Is there anything Charlie Sheen can do to make himself unpopular? Last Monday, the star of the world’s most-watched sitcom, Two and a Half Men, was removed from the Plaza Hotel in New York after trashing his room because of a missing watch; it led to a stay in the hospital, reports that he was on drugs (his retinue called it “an allergic reaction to medication”), and his abrupt decision to divorce his estranged current wife, Brooke Mueller. That’s just the latest in a long line of unpleasant stories about the 45-year-old actor, many of which revolve around his treatment of women. His ex-wife, Denise Richards, claimed that she underwent “a cycle of abuse.” In 2009, Sheen was arrested for reportedly holding a knife to Mueller’s throat. And at the Plaza, TMZ.com reported that he was with “a 22-year-old porn star” who hid in the bathroom to avoid his rampage after he thought his watch had been stolen. Yet he’s emerging from this new scandal the way he emerged from all the others: looking terrible, but otherwise unscathed.
Sheen was back at work on Two and a Half Men last week (TMZ said he was greeted with “fist pumps and hugs”), and Radaronline.com reported that he was “partying wildly” as soon as he got back to Los Angeles. His network, CBS, stood by him as usual; an anonymous insider told the New York Post that CBS is “quietly thrilled” because the publicity “will open up the show to a whole new segment of young viewers.” Dylan Howard, who talked to Sheen for Radar Online, told Maclean’s that “there are people around Charlie who are under no illusions that he needs to check himself into rehab and get himself clean once and for all.” Even Sheen’s father, Martin Sheen, told the Post that he hoped to separate his son “from the people he’s been around,” but there’s no indication yet that it will happen.
Other misbehaving actors must be jealous. Mel Gibson can’t get work and has a major movie sitting unreleased; Randy Quaid was banned from the actors’ union and is now in Vancouver hiding out from what he calls “Hollywood star-whackers.” But as Sheen’s character smugly said in the season premiere of his show, “I’m Teflon.”
More than any other celebrity in Hollywood, Sheen has an uncanny ability to bounce back without changing anything about the way he behaves. Unlike stars such as Michael Richards who beg for the public to forgive them, he never shows any remorse after he’s caught, instead blaming everyone else. Howard says that the star is “indignant about this situation. He says there is very much more to this story, which will never come out.” And this strategy of doubling down and going on as before has usually worked for him. In the ’90s, when the accusations of violence and alcoholism started to emerge, many people thought his days as a leading man (in films like Wall Street and Platoon) were behind him; Michael Sands, a Hollywood media consultant, points out that “accidentally shooting a girlfriend,” the way Sheen did with Kelly Preston in 1990, would be enough to ruin most people’s careers. Instead, Sheen went into TV and became a bigger star than ever. Since then, he’s continued to add unpleasant things to his repertoire, like arguing that the World Trade Center “came down in a controlled demolition,” while remaining invincible.
The main reason for this, of course, is that popularity gives him power. Sands says that “if it were Lindsay Lohan, they’d throw the book at her.” Some think this is partly because there’s a double standard for women and men in Hollywood—but it’s also true that Lohan’s movies were already failing when her problems started. On the other hand, ratings for Two and a Half Men are actually up this season. It remains the most-watched comedy on U.S. TV, as well as the most popular comedy in syndicated reruns, and Sheen is one of only two actors on the show (his co-star, Jon Cryer, is the other) who appear in every episode. “I think ratings would plummet if he ever left and was replaced,” says Brad Adgate, director of research for the media buyer Horizon Media.
No network can give up on a show that does that well, or alienate its star. That’s why NBC stuck with Kelsey Grammer on Frasier during his time in rehab, and why the early success of Mork and Mindy made ABC overlook Robin Williams’s cocaine habit. A drug-addled Robert Downey Jr. was fired from Ally McBeal because he wasn’t helping the ratings all that much, but Two and a Half Men won’t work without Sheen. “I think he gets away with it because viewers still like him,” Adgate says; as long as the public finds him amusing to watch, “I don’t think too many marketers will bail out on him.”
Normally, though, there’s an expectation that personal revelations about an actor will eventually hurt his popularity. It hasn’t happened with Sheen yet; in fact, Howard thinks that audiences seem to be blasé about it. “You read comments on websites like ours and others,” he says, “and it just seems like that snapshot of society isn’t too shocked by this.” It helps that Sheen has an ace up his sleeve that most other stars don’t: the character he plays on Two and a Half Men is himself a rich, drunken playboy who clearly doesn’t like women very much. His character, Charlie Harper, is toned down from the real thing, but the writers deliberately seem to invite us to confuse the real Charlie with the televised Charlie.
The first episode of the season even appeared to gloat about Sheen’s power to avoid consequences, building the story around the idea that Sheen’s character can get away with anything because bad behaviour is expected of him. “I am a known rascal,” he crowed. Another had him search through a list of phone numbers that mostly belonged to prostitutes he frequented (the episode’s title was “Hookers, Hookers, Hookers”). Howard says that the show is “crafted to how he lives in real life. I think that’s a deliberate attempt to not hurt his image as significantly.”
It could be that by portraying his character as a basically disgusting person, the writers have created a situation where viewers don’t really care whether or not the real Charlie Sheen is likable. With Sheen, Howard says, “there’s an underlying view that we accept bad behaviour from him.” Howard quickly adds: “That doesn’t make it right. His alleged treatment of women is appalling.” But Sheen is playing a man who is literally referred to as a “misogynist” on the show. Mel Gibson can’t play heroes, but Sheen can play a guy who tries to dump his 43-year-old girlfriend so he can hit on her 20-year-old daughter.
There can be a breaking point, a moment when a star’s actions finally start to drag him down. Howard thinks that at some point “community standards must rank more seriously than a network’s desire for success.” Still, even if network executives have no community standards, they do care about the value of the show. Sands points out that one of the reasons Sheen has CBS on his side is that he’s been smart enough, so far, to make sure most of his personal issues “aren’t on studio time. He doesn’t screw up on the set, and that’s where the money is.” But this season, Sheen has been looking visibly older and haggard, and the show, which used to get Emmy nominations for best comedy, has become a critical punching bag. Viewers might eventually get tired of watching a bored, unattractive Sheen doing the same jokes he’s been doing for eight years.
That day hasn’t come yet: the ratings for the episode after Sheen’s arrest went up from the previous week. And so, Sheen is free to get not better, but worse: Denise Richards told Joy Behar on The View that she’s worried their daughters, at five and six years old, are “at an age where they can start to understand” the magnitude of their father’s problems. Others think that, in Sands’s words, “he has a death wish, basically”; Sheen’s representatives had to deny rumours that he was literally going to die last week. But until the day his ratings slip, none of it matters: Howard thinks CBS could “force him into rehab,” but while the world continues to love his show, “it’s very easy for people in high places not to make those courageous and bold decisions.” It could be that the one thing that can save Charlie Sheen is if we stop watching him.