The Hugh Hefner Sky Villa sits atop the 40-storey Fantasy Tower at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. Renting for US$40,000 a night, the two-floor, 9,000-sq.-foot suite—legal occupancy 250—boasts its own glass elevator, pop-up plasma screen TVs, a fully equipped gym and sauna, and an outdoor, cantilevered jacuzzi with the Playboy bunny symbol set into the tiles. But its true, and unspeakably sleazy, selling point is the round, eight-foot rotating bed underneath a mirrored ceiling. The perfect place, in short, for Charlie Sheen.
In mid-January, the suite was the scene of an epic bender in which the 45-year-old star of the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men holed up for days, entertaining a cavalcade of porn stars, “tattoo models,” and prostitutes. Outside, the tabloid websites gleefully catalogued the self-destructive details; from 10 a.m. Grey Goose vodka shots and cocaine, to a $26,000 hooker bill. Sheen made it back to Los Angeles via private jet just in time for his show’s Tuesday morning “call,” but missed work the next day due to what producers described as an ear infection. That weekend, Ricky Gervais stood in front of an international television audience at the Golden Globes and confirmed Sheen’s status as a punchline. “It’s going to be a night of partying and heavy drinking,” the British comedian predicted as he opened the awards ceremony. “Or, as Charlie Sheen calls it, breakfast.”
Being the highest-paid actor in television, at almost $2 million per episode, should never be confused with being the most respected. For years now, even Sheen himself has seemed to resent the fame derived from his highly successful, yet critically reviled, comedy. Once the hot, young star of such “serious” films as Platoon and Wall Street, he has watched his career devolve into slight comedies like Hot Shots and Major League, then sitcoms, the final refuge of the clapped-out Hollywood icon. Paid to play the roué on TV—the role of boozy, lecherous “Charlie Harper” was specifically written with him in mind—he has carried the performance over into everyday life, embracing a bad-boy lifestyle with gusto. “He likes hookers and he likes coke and he’s got enough money for both,” an anonymous Sheen “friend” told the gossip site Radaronline.
Sheen himself has done little to dispel the rumours. Less than a week after the Sky Villa debacle, he returned to Vegas for another round of celebrations, making an unscripted and unsteady appearance at a Drew Carey improv show, where he joked about “getting frisky” with a dead hooker. At this point, even his co-stars seemed to be laughing at him. Jon Cryer, not nearly as famous or well-remunerated, went on Conan O’Brien’s show and tried to describe the surreal nature of working with the world’s most scrutinized celebrity train wreck. “I’m checking [gossip website] TMZ, as I do every day, to know if I have to go to work at all,” he said.
Sheen’s latest trip to rehab this past weekend, checking himself in for what will purportedly be a three-month stay, was predictable enough. It came in the wake of another multi-day bacchanalia, this time at his home in the Hollywood Hills. Kacey Jordan, one of several porn star invitees, described vast quantities of cocaine delivered to the mansion in Gucci satchels. For the most part, her host just sat around smoking crack and watching adult movies, she said. “He has so much porn. A huge theatre. I think that’s all he does, sits there and watches porn.” Jordan, the star of such films as Jail Bait 5 and Not the Brady’s XXX, was paid $30,000 for hanging out. Later she tweeted a photo of her bikini-clad crotch and a coffee table filled with Sheen’s party supplies, which included Marlboro cigarettes, cologne, mouthwash, and Lysol wipes. The fun only ended when the actor had to be rushed to hospital with severe stomach pains. In true L.A. fashion, the neighbour who responded to Sheen’s early morning pleas for assistance and called 911 is a former star of the reality show Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
Rock bottom? Perhaps for lesser men, but Sheen’s history of deviancy is long and accomplished. At 15, he lost his virginity to a Vegas hooker, he once told Playboy, using his father Martin Sheen’s credit card to pay for the transaction. Kicked out of two high schools, Charlie became a father for the first time at 19. (He has since had four more children with his two most recent wives, Denise Richards, a former Bond girl, and Brooke Mueller. Both marriages disintegrated amidst allegations of domestic abuse.) Even as his star rose in the mid-’80s, he was developing a reputation as a prodigious partier—nicknamed “The Machine” by members of Hollywood’s brat pack. At a press event a few years ago, he fondly recalled tossing trash out of his car window at Kiefer Sutherland, when his fellow troubled actor was sentenced to cleaning up an L.A. highway as community service.
