Good time Charlie
Outside Stage 27 at Sony Pictures Studios in Los Angeles, on a warm September evening, an army of reporters stands in wait for the man of the moment- a man who has been grabbing hyperbolic headlines around the world, not for his creative talents, but for his many colourful rampages, be they drug-fuelled, sexual or verbally diarrhetic.
The madness that seized Charlie Sheen this year has been legendary in scale, not only getting him fired from his US$1.8-million-an-episode job as the star of hit television show Two and a Half Men (resulting in a legal dispute between Sheen and Warner Bros that was settled last week, with the actor reportedly receiving a US$25 million lump sum) but also costing him a hefty chunk of professional credibility and a couple of porn-star girlfriends.
It's also the reason he is here; to sit down in front of an audience of his peers and the world's media to have the innards of his putrid personal life torn free and dragged bleeding across the stage. Tonight is Comedy Central's Roast of Charlie Sheen, for which 10 comedians and fellow celebrities have been conscripted to take potshots at a target that has in the past 12 months provided more than enough ammunition.
Made famous by New York's Friars Club and actor Dean Martin in the mid-20th century, roasts have traditionally been events at which the entertainment world gathers to subject one of its own to a night of comedic insults mixed with heart-warming tributes, all in the name of fun- or, in Sheen's case, intervention.
Since 2003, American TV channel Comedy Central has been stag- ing its own versions, turning the roasting rays on Donald Trump, Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff, among others. Sheen was an obvious choice.
Tonight's roasters include 'roastmaster' and creator of Family Guy Seth MacFarlane, Star Trek's William Shatner, former boxing champion Mike Tyson, Jackass star Steve-O and a perennial participant, comedian Jon Lovitz, who will later be the subject of lame jokes about his double chins and an imagined penchant for male organs. Part of the deal, you see, is that in the process of a roast, roasters also make fun of each other.
For the most part, however, the focus is on Sheen, and as a series of B- and C-list stars meander down the red carpet, past models wearing nothing but togas and white body paint and a line of polystyrene pillars in keeping with the Greco-Roman theme for the night, reporters clamour for the dirt on Sheen.
'I don't think anybody's been as easy a target or as high profile, or so f***ing out of their mind, as Charlie Sheen,' offers Steve-O, a man known for setting his own head on fire.
'You never hear anybody say anything bad about him,' says an amiable Ron Jeremy, perhaps the world's most famous male porn star, whose thinning mane is slicked back and sits lightly on the shoulders of his black jacket. 'You never hear a girl or a guy say he's an ass - even people who know him!'
Tyson, in a dapper black suit and speaking excitedly with his customary lisp, marvels at Sheen's ability to escape serious censure for his antics, which include allegedly abusing his wife and trashing a hotel room. 'If I did that stuff, I'd be massacred!' says Tyson, who served three years of a six-year prison sentence for rape, before expressing relief Sheen hasn't sunk deeper into trouble. 'I'm just happy he's not in jail.'
Corbin Bernsen, Sheen's co-star in the 1989 movie Major League, says, for today's star turn, the roast represents the lowest of low points. 'You know when people say you have to hit rock bottom? There's a place below rock bottom. It's when you get pulverised and turned into liquid, and then from there you've got to be like the Terminator and come back and become someone. This is where you go back to juice.'
IF YOU WERE asked to create a prototypical product of Hollywood, you'd probably come up with Charlie Sheen. His first word in the 1986 film Ferris Bueller's Day Off, in which he had a cameo role at the age of 20, was 'drugs'. According to Vanity Fair, he smoked his first joint aged 11 and paid for his first hooker at 15, with a credit card he had stolen from his father, actor Martin Sheen, a former alcoholic.
At 21, he had perhaps his best role, as a soldier in Oliver Stone's Oscar-winning Vietnam war film Platoon. Sheen followed it up as Gordon Gekko's acolyte Bud Fox in Stone's Wall Street.
He is the third of four children, all of whom are actors, and the rest of whom kept the Estevez family name, the most famous being Emilio. Charlie- born Carlos Irwin Estevez - assumed his father's stage name.
Since Wall Street, Sheen's acting career has been undistinguished. He starred with his brother Emilio in Young Guns and Men At Work and, perhaps most popularly, appeared in the self-satirising Hot Shots! and Hot Shots! Part Deux.
It wasn't until 2000 and after a series of flops, however, that his fortunes started to pick up again. At 35, he took over Michael J. Fox's lead role in the sitcom Spin City and went on to win a Golden Globe for best actor in a TV comedy. Within three years, he had joined Two and a Half Men, a show lamentable in quality but gargantuan in appeal to a mainstream American audience. The sitcom would make him stupidly rich.
