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Portrait of the artist as a young man; Michael Sheen will be at the Oscars tomorrow night, hoping his much-praised movie, Frost/Nixon, will clean up. Here, his parents Meyrick and Irene, give us a tantalising browse through their family photo albums as Gavin Allen traces Sheen's rise from Port Talbot burger flipper to Hollywood leading man.

TOMORROW night Meyrick and Irene Sheen won't be staying up late to watch the 81st Academy Awards from the comfort of their burgundy two-seater sofa.

But they will record it to add it to the family archives.

More than 5,000 miles away, their son Michael will be observing Oscars host Hugh Jackman from just a few rows back. Michael may even get to look directly down the barrel of the camera if his film Frost/Nixon, nominated for five Oscars, get the gongs it deserves and he hits the stage to celebrate the group victory.

Sheen himself - the Frost in Frost/Nixon - hasn't been nominated in the Actor In A Leading Role category, possibly because the film's backers feared that splitting the vote between Sheen and his co-star Frank Langella would risk the film not winning at all on Hollywood's biggest night.

In America, few know David Frost but Richard Nixon is a national obsession; cruel logic dictates the win is more likely with Langella.

"With the Oscars," says Meyrick diplomatically, "what I have found is that it's very political.

"We are very proud of the work Michael has done because it is outstanding, there is no doubt about it.

"But it's tough for me to say Michael should be nominated for an Oscar if I haven't seen all of the other performances."

Irene cuts across him.

"It's not tough for me," she says mischievously. "I have no problem saying it - he should have been nominated."

But just how does a man make the transition from Port Talbot Operatic Society to starring in an Oscar-nominated film?

Meyrick and Irene, working class parents as proud and protective as any others in their Baglan community, can trace their son's rise through the many family photo albums and trinkets and share a remarkable capacity for recalling dates and details of his career.

But while they celebrate every increasingly significant milestone on stage or screen, they say his success hasn't come without some sacrifice.

Michael currently lives in Universal City, California, so that he can be close to Lily, his 10-year-old daughter with former girlfriend Kate Beckinsdale.

His dancer girlfriend, Lorraine Stewart, is out there with him.

But according to his mother, no matter how hard her son tries to balance his life and career, something always suffers.

"I want things to work out for him in his personal life as well as they have done in his professional life, because that's been the thing" says Irene, putting down a cup of tea and a plate of chocolate biscuits beside me. No coaster.

"We all bask in Michael Sheen's reflected glory, and we all love it, but the downside is the separations.

"With the films and everything else, relationships suffer because of the enforced absences, because of the periods of separation. It doesn't make relationships easy.

"We are very proud of him, but I worry about him - because you do."

If you want to be particular about the genealogy of Michael Sheen's acting talent, and Meyrick Sheen does, you could argue it dates back to his great great grandmother, Mary Ann Blower.

Recent family research has confirmed that North sailed to America on the SS Campania in 1896 as the first female lion tamer and elephant trainer in the UK.

She crossed the Atlantic with her husband Charles, a Shakespearean actor, and Frank C Bostock, the infamous Wild Animal Circus impresario who produced the world's first boxing Kangaroo.

That seam of circus, carnival and show folk runs deep in the Sheens' roots, extending from the am-dram careers of Meyrick, his father and grandfather before him, and his niece, the West End star Caroline Sheen.

A photograph of Caroline, in costume, sits on the Welsh dresser in the couple's U-shaped lounge, alongside an action figure of their son (as Lucien the werewolf, his Underworld guise) as well as a clapper board from the set of Frost/Nixon, signed by Frank Langella and, of course, Michael.

But one sideboard isn't enough here.

Any available load-bearing surface is lined with awards, photos and even an original cartoon from The Times of Michael being addressed by the Queen.

Cupboards are packed with rows of lovingly assembled photo albums while colourful plastic children's chairs are pushed to the corner of a lounge that is clearly the regular preserve of their grandchildren. The neon colours are replicated on the magnetic letters that adorn the fridge of their homely country-style kitchen.

Retired HR manager Meyrick, 69, sits on the sofa, relishing the recollections to come. His white hair is combed confidently back over his head, the steady fixture of a man who has worked professionally as a Jack Nicholson look-a-like.

Irene, his wife of 47 years, who worked as a secretary, potters at the table they have just strewn with photos for me to look at.

Above them hangs a portrait of Michael painted by a friend, and while his bramble of unruly hair leaps out of so many photographs around them there are also snaps of their daughter Joanne, their grandchildren and various family gatherings.

