said that they rarely, you know, embarrass people.

And really, you know, everyone they have asked to explore their past with, of all the people that they have invited no one has ever objected no matter what they find.

But going in as I say, you know, I was a bit trepidatious because I didn’t know.

You went to school in Ireland. Tell us where in Ireland? Did you go to college there or and how long were you there?

Martin Sheen: I did just one semester at the National University of Ireland, NUI at Galway. And I was – I was credited with several courses particularly with Shakespeare course but my main focus was on the environment.

So I studied Earth and ocean science because I have a lot of concern about the environment and I am involved with several organizations here in California trying to protect the environment.

And so I thought I needed some factual scientific information on what’s happening with the environment. And NUI at Galway has the Ryan Institute which is just extraordinary.

And they also have the ship, the Celtic which is a very modern ship that tracks the waters around the island and gives information about the changes in not just the content of the water but the fish life and that was an extraordinary experience.

Other than that I was basically what we call audited many classes, in fact many that I wasn’t even signed up for. I would just attend because I liked what was being studied there.

So it was a great experience and I did one semester from August in 2006 until almost Christmas. So those four months were deeply satisfying and brought me much closer to my Irish roots.

Was there any concern that you might discover that your family history really amounted to only 500 years’ worth of sheep herders?

Martin Sheen: Discovering about my family’s history both in Spain and in Ireland. If they had been sheep herders for 500 years that would have been absolutely fine because they were such good and decent people.

They were Celtic both sides, you know, they were united by a peasant heritage, you know, in love with the land and a deep faith both of them shared the, you know, the Catholic faith and family, loyalty to family, community, country was just overwhelming and deeply satisfying for me to learn on both sides.

They were very similar of culture and, you know, I’ve never, you know, favored one side or the other and this exploration on my heritage strengthened that feeling of that I am of equal measure to both sides.

So I am just as proud of being Spanish as I am Irish. And I really can’t separate the two after this exploration into my heritage. Both cultures confirmed my own sense of humanity and faith and, you know, not a small measure of pride I must say in both cultures.

What would you hope that your descendants would learn about you and your legacy in the future?

Martin Sheen: Well you know that is a very good question because I felt a sense that I was doing it for my grandchildren and their children. It was like I felt like I had a responsibility to go to this place at this time because, you know, I am 71 years old. I don’t know how much longer I am going to be around.

And that if something could be uncovered that would be meaningful to future generations, you know, I would be a part of passing that on and that would be very, very satisfying.

How did your children react to the information that you discovered during your journey?

Martin Sheen: Well in fact they were equally astonished as I was. They found more humor in it than I did because I was giving them information that I had learned weeks, months earlier.

And so they were fascinated with the irony particularly on my Spanish side when we discovered that wretched great, great, great, great grandfather Don Diego Francisco Suarez. That was a knuckleball that we weren’t anticipating and I was – I took it very personal.

But my children and grandchildren were less affected by it. They got a big kick out of the irony. They thought it was, you know, it was a delicious bit of gossip kind of. But they were more delighted with it for its irony.

Professionally, you took the Irish moniker, Sheen.  Why that was that? 

Martin Sheen: Well my real name is Ramon Estevez and in fact I have never changed it. It is my official name. It is on all contracts and my driver’s license and our marriage license and all the children were baptized under that name Emilio, Ramon, Carlos is Charlie’s real name and my daughter Renee.

When I went to New York in 1959, frankly I had a great deal of difficulty projecting a Spanish heritage because there was so much prejudice against the Puerto Rican community, never mind that they were Americans but they were newly considered immigrants in New York City and there was a great of difficulty with that community.

Now of course they are very much an integral part of the city. But at the time I started they were prejudiced against and I was feeling a lot of pressure for assumed a part of that community.

Mind you I was no less proud but I was equally concerned about how that would affect me trying to pursue a life in New York City and so I decided to kind of invent a new character, Martin Sheen.

I took the Martin from the only guy that I knew in the industry at that time, Robert Dale Martin who was very encouraging to me. He was a casting director at CBS and I had auditioned for him when I first came to New York and he was very encouraging.

So, you know, to honor him and our friendship I took his last name as my first name and I took Sheen from Bishop Fulton J. Sheen who was at that time the Auxiliary Bishop of New York and he was a very famous tele-Evangelist if you will. He was the first successful tele-Evangelist.

He had this popular television show in the 50s at primetime called, “A Life is Worth Living” and he was an astonishing character.

He was like a Shakespearean actor, very handsome man with riveting delivery and fierce eyes. And I thought of him as more of an actor than a clergyman and so I took his name and put them together and it sounded Irish and people said I looked Irish. Okay fine.

But I didn’t change my name officially and frankly I never will. Now when the kids started to come into the business I advised them to keep their name because so much had changed since I was a boy.

And one of the big regrets that my father had was that I had changed my name professionally. And so I tried to encourage them and Emilio got that message and he kept his name and, you know, is very happy that he did.

And Charlie decided to go with Sheen and his motivation was to keep my name going because he didn’t want to be separated in the profession from me. And so I was honored equally by him choosing to do that.

So sometimes it gets a little confusing but, you know, as I was saying to a caller earlier I feel an equal measure of cultural nourishment if you will both from the Spanish and my Irish ancestry because I am first generation from immigrants in America.

So I am very close to European roots of Spain and Ireland and very proud, equally proud of both sides and I can’t separate myself from them and that’s I think is as it should be.

I am equally comfortable in both cultures and I am equally proud to be an American and happy about the way I was brought into the world and nourished in it.

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