Martin Sheen Was "Dangerously Drunk" in "Apocalypse Now" Breakdown Scene
The actor later said he "wrestled with some demons" on the iconic war film.
In the opening scene of 1979's Apocalypse Now, inebriated Army Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) lies on a bed beneath a spinning ceiling fan in a Saigon hotel room, does martial arts moves as the first bars of "The End" by The Doors begin to play, then suddenly confronts himself in a mirror and punches the glass, slicing his hand open in the process. It's a difficult scene to watch, but perhaps the most troubling part is that Sheen really was intoxicated during filming, saying later that he was "dangerously drunk" and experiencing a legitimate breakdown in front of the cameras. Read on to find out more.
The drinking was real—and so was the blood.
Filming of that infamous scene took place in Manila on Aug. 3, 1976, Sheen's 36th birthday. He had been drinking all day. He admitted in an interview at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2013 that he was "so dangerously drunk [he] could hardly stand up" by the time he expected to shoot the scene.
Meanwhile, the crew was fearful that he might turn on the cameras or the director. "There was an electricity in the room, anything could happen," Eleanor Coppola would later recount in the 1991 documentary about the making of the film, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. "They were inside somebody in his personal territory with the man alone in his most private moment."
Cameras rolling, director Francis Ford Coppola instructed Sheen to go to the mirror and admire himself. Then he told the actor to frighten himself. "I was so intoxicated, I didn't realize how close to the mirror I was," Sheen continued in his film festival interview. Suddenly, he struck the mirror's glass, shouting, "Hiya!" and cut his thumb open. Examining his bleeding hand, the actor came undone and began weeping. Coppola subsequently moved to cut filming.
Sheen begged to cameras keep rolling.
However, in a vintage interview from Later with Bob Costas, Sheen revealed he stopped the director from cutting the take, pleading with him to continue. "I bled quite a lot and Francis tried to stop the scene, and I begged him to continue rolling. He said he couldn't do it and they had a nurse standing by. And I said, 'Please. I must do this for myself.' And he did. And he allowed me, in a sense, to wrestle with some demons that I had been wrestling with for quite a while."
Telling Costas he was an alcoholic, Sheen recalled the "demons" of addiction that had haunted his life. "I had done that scene at bars, I had done that scene at home," the star said. "I had to come to grips with it. I had to exorcise that out of myself."
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He suffered a more serious medical emergency during filming.
The film's notorious rough Philippines-based production would extend for more than a year after Willard's breakdown was filmed. During that time, Sheen also suffered a heart attack that required him to be flown to Manila in a helicopter. His wife Janet was on location at the time and accompanied him to the hospital. "She smiled, leaned down, whispered in my ear: 'It's only a movie, babe,'" he recalled to Yahoo! in 2022. "And after that, I started to heal."
Still, it would be another 10 years before Sheen was ready to address his alcoholism. He would later reflect that the heart attack was part of the process. "I chose to have that heart attack," he told Costas. "I needed to have that heart attack. There was part of me that was already dead. I had to die to that part of myself…I was a desperate man, a terribly dishonest man. I was living two kinds of existence and you can't live that way."
The experience left Sheen and his family scarred.
Sheen told Costas that he still bears the scar from breaking his hand on the mirror in Apocalypse Now. That dark period of addiction, distance, and overwork also left an indelible mark on his family. Son Emilio Estevez called Sheen "a terrible drunk" to The Telegraph in 2011, saying of his childhood: "Some people are pleasant drunks. He would get sentimental and angry. It scared all of us." The Mighty Ducks star further recounted asking his parents how they allowed him to wander off to while on location in Manila at a time when martial law meant he could be shot on sight if caught out after 1 a.m. He claimed that they replied, "We had four of you. If we had to lose one, we would. We were just trying to survive."
One of the Apocalypse Now actor's other children, Charlie Sheen, who was just 11 when his father left for Manila, has also struggled publicly with substance abuse, suffering a stroke linked to cocaine abuse in 1998. The star was fired from the hit series Two and a Half Men, where he had been television's highest-paid actor, after trashing its creator Chuck Lorre in 2011.
Amid Charlie's very public struggles, his father empathized by recalling the real breakdown now hailed as his greatest performance. "I know what hell he's living in," Sheen told The Telegraph. "I've had psychotic episodes in public. One of them was on camera—the opening scene of Apocalypse Now. So I know what Charlie is going through."