As for Michael, they refer to him as "a natural", able to succeed at whatever he turns his versatile hands to.

"The first time Michael went on stage was with me at six-weeks-old," says Meyrick, who joined Port Talbot Operatic Society aged 14.

"I was playing General Birabeau in The Desert Song and I held him in my arms on the stage."

The couple share a smile.

"He was a very contented baby," says Irene.

"I would put him to bed at 7pm and sometimes I'd go in at half past nine in the morning to check he was still breathing because, whenever I had checked on him in the night, he hadn't moved at all.

"He started nursery at three and the nursery assistant used to say he was clever even then. But when he went to St Georges School in Wallasey, well, they were really quite complimentary about him there too."

Wallasey, near Liverpool, was the second Sheen family home. They started family life in Newport but spent three years on Merseyside when Meyrick was headhunted to be the personnel manager for an electronics company.

It was in Wasllasey where Michael first showed his skills for mimickry.

"By the end of his first week in school I couldn't understand him," says Irene, still slightly incredulous at her five-year-old's chameleon qualities.

"He just absorbed the Liverpudlian accent like a sponge. He was more Liverpudlian than the locals! So after a few weeks we sent him for elocution lessons."

The ease with which he absorbed the local lingo is indicative of how he simply took to so many disparate things, including art.

"When he was seven, he drew a picture of me, side on," says Meyrick, still impressed, before spreading out proof on the table, plus hand-drawn programmes from Michael's early plays and a portrait of his childhood idol, James Dean.

But Michael never settled on one talent when everything was possible.

He added musicianship to his skill-set after arriving home from Blaen Baglan school one day to announce he wanted to play the trumpet like Roy Castle.

Meyrick found a reluctant trumpet instructor in Neath.

"The guy got out a tuning fork and struck it and said to Michael 'I want you to hit that pitch' and every time Michael could hit that pitch perfectly," says his father.

"So then the guy got his trumpet out and said 'I want you to hold this one note down and blow it for as long as you can'. So Michael blew... and he blew... and he blew and he blew. I was absolutely amazed and I could see the teacher was amazed too."

The instructor put Michael forward for the West Glamorgan Band, but his plan ran into problems because band practice fell on a Saturday morning, which interfered with Michael's burgeoning love for football.

One weekend, with the family planning a holiday at Pontins in the Isle of Wight, the 12-year-old declared he didn't want to go because he had a football match.

The proud parents duly went to watch their son and saw him holding his own against much bigger boys.

"We were standing on the touchline and this fella came up to us and said 'That's your boy, is it?'," begins Meyrick, relishing retelling the tale.

"He told us he was a scout for Arsenal and said he could see Michael was a good footballer, and that he was going to tell Arsenal about him.

"A few weeks later they told us they would like him to go to London, that they would take him on and look after his education.

"Well, she nearly died didn't she," laughs Meyrick, referring to Irene.

"We couldn't go as a family because we were both working and we couldn't just disrupt everything, so we decided against it," she asserts.

"With the football, we always said to each other that once he did his O-Levels, if he wanted to go somewhere with that, then he could. But that moment never came with football."

Then, at the age of 12, Michael won the role of Tom Of Warwick in Melyn Crythan Operatic Society's production of Camelot.

Its week-long run in Neath allowed him to spend lots of time chatting to local veteran Billy Tustin, who played Merlin, who regaled the youngster with tales from his career on stage.

"He would come home and every night saying 'Billy's done this or Billy's done that'- he was entranced," says Irene.

"Billy must have been in his 60s then but Michael was absolutely fascinated by him.

"We think that's where it really started for him."

Michael breezed through his A-Levels - English, Drama and Sociology - at Neath College and then passed the Oxbridge entrance exam, but found the interview process difficult.

So he returned to South Wales and set about finding an alternative university. He was accepted to Warwick but decided that it wasn't for him after all.

"After being accepted he returned to Baglan at 10pm that night with his argument all mapped out," recalls Irene.

"We sat up until about 3am talking about it. They had accepted him but he didn't want to go. He wanted to go to drama college instead."

His shocked parents tried to talk him around - "We always thought he would go to university and that was just that," says Irene - but their son had done his research. He argued that if he attended university first and then drama college, his parents would have to pay for the latter because he would only get one grant.

If he went straight to drama school, it would be largely funded for him. He convinced them and he spent the next year working at a drive-through fast food outlet on the A48 to save up enough money to go.