Sheen first entered rehab back in 1988. Two years later, Clint Eastwood, his co-star in The Rookie, helped his father Martin organize a friends-and-family intervention. In 1994, after a month-long binge that saw him trash five different hotel rooms, he made a third stab at cleaning up. In 1996, newly divorced from model Donna Peele and again sober, he became a born-again Christian. “I feel ready to begin a new phase of my life,” he told reporters. “I think I’ve turned a corner.” In 1998, he nearly died of a cocaine overdose.
Sheen’s relationships have also provided steady tabloid fodder over the years. As a young up-and-comer he dated Ginger Lynn, an adult actress whose films included On Golden Blonde and Poonies. In 1990, he accidentally shot girlfriend Kelly Preston (now Mrs. John Travolta) in the arm. At the 1995 trial of Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, Sheen was unmasked as one of her best clients, having spent $53,000 on romps with 27 different escorts over the years. His tastes, she reported, ran toward the “cheerleader” type.
More than enough strikes and chances for redemption, one might say. Yet somehow Sheen perseveres. In 2000, his hail-Mary casting as a replacement for the ill Michael J. Fox on the sitcom Spin City turned into a ratings success, prolonging the series for two more years. Two and a Half Men, which premiered in September 2003, proved a blockbuster right out of the gate. Now in its eighth season, it continues to be the number-one ranked comedy on American television, drawing close to 15 million viewers a week. CBS reportedly pulls in about $3 million in advertising each week from the show, which adds up to $155 million over the course of the season. But more importantly, the sitcom has become the linchpin of the network’s successful Monday night lineup, providing a huge lead-in audience for the new hit Mike and Molly and the rebooted Hawaii Five-O. Putting the show on hiatus while Sheen again “recovers” will hurt—only two new episodes are in the can for February, a “sweeps” month. But not as much as if he never comes back. In that case, global sales and syndication deals, currently worth more than $2 billion and slated to run through to 2021, would have to be downgraded. Recent history strongly suggests that CBS, which committed to 48 more episodes last spring, would do almost anything to avoid such an outcome. So too, it seems, would Mark Burg, Sheen’s manager and an executive producer of the show.
The actor himself has even more than his inflated salary at stake. His company, 9th Step Productions (a winking reference to the Alcoholics Anonymous tenet about “making amends”) also gets a healthy share of the show’s gross revenue. By some estimates he would be leaving as much as $100 million on the table by walking away now—fortune enough to last a lifetime. Although perhaps not for Sheen, who in the past year has seen two of his luxury vehicles mysteriously hurtle off cliffs, “lost” a $165,000 diamond-and-platinum Patek Phillippe watch while hanging out with yet another porn actress, and in November purchased a Maybach 62 sedan, list price $509,250.
Chuck Lorre, the creator and producer of Two and a Half Men, has recently taken to musing about his star and the show’s future. The messages, which appear on screen for a split second at the end of each episode (termed “vanity cards” in the business) have been reposted on his own website, chucklorre.com. “To-Do List,” reads one from last November, after Sheen trashed a New York City hotel room while a naked adult actress-hooker took refuge in the bathroom, reads: “Re-calibrate the line behind fiction and reality… Meditate using new mantra, ‘high ratings do not equate to high self-esteem’… Stand in front of a mirror and practise saying ‘as far as I know everything’s terrific’… Bite the hand that feeds you because you’ve had more than enough to eat.”
That same month, a card that aired after an episode of The Big Bang Theory, another one of Lorre’s successful sitcoms, was even more pointed. Watching Sheen take his bows before a rapturous audience after a taping, he said it brought to mind some long ago advice that “if halfs da peoples loves ya, and halfs da peoples hates ya, you’re a star!” The other, less kind half, he intimated, are mostly members of the press.
Whether Sheen believes himself to be some sort of victim isn’t clear. But the addictions that have again landed him in rehab are certainly long-standing. His fans long ago decided that what he does off the screen isn’t as important as what he does on it. The media—especially the gutter press—believes otherwise.
And besides, Sheen’s work brings pleasure to millions each week. Among them, apparently, is Josef Fritzl, the 75-year-old Austrian recently convicted of imprisoning his daughter in a basement dungeon for 24 years, and fathering several of her children. “My favourite show is Two and a Half Men with Charlie Sheen,” he told the German newspaper Bild. “It relaxes me. I need to laugh.”
When the New York Post reprinted the Fritzl interview before Christmas, its Web commenters raised strenuous objections. “This article is an insult and disgrace to Charlie Sheen and all his fans,” was one of the milder responses. True enough, an actor isn’t at fault if some creep likes his work. But what about a guy who also plays one in real life?