IT'S NEARLY SHOW TIME on Stage 27, and the roasters are taking their seats as make-up crews apply the finishing touches to gleaming visages. Shatner, seated beside Tyson, leans over to the boxing champion and shares a laugh. A sharp-eared reporter notes on Twitter that they are discussing revisionist historian Howard Zinn. Cameramen practise their angles, Lovitz sits slumped in his chair looking bored out of his wits and about 100 journalists hammer out their notes in a crowded press room outside the venue.
Soon, the opening strains of Ozzy Osbourne's Crazy Train blare over the PA system (how much did it cost Comedy Central to license that?) and an animated introduction announces the beginning of the night's official proceedings. MacFarlane bounds on to the stage and launches right into the ribbing. He seems obsessed with the joke that Sheen is lucky to be alive.
'Tonight on Two and a Half Men they're actually having Charlie's pretend funeral,' says MacFarlane, referring to the season premiere of Sheen's former show, in which his character is killed off and replaced by one played by Ashton Kutcher. 'No need to pretend, though - just wait a few months and you'll see the real thing.'
Before taking us through a video montage of Sheen's career, MacFarlane wryly salutes his hedonistic lifestyle, joking, 'This is a man who's living like his hearse is double-parked.'
Finally, the stage doors open and Sheen appears, sitting on the front of a model train - the 'crazy train', naturally - while guitarist Slash plays him in with a searing solo. Sheen, dressed in a black suit, white shirt and red tie, looks comfortable, relaxed. He salutes the crowd, gives Slash a hug and takes his seat centre stage.
Sheen has supposedly been clean since February, but he had a hell of a time getting there. In and out of rehab since he was 25 years old, he has enjoyed, or endured (depending on how you look at it), an abundance of mind-altering substances, a procession of female porn stars and, apparently, a gambling problem. During the 1995 trial of Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, which dealt with charges of conspiracy, tax evasion and money laundering, Sheen admitted to having spent US$53,500 on prostitutes - Fleiss' girls - in a little more than a year. In 1998, he was taken to hospital after main-lining and overdosing on cocaine, and skipped out on the bill, which his father later picked up. At the time, he was on probation for slamming his girlfriend's head against his kitchen floor. In 2006, his then-wife, actress Denise Richards, filed an affidavit saying Sheen was gambling heavily.
'There were times when he told me he lost 'hundreds of thousands of dollars',' she wrote in a declaration.
In 2008, he married Brooke Mueller, herself an addict, with whom he would have twin sons. Their relationship quickly deteriorated and, on Christmas Day 2009, Mueller alleged that Sheen, after an argument, had held a knife to her throat and threatened to kill her. She later filed a restraining order and the actor was locked up in a county jail. After he was sentenced to probation and 30 days in rehab, Mueller decided she wanted all charges dropped.
Then, in October last year, came his most notorious night. After a booze-soaked dinner at a four-star New York restaurant with ex-wife Richards, his assistant and several women, Sheen took porn star Capri Anderson back to his suite at the Plaza Hotel. At some point, he accused her of stealing his US$165,000 Patek Philippe watch. According to Anderson, he then flew off the handle, smashing up the room and calling her a whore. The two would go on to sue each other: Anderson claiming pain and suffering, Sheen extortion.
It was the incident that precipitated a spectacular flame-out.
'How do you roast a meltdown?' Jeffrey Ross, who's dressed like Muammar Gaddafi, asks the audience at Sony Pictures Studios. Ross, a stand-up comedian, performed alongside Sheen on the much-ridiculed Torpedo of Truth comedy tour, in the wake of his sacking from Two and a Half Men. 'Charlie's meltdown was so bad,' Ross says, 'Al Gore's making a documentary about it.'
If you've been anywhere near a gossip blog in the past year, you'll know the details of Sheen's fall from grace. The actor was confronted by executives from CBS and Warner Bros and encouraged to go to rehab. Sheen agreed but later changed his mind and decided to get sober at home, with the help of a sobriety coach, who he later reportedly fired. The executives were unhappy and, by the time production on Two and a Half Men was scheduled to resume, the show's producer and Sheen's nemesis, Chuck Lorre, hadn't written scripts for the remaining episodes in the season.
Lorre had also baited Sheen in the most recent episode of the show, running a message at the end of the credits that read: 'I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't do drugs. I don't have crazy, reckless sex with strangers. If Charlie Sheen outlives me, I'm gonna be really p***ed.'
A very public war commenced.
