American actor Martin Sheen has revealed that he wanted his West Wing character to share his Catholic faith.
Sheen, who played the role of President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet in The West Wing, said he had two requests upon joining the American television serial drama as a regular cast member – that Bartlet was a Catholic and a University of Notre Dame alumnus.
Although both characteristics were given to Bartlet by Sheen and not the show’s creator, Aaron Sorkin, they became major qualities of the character.
Speaking to Empire, Sheen said: “I had to renegotiate a long-term contract after the pilot and I asked two things: that they make Bartlet a Catholic – because I wanted him to form all of his opinions from a moral frame of reference and as a Catholic myself, that’s the way I framed all of my actions. And I also asked that he be a graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Aaron agreed to both of them and they became a staple of the character.”
Although he was a major character in the show, appearing in all seven series, and the role earned Sheen a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Television Series Drama, as well as two Screen Actors Guild Awards, Sheen pointed out that Bartlet was originally only intended to be a minor, recurring figure, with the series focusing on the White House senior staff.
“I was the last one to join the cast and when I started it was just a peripheral character – the focus was to be on the staff, not the First Family,” he said.
“When I did the pilot, my contract was for just three years and it was confined to maybe three or four episodes every season. The only restraint I had was that I could not play another president while the show was on the air. So, I kind of backed into one of the great events of my life and certainly my career.”
Bartlet was introduced to viewers at the conclusion of the pilot episode in a scene that Sheen still regards as one of the best introductory sequences he has performed.
“I only had one sequence in the pilot: I came in at the end and confronted the conservative right wing religious element and brought them low. But the lead-up to the character was so strong, it was so clear what kind of person occupied this office. It was a set-up like no other entrance I’d ever played in my life.”
Picture: Martin Sheen prepares for a comedy sketch of West Wing during the filming of Channel 4’s The Sunday Night Project in 2009. (Ian West/PA).