Father And Son: Sheen Revisits 'Subject Was Roses' In 1964, a young Martin Sheen played the role of a solider who returned from World War II only to confront the private war between his parents. Now, more than 40 years later, Sheen reappears in Frank Gilroy's Pulitzer Prize-winning play — but this time around, he's the dad.
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Father And Son: Sheen Revisits 'Subject Was Roses'

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Father And Son: Sheen Revisits 'Subject Was Roses'

Father And Son: Sheen Revisits 'Subject Was Roses'

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JACKI LYDEN, Host:

NPR's Ina Jaffe has more.

INA JAFFE: There are just three characters in "The Subject Was Roses" - the Cleary family: mother Nettie, father John and son Timmy - who finds he's left the battlefields of Europe to become a prisoner in his parents' war of regret and recrimination.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES")

M: (as Timmy) Don't you have any consideration for other people's feelings?

M: (as John) You talk about consideration.

M: How could you do it, Pop?

M: You any idea of how I looked forward to this morning?

JAFFE: That's Martin Sheen as Timmy in the movie version of the original production of "The Subject was Roses." He confronts his father, played by Jack Albertson, for his cruelty and self-pity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES")

M: Always the injured party.

M: You'll be the injured party in about two minutes.

M: I already am.

JAFFE: Now, in the Los Angeles production, it's Sheen who plays the bitter father, lashing out at his son, played by Brian Geraghty.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES")

M: (as Timmy) Always the injured party.

M: (as John) You'll be the injured party in about two minutes.

M: I already am.

M: Rough you had it. Good food, good clothes and always a roof over your head.

M: Hi-ho, everybody, it's count your blessings time.

JAFFE: Unlike the character he now plays, the real Martin Sheen has nothing but gratitude for the character of Timmy.

M: It was the biggest success of my life and the most important.

JAFFE: Sheen was just 23 years old when "The Subject Was Roses" opened on Broadway. He was nominated for a Tony Award.

M: The whole production of "The Subject Was Roses" was such a total life-changing thing for me and my family. And not just professionally, but personally. I grew in a lot of different ways, as a husband, as a father. I just gained so much confidence and had so many more opportunities open up to me.

JAFFE: Those opportunities led to roles in iconic films such as "Apocalypse Now," "Badlands," "Wall Street," as well as a long-running TV series.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WEST WING")

U: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.

JAFFE: On "The West Wing," Sheen played Josiah Bartlet, who is arguably still the most popular Democratic president since Roosevelt.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WEST WING")

M: (as President Bartlet) I wish I could spend more than a few minutes with you but the polls don't close in the east for another hour, and there are plenty of election results still left to falsify.

JAFFE: Sheen says it was his work on "The West Wing" that prevented him from doing a revival of "The Subject Was Roses" any earlier. So, now it's been nearly 20 years since he's done a stage play, and he's reminded daily of how different that is from film and TV.

M: I've forgotten how big a toll it takes on you physically. You can't just suddenly leave town; you can't take a break; you know, you've got to do eight performances a week. The demand on us physically, emotionally every night is quite difficult. And I'd forgotten how much more I respect stage actors that do it all the time.

JAFFE: Sheen is 69 years old, and the only surviving member of the original cast. Playwright Frank Gilroy is in his mid-80s, but just had to be here for this production.

M: This, I never expected. I never expected Marty here in Los Angeles playing the father of the son he used to be. It's a joy. It's a joy.

JAFFE: Gilroy still has indelible memories of Sheen's audition 46 years ago.

M: Immediately, when I saw him, I almost didn't even have to, you know, hear him read. He seemed so right. And then there were numerous auditions, but I would've grabbed him on the spot.

JAFFE: That's intense praise, considering that the role of Timmy is Frank Gilroy, and the Cleary family is very much his own. But Gilroy says the play is not a factual representation of what happened when he returned to his family after the war.

M: I wasn't that insightful.

JAFFE: It took until the 1960s for him to gain the perspective to put the Clearys on the stage.

M: You reach a time - and I reached the time with that play - when fact and fiction blend seamlessly. If you do it too soon, it's journalism. If you do it too late, you forget, and it's fantasy. There's an optimum time.

JAFFE: This seems to be the play's time once again. Gilroy says there's been increased interest in "The Subject Was Roses" since America's military has become involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. Martin Sheen agrees that the themes of the play remain current.

M: American veterans are coming back by the score now, and we are learning of the difficulties that a lot of these young people, both male and female now, who have experienced combat, the difficulties that they have in adjusting to civilian life and adjusting to family.

JAFFE: Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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