Sheen called into a radio show and said, 'I'm tired of being told, like, 'Oh, you can't talk about that, you can't talk about that.' Bull***t. Let me just say this, that it's nothing this side of deplorable that a certain Chaim Levine - yeah, that's Chuck's real name - mistook this rock star for his own selfish exit strategy, bro.'
The comments were interpreted by some as an anti-Semitic slur, even though Sheen vehemently denied it and was defended by his peers, who pointed out the actor is surrounded by Jewish friends and associates and that, because ex-wife Mueller is Jewish, his two sons also are.
The spat only escalated. Lorre, Sheen charged, had 'issued a decree' to cut the Two and a Half Men season short.
'Defeat is not an option,' Sheen told the Today show. 'They picked a fight with a warlock.'
With each subsequent media appearance, Sheen became more unhinged. On TV show 20/20, he said, 'I am on a drug - it's called Charlie Sheen. It's not available, because if you try it once you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body.' He also said, 'I'm so tired of pretending my life isn't perfect and bitchin' and just winning every second.'
Of his bosses, he railed: 'They lay down with their ugly wives and their ugly children and just look at their loser lives and then they look at me and say, 'I can't process it.' Well, no, you never will, just stop trying. Sit back and enjoy the show.'
On his addiction issues, he said on a radio show: 'I have a disease? Bull***t! I cured it - with my mind.'
Not long after, Sheen was fired from Two and a Half Men. He went full-on crazy, opening a Twitter account to continue the trumpeting of his 'winning' ways, starting an online video channel on which he spewed out unscripted nonsense and launching his Torpedo of Truth tour, which kicked off in Detroit, where he was practically booed off stage. Within months, his two live-in girlfriends - one a model, the other a porn star, both of whom he described as 'goddesses' - dumped him.
ACTRESS KATE WALSH seems an odd choice as a roaster, but here she is on stage, about to deliver the biggest zinger of the night.
'It's amazing,' says Walsh, star of Grey's Anatomy spin-off Private Practice, 'despite all those years of abusing your lungs, your kidneys and your liver, the only thing you've had removed is your kids.'
It's a body blow, but Sheen takes it well. He recognises honesty when it slaps him in the face. He winces, bends forward in his seat, claps his hands and laughs.
On display tonight is a different Charlie Sheen to the one we've become accustomed to. Even on the red carpet, Sheen was low-key, quiet and seemingly sober. Tonight, the braggadocio is nowhere to be seen. As he takes the podium for his closing remarks, the camera zooms in close on a gaunt face. His skin hangs loosely from his neck, his aquiline nose seems to protrude more prominently than usual. He doesn't quite look sick, but he appears humbled, physically and emotionally.
There is a popular slogan in the United States that everyone is entitled to a second chance. President Bill Clinton is one of the most obvious beneficiaries of this attitude. Having lied to the public about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Clinton went on to complete a successful second term and left the presidency with sky-high approval ratings. Another prime example is sitting in the same room as Sheen tonight. In 1992, Tyson was convicted of rape and sentenced to six years in jail. Today, he tends pigeons and has guest-starred in The Hangover films. Then, of course, there's Robert Downey Jnr, an actor who has gone through many of the same problems as Sheen - minus the public breakdown - but has climbed back to the top of Hollywood's A-list.
As Sheen winds up his closing speech at the end of a long night of taunts and tributes, it becomes clear he is positioning himself for a similar comeback. Indeed, just days ago it was announced that he had landed his first post-meltdown movie role, in an independent film called A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, to be directed by Roman Coppola.
Alone on stage, he cuts a chastened figure.
'I did porn stars, I did drugs, I had my own television show,' he says, in a subdued tone. 'And then I did the one thing that everyone in America really wishes they could do: I told my boss to f*** off. Then it was gone, in one fiery public flame-out, and it was only when the smoke cleared I realised just how lucky I am. Because even after all that, I still have a family that loves me.'
Just when it's all getting a bit serious, Sheen throws in a joke. 'And that's why they're not here tonight. Yeah, they've seen me in jail, they've seen me rushed to emergency rooms, they've seen me in court - but seeing me on basic cable [television] would kill them.
'What I'm trying to say is, I'm done with the 'winning' because I've already won. This roast may be over but I'm Charlie Sheen and in here [he taps his heart] burns an eternal fire.'
The camera zooms in for a close-up before he adds: 'I just have to remember to keep it away from a crack pipe.'
It's a bravura performance; one of his best. The audience erupts into applause, the closing music plays and Sheen exits the stage.
Either Sheen is completely sober, reformed and determined to stay the course- or he's a better actor than his critics give him credit for.