"Burger Master it was called," laughs Meyrick, still amused at the thought.

"Michael worked early mornings and late nights, making burgers and serving food. She used to go mad," he says, again dispensing a sideways nod to Irene. "It was only a little caravan," she exclaims. "I thought it was a fire hazard!"

Michael survived his tour of burger-flipping duty without immolation and focused on applying to eight drama schools, including the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Eventually, when all seven other drama schools had offered him a place, Rada was conspicuous by its absence.

So Michael called Rada to enquire about his place, only to be assured that an administrative problem had delayed his offer of a place.

"Then the principal of Rada called us," says Meyrick, pointing to the phone in the hallway.

"He said, 'I'm told Michael phoned yesterday. I wanted to say he definitely has a place here and not to accept anywhere else'."

The talent that so many drama schools chased proved itself within a year at Rada. In 1988 he received his first major recognition, the Society of West End Theatres award.

Soon after he was plucked from Rada to star opposite Vanessa Redgrave in When She Danced in the West End. It followed this with Amadeus at the Old Vic theatre, a role he later reprised on Broadway.

In the coming years the high-profile productions stacked up - Henry V, Peer Gynt (his dad's favourite), The Dresser, Caligula (his mother's) and Look Back In Anger - before the film world came calling in earnest with Underworld in 2003.

He produced magnificent TV performances too, including Tony Blair in the Channel 4 drama The Deal, and picked up three Bafta nominations - but no wins - for his roles in the TV dramas Dirty Filthy Love, as Kenneth Williams in Fantabulosa and in Stephen Frears film The Queen, again playing Tony Blair.

That year proved fateful as he was invited to join The Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts And Sciences - who dish out the Oscars - and signed on to play David Frost in the acclaimed stage production of Frost/Nixon.

That connection takes him to the Oscars itself tomorrow night, where he hopes to see the film version of that play win recognition for Best Film, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay - and yes, Best Actor, even if it isn't him.

While he might not get the individual recognition for Frost/Nixon, its success - not to mention the handsome box office returns for his continued participation in the Underworld franchise - will surely drive Michael to a glowing future.

Next up is the role of legendary football manager Brian Clough in The Damned United. He has also been cast in Tim Burton's high-profile adaptation of Alice In Wonderland alongside Johnny Depp, and in terrorist thriller Unthinkable with Samuel L Jackson.

It seems Michael Sheen has now come to point that everyone expected him to reach, least of all his number one fans, his parents - real stardom.

Meyrick has his own theory on the secret of Michael's success.

"I think he has a photographic memory.

"I have seen a lot of his scripts and the one thing that has always surprised me is that there isn't a mark on them.

"Most actors will highlight their lines, or add in the stage directions, but his are always pristine."

For his parents, the method of his success is secondary to its side effects.

Although an appearance in an Oscar-winning film will ascend him to yet greater heights, Michael's mother always prefers his stage work.

"It's a more intimate experience for us because we can go around to the dressing room afterwards and talk to him about it," she says.

"We feel part of it. When he is on film, it's not the same."

And that's the problem for the Sheens; the more their son succeeds, the more they have to do without him.

They last saw him in London in the first week of February when he was in the UK to present a Bafta award and celebrate his 40th birthday, and his returns to Baglan have become increasingly more difficult as the vapours of fame swirl around him.

"You want everything to be relaxed for him when he gets here so he can enjoy it," says Irene. "But the last time he came down he had so many interviews to do that people were coming here to do them.

"When he was down at Christmas we went into town and people were very interested.

"He did get recognised and while people respect his privacy they sometimes just want to say 'we are proud of you'.

"People who knew him before he was famous just want to tell him that he hasn't changed, that he's still the same Port Talbot boy he always was."

CAPTION(S):

Michael Sheen, third from the back on the left, aged eight played for Baglan Boys u12s football team; Aged one with his auntie Marjorie Sheen and left, dressed as Noddy as a four-year-old; Proud parents Meyrick and Irene with their baby boy, aged six months; The three-year-old enjoying himself on holiday in London; School photo, aged seven; Being presented with an acting bursary in Port Talbot in 1988; Michael starred in this show and also designed the programme; Irene Sheen next to her son's Amadeus poster in 2000, and right, Michael with partner Lorraine Stewart; An early press shot, aged 21 and, below, Irene and Meyrick at home in Baglan; Teaching Rebel new tricks aged five, and below, on the set of Frost/Nixon with actress Rebecca Hall
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 21, 2009
Words:2745
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