Apocalypse Sheen: How the Father's Movie Forever Shaped the Son

  • Share
  • Read Later
BuzzFoto / FilmMagic / Getty Images

Charlie Sheen

Martin Sheen says he understands the recent hell his son Charlie has been going through, because he's been there. As he told the U.K.'s Telegraph March 21, he's experienced his own "psychotic episodes," including some in public.

"One of them was on camera: the opening scene of Apocalypse Now," the elder Sheen said. "And when you do something like that, that is out of control, that's the most difficult thing."

"Out of control" might be a good way to describe Charlie Sheen's behavior in recent weeks. After tales of drug abuse, parties with porn stars and trashed hotel rooms led to his getting fired from the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, the actor went on the offensive. In recent weeks he's given a series of erratic interviews, started a massively successful Twitter feed and announced a 22-city tour, launching this weekend in Detroit, called "Charlie Sheen LIVE: My Violent Torpedo of Truth."

But to close observers it is his father's words that might reshape the current Charlie Sheen discussion. Indeed, a striking number of Sheen's recent antics can be tied in one way or another directly back to the 1979 war epic that made his father famous.

Consider: In a late-February interview, Sheen showed off a tattoo on his stomach reading "Death from Above," a phrase on the playing cards that Robert Duvall's character, Lieut. Colonel Bill Kilgore, threw on his victims. Sheen has claimed that he has a TV in his house that plays the movie on a continuous loop. "I have what I call the Apocalypse Now channel," he said on the debut of his Ustream show, Sheen's Korner. "People might think it's a DVD — [it's not]! It's just streaming Apocalypse Now all day long."

Then there's the startling photo of Sheen wielding a machete on a rooftop, eerily similar to the movie's final scenes in which his father's character, Captain Benjamin Willard, uses the weapon against the mad Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Or the Sheen tweet quoting Kilgore's now famous line about the smell of napalm in the morning. Sheen also reportedly wants to title his autobiography Apocalypse Me: The Jaws of Life. Meanwhile the term ApocaSheen Now has already been added to the Urban Dictionary website.

There are plenty of things that might explain Sheen's apparent fixation with the film: his father's role, the themes of war and madness that might appeal given his current situation and, hey, it's a heck of a film. But there's one fact that overshadows all the rest: during the grueling film shoot for Apocalypse Now, his father Martin, just 36 years old, suffered a near fatal heart attack on set in the Philippines. Charlie, then only 11, was flown in to help his father recuperate.

"I was shocked," Sheen told Parade magazine in 2003, of seeing his father immediately after the heart attack. "He walked with a cane, and he was weeping." Eventually, Martin was strong enough to resume shooting. But afterward, Charlie said he felt insecure after seeing his father. "He looked 80, though he was a year younger than I am now," Charlie said in the 2003 interview.

The elder Sheen has said that of all his kids, Charlie took his father's health scare the hardest. And certainly, childhood traumas can linger for years. Sheen's obsession with Apocalypse Now could be a way of coping with the events of 1977. "One of the reactions you might see is that somebody who has been traumatized may make attempts to gain control over the thing that upset them," says Purdue University communication professor Glenn Sparks, who studies how violent movies affect children later in life. Indeed, Sheen seems to be internalizing not just his father's character but the demons of much of the cast. "I'm not just my dad," he said in an interview on the Alex Jones radio show on Feb. 24. "I'm putting up the river to kill another part of me, which is Kurtz. I'm every character in between, save for that little weirdo with his guts strapped in, begging for water. That's not me. But there are parts of me that are Dennis Hopper."

Regardless of whether it's a certifiable obsession or a passing fixation, it's clear that Apocalypse Now is never far from Sheen's thoughts. In an in-depth profile in the April issue of GQ magazine, the actor discusses his love for the film. And while he references his obsession with another terrifying movie, Jaws, Sheen rhetorically asks himself what is generally floating around inside his head. The answer? Quotes drawn from Apocalypse Now.