Happy belated birthday to my favorite fictional president, Martin Sheen, who turned sixty-eight yesterday. Born in my father's hometown of Dayton, Ohio, Sheen is noted for his performance in Apocalypse Now (as well as all the anecdotes that surround that tortured production), for his portrayls of Jack and Bobby Kennedy in TV movies, for his tireless activism (according to IMDb, his protests have gotten him arrested more than 70 times) and willingness to lend his name and time to progressive films and causes, and for his breakthrough performance in the 1974 TV movie The Execution of Private Slovik (he's also name-checked in R.E.M.'s underrated midtempo gem, "Electrolite").
I'll always treasure him for three performances: as the villainous presidential candidate in The Dead Zone (the great, lost Stephen King adaptation, where the charming ambition he will later display on The West Wing is allowed to curdle and reveal its menace); as Wing's conflicted-but-idealistic Jed Bartlet, a fascinating mixture of ego, warmth, drive and nerdiness; and most of all, as the youthful serial killer Kit in the brilliant Badlands. Thin, moody, and monotonal, Kit seems light years away from the verbose autodidact Sheen would play on Aaron Sorkin's show; the only thing they seem to have in common is a smoking habit. But maybe that one element of questionable-but-deeply-alluring cinematic glamour is all they need. Standing like a cool cowboy against the Dakota dust, or cupping a butt just outside the Oval Office, Sheen's cigarettes are both a fetish object that links him back to a Classic Hollywood style of performance, and a prop that reveals character. In Badlands, they become one of Kit's few means of expression, a lure to Sissy Spacek's Holly; on The West Wing, they're a vice Bartlet must conceal, lest he set a bad example for his constituents (he smokes one a day, and notes sarcastically that the only way anyone would know is by tapping a spy satellite). In both cases, they suggest that a Sheen character always has something to hide-- a violent past, a broken heart, a wary idealism, a twisted soul-- and Sheen's gift is to articulate that ambiguity, that inarticulate nature, with a great deal of passion, intelligence and depth. In such an articulation, he's able to grant his characters what they so often seem to be striving for (and haunted by): a measure of grace.