best film:  The story goes that Al Pacino turned down the role of Captain Willard – and then of course Harvey Keitel did not work out – so it was Martin Sheen who was tapped on the shoulder by Francis Ford Coppola for the coveted lead role in Apocalypse Now. Any way you slice it, this is one of the best films of all-time, if not the single greatest – so even if Sheen is also in Terrence Malick’s debut Badlands (1973) and Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) – this is a fairly easy best film category answer here for Sheen. Sheen would also provide the voice over for Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) if we want to cheat a little and include that.


best performance: Apocalypse Now. As mentioned,  Francis Ford Coppola shot much of Apocalypse Now with Harvey Keitel as Willard – and then went back and redid it with Martin Sheen. Keitel is a marvelous actor (rated higher on this list than Sheen with an undoubtedly more balanced career) but Keitel could not have topped Sheen’s work here. Willard needs to have that detached stare – Sheen has it. He also has that emotional breakdown and total collapse in the opening sequence in the Saigon hotel room. Sheen himself was struggling with alcoholism at the time (and he also suffered a heart attack while shooting) – so he is channeling something in Apocalypse Now. This is a towering tour-de-force performance in what is perhaps the second greatest film of all-time. It is tough to calibrate and award points for such a feat on a list like this.


Martin Sheen etches his place in cinema history as Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now (1979). There is so much to admire and praise in Apocalypse Now – but Sheen’s accomplishment should never be overlooked. Sheen is the cool center and pulse of the film. Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Frederic Forrest and others get to really go for it in their scenes  – but Sheen gives the best performance in the film.


stylistic innovations/traits:  Martin Sheen does not have the depth in his filmography to be in the company he is in on this list in some ways – that top five (5) gets a little shaky towards the bottom and a top ten (10) would be almost impossible to do. But few actors left to be added to the list have an ace up their sleeve like his performance in Apocalypse Now. Even then, Sheen would be easier to write off if he were not also tremendous in another brilliant film from the 1970s: Badlands (giving Sheen a pair of bullets in his hand if we are making an analogy to poker here). It makes it hard to just say Francis Ford Coppola got one hell of a fluke of a performance out of him. The rest of Martin Sheen’s career has been a mixed bag. He delivers a sublime performance in just a few scenes in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. It takes a special performance from an actor to give a throat punch to Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko (and steal a scene from him) when Douglas (or any high quality actor) is rolling like that.  There are just long, quiet stretches in Martin Sheen’s career after Badlands and Apocalypse Now – two performances and films that should really build momentum for an actor (like Sissy Spacek has major accomplishments with Robert Altman (3 Women) and Brian De Palma (Carrie) after Badlands in the 1970s. And for Sheen, the 2000s presented a chance for a comeback as he plays a supporting role in both a Steven Spielberg film (2002’s Catch Me If You Can) and a Martin Scorsese film (2006’s The Departed) – and neither are major resume builders for Sheen. None of Sheen’s thirteen (13) archiveable films or hundreds of credits (a lot of television work – including stellar work in 1993’s Gettysburg) has yielded him an Oscar nomination to date – but Badlands and Apocalypse Now will live on for decades.


from Terrence Malick’s Badlands – Malick casts Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as the lovers on the run. Both actors had appeared in films before – but nothing of this stature and importance.  It is fascinating that Warren Oates (third fiddle in the ensemble) is easily the most recognizable name in the cast in 1973 (this is just a few years removed from 1969’s The Wild Bunch). Sheen and Spacek are both dazzling. Sheen’s Kit is a James Dean look-alike. He has that tiny little frame, the jean jacket, the colossal hair. He is both a heartthrob, and a charming sociopath.


directors worked with:  Mike Nichols (1), Terrence Malick (1), Francis Ford Coppola (1), David Cronenberg (1), John Schlesinger (1), Oliver Stone (1), Steven Spielberg (1), Martin Scorsese (1)


from Wall Street (1987) – Martin Sheen is opposite his real life son Charlie and Michael Douglas (in his Oscar-winning performance). This film is a morality play – good and evil – Faust – just like Platoon.  Here it is his own father, Martin Sheen, and Douglas vying for the protagonist’s (Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox) soul.  A great actor is needed to play Martin Sheen’s character (he is not given half the screen time Douglas’ Gekko is) –  and it works. Martin Sheen is not blown off the screen by Douglas.


top five performances:

  1. Apocalypse Now
  2. Badlands
  3. Wall Street
  4. Gettysburg
  5. The Believers


archiveable films

1967- The Incident
1970- Catch 22
1973- Badlands
1979- Apocalypse Now
1982- Gandhi
1983- The Dead Zone
1987- The Believers
1987- Wall Street
1993- Gettysburg
2002- Catch Me If You Can
2006- The Departed
2014- Selma
2021- Judas and the Black Messiah