The fate of CBS' No. 1-rated sitcom smash "Two and a Half Men" now rides on the toxic relationship between two TV industry powerhouses, troubled leading man Charlie Sheen and his driven, often caustic boss Chuck Lorre.
FOR THE RECORD:
Charlie Sheen: An article in the Feb. 26 Section A about the troubled relationship between actor Charlie Sheen and executive producer Chuck Lorre misspelled the last name of Lee Aronsohn, the co-creator of "Two and a Half Men," as Arohnson. —
Ties between stars and the writer-producers who control their shows are often fraught with tension, but the war between Sheen and Lorre spilled out this week into a bitter public feud that has jeopardized the future of TV's most-watched comedy. Capping a series of headline-grabbing stunts, Sheen — who spent the last month in an unusual home-based rehab program — on Thursday called his boss "a clown" and a "little maggot," disparaged his talent and referred to him in a way that many viewed as anti-Semitic. Within hours, CBS and Warner Bros., the studio that makes the series, announced they would cancel production for at least the rest of the season.
After months of executive indulgence of Sheen's tabloid-ready antics, the star evidently had finally crossed the line by vilifying a man whose three current shows — he's also behind the comedies "The Big Bang Theory" and "Mike and Molly" — are vital to the futures of both CBS and Warner Bros. At least 200 show staffers have been thrown out of work because of the shutdown, and Warner Bros. would stand to lose tens of millions of dollars in syndication revenue if the series never returned. CBS would also lose the anchor of its top-rated Monday comedy block.
The off-screen drama would seem to bring to an end, after 177 episodes, one of the most successful and lucrative — although not critically acclaimed — comedies of the last decade. While the masses may love "Two and a Half Men," its tale of odd-couple brothers raising a teenage boy has drawn critical scorn for what some say is a frat house view of gender roles.
But it was clear Friday that Lorre — because of his status as one of the most successful and prolific show runners on TV — had gained the upper hand in one of the most striking splits between an executive producer and a star in network history. Lorre's spokeswoman said he would have no comment.
Brad Adgate, a vice president of research at Horizon Media, noted that Lorre carried considerable power as a longtime hit-maker in challenging economic times.
"Even if he's having trouble getting along with people, you can't argue with the fact that he's an extremely successful executive producer in a genre that has gone through some tough times over the past 10 years, and there's a lot of power in that," Adgate said. "Comedies are very lucrative. They repeat better than other shows, they bring in a younger age that advertisers look for, so there's a lot of upside to what Lorre's been doing over the years."
While such wars are hardly unprecedented — a bitter feud with "NCIS" star Mark Harmon, for example, eventually led to the departure of creator Don Bellisario from the CBS hit — executives historically have tended to side with talent over behind-the-scenes players, viewing the lead performers as indispensable to a hit.
Beneath the rift is a collision between two key Hollywood players with tangled career trajectories. Sheen, 45, was lauded for his early work in Oliver Stone's "Platoon" and "Wall Street." But the actor has battled addiction for much of his adult life. He entered a drug treatment facility in 1990 and eight years later was rushed to a hospital by paramedics after what his father, former "The West Wing" star Martin Sheen, described at the time as a drug overdose. The younger Sheen, who's getting divorced from third wife Brooke Mueller, admitted during 1995 testimony that he was a repeat customer of Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss.
His career had declined until he was cast in the lead of ABC's comedy hit "Spin City." That work helped persuade Lorre to cast Sheen in the role of Charlie Harper, the ne'er-do-well playboy on "Two and a Half Men."
Meanwhile, Lorre, 58, has had a career as tumultuous as it is successful. After working as a writer-producer on "Roseanne," he created the 1993 sitcom hit "Grace Under Fire," only to clash with star Brett Butler over creative control; he would end up leaving the series. He likewise battled Cybill Shepherd on their CBS hit "Cybill." Lorre, who's been open about his own history of alcohol abuse, once admitted that he handled conflicts with his female stars by sticking to a "primal scream and bourbon combo."
Lorre's acerbic personality has fired at other targets too. He is famous in the industry for "vanity cards" that contain long messages and flash at the end of his shows' episodes. On one card, Lorre once wrote that critics are so jealous of him, they would probably "eat a hole through their loved ones and crawl through it if it meant they could get my job.'"
Lorre and Sheen were not known as antagonists until now. But that may have started to change when Lorre produced a vanity card that seemed to take a backhanded swipe at his star's foibles by noting, "If Charlie Sheen outlives me, I'm gonna be really pissed." Although Sheen reportedly shrugged off the joke, the wisecrack marked a turnabout from Lorre's former steadfast public support of Sheen during his divorce from actress Denise Richards and previous drug problems.
In one of his public rants this week, Sheen referred to Lorre as "Chaim Levine," the Hebrew translation of the executive producer's birth name, Charles Levine. Denying that it was intended as a slur against Jews, Sheen told TMZ, "I wanted to address the man," as opposed to the fake TV persona. Sheen took issue with the idea that his words were anti-Semitic: "So you're telling me, anytime someone calls me Carlos Estevez" — Sheen's birth name — "I can claim they are anti-Latino?"
"When I read that, it did make me stop and think," said Amanda Susskind, regional director for the Los Angeles office of the Anti-Defamation League. "We don't know what he really meant by it. But we're concerned that, in the midst of a negative tirade, he's making an irrelevant reference to the guy's Jewishness. If someone was calling [Sheen] a 'maggot' and saying his real name was Carlos Estevez, then yes, that would be conceived as anti-Latino. It's all about the context."
In a Fox Sports Radio interview Friday with Pat O'Brien, Sheen said of Lorre and co-creator Lee Arohnson: "These guys are a couple of AA Nazis and just blatant hypocrites.... They just do not practice what they preach; it's so transparent and so sad."
What happens next is unclear. Warner Bros. executives continue to monitor Sheen's increasingly frequent outbursts. But doubts are growing that CBS will take a chance on ordering another season of "Two and a Half Men" for next fall given the current crisis.
Meanwhile, Sheen, whose contract with the studio extends through next season, seems to be gearing up for a massive legal battle.
"We are at war," the star told O'Brien on Friday. "Defeat is not an option. They know what they did was wrong. They are in absolute breach [of contract]. I did nothing wrong. I expressed an opinion, I have the 1st Amendment, and I have an army marching behind me, to quote Eminem."
"I put a billion dollars in the studio's pockets and I put half a billion dollars in Chuck's pocket. So this is the frickin' thanks I get?," he added. "If people want me to succeed, they should find the most comfortable chair in their frickin' house and lean back, open a beer and watch the show, because it's about to get really gnarly."