You remember Charlie Sheen, party animal? The one who spent thousands of dollars on high-priced call girls? Who went through repeated rehab stints over 10 years? Who dated a porn star? Who went from movies like Oliver Stone’s Wall Street in 1987 to clunkers like Terminal Velocity in 1994? Who caused his father, actor Martin Sheen, to ask reporters, “Pray for my boy. He has appetites that get him into trouble”?
That, producers insist, is not the Charlie Sheen who’s replacing Michael J. Fox on ABC’s Spin City starting Oct. 18. Although Sheen’s character, deputy mayor Charlie Crawford, is, like the actor, a man trying to live down a notorious past, the similarities, says Spin executive producer Gary David Goldberg, end there. “This is another guy,” maintains Goldberg of his star, who reportedly has stayed sober since participating in a 1998 detox program. “This guy’s going to bed at 9:30, quarter to 10. We can’t fax him new changes on the script too late because he’s already asleep. He’s the first one on the set every morning and the last to leave at night.”
Indeed Sheen, 35, nicknamed “the Machine” because of his unstoppable pursuit of a good time, was as earnest as a Boy Scout when he spoke to reporters last summer about the show: “To get a shot at getting back in the game with something at this level of exposure, this level of quality, with this amount of talent, is really a blessing,” he said.
And a challenge, not least because Spin City is up against NBC’s higher-rated The West Wing, starring Sheen’s father as the President. Goldberg believes audiences will ultimately be drawn to what he calls the younger Sheen’s “innate sweetness.”
Yet the old spice still surfaces. In a recent interview in Maxim magazine, Sheen threw out a wild guess that he’d slept with 5,000 women; denied as “completely ridiculous” a tabloid rumor that he liked prostitutes dressed as cheerleaders; admitted to having 12 tattoos (one looks like a memo and reads, “Back in 15 minutes”); and concluded, looking back over his antics, “I wouldn’t trade all that stuff in a million years.”
He was probably not referring to the battery charges brought by model-actress Brittany Ashland, to which he pleaded no contest in 1997. Still, months before Sheen landed the Spin City gig, the 71 days remaining on his probation were dropped. Leaving court, Sheen said, “I feel great.”
His brother, songwriter Ramon Estevez, 37, doesn’t doubt that: “You can’t get that screwed up and recover and not feel great.”
Sheen’s downfall was the old Hollywood story. “Sometimes when you get too much too soon,” says his ex-girlfriend, adult-video actress Ginger Lynn Allen, “nothing is ever enough,” Born Carlos Irwin Estevez in 1965, Sheen and his siblings—brothers Ramon and Emilio Estevez, 38, also an actor, and sister Renee, 33, an actress (who plays a low-level staffer on The West Wing)—were exposed to show business through father Martin. (Like his dad, Charlie borrowed mother Janet’s maiden name as an actor.) He was 21 when he became a star in Platoon. By that time he already had a daughter, Cassandra, out of wedlock with then-girlfriend Paula Prof fit (now a married travel agent). Charlie “wasn’t the greatest dad on earth,” says Ramon, but today he and Cassandra, now 15, “always hang out and stuff.”
Thanks to family intervention, he was in rehab as early as 1990, the same year he was briefly engaged to Kelly Preston (now Mrs. John Travolta). In 1990 he also began dating Ginger Lynn Allen, who at the time was working in adult films. “When Charlie’s sober, he’s sweet, kind, loving, generous,” says Allen, who stayed with him off and on for five years. “When he’s drinking and using, he’s out of control.” Once, she says, she called him on his birthday and “Charlie couldn’t come to the phone because, according to his assistant, he had a dozen hookers over and an entire baseball team.” He once brought his dealer to his father’s birthday party, says Ramon, who adds, “Watching my parents age before my eyes was not a lot of fun.”
The shocks piled up. During Heidi Fleiss’s 1995 tax-evasion trial, Sheen testified that he had spent $53,000 on 11 of the Hollywood madam’s prostitutes. Also in 1995, two months after marrying model Donna Peele—”She’s an angel sent from heaven,” he said, “to take me through the rest of my journey”—he was sued by a UCLA student who claimed he’d struck her in the head in 1994 when she refused to have sex (the case was settled out of court). He divorced Peele in 1996 saying, “You buy a bad car, it breaks down.” His own breakdown continued. In that same year, Brittany Ashland filed charges claiming Sheen had thrown her onto the kitchen floor of his San Fernando Valley home and split her lip. In June 1997 he pleaded no contest, earning a year’s suspended sentence, two years’ probation and a $2,800 fine. “You will not see me back in this courtroom,” a repentant Sheen told the judge.
The very next year, though, he was hospitalized for a drug overdose. The drug use violated his parole. After his father walked into the Malibu courthouse and reported him, Charlie—in a deal that kept him out of jail—was given an added year’s probation, ordered to perform 300 hours of community service and sent to lock-down detox followed by treatment.
Sheen, says Ramon, was finally scared straight: “He just wanted to avoid having all of his freedom taken away.” In 1999, when he and brother Emilio were filming Rated X, a Showtime movie about porn-making brothers Artie and Jim Mitchell, he told cast-mates he was marking his first year of sobriety. “He just casually mentioned it,” says Tracy Hutson, who played porn star Marilyn Chambers, “but he was definitely proud about it.” Says director Peter Bogdanovich, who had a cameo: “He was very professional, very sober without being boring.”
What’s next? “This is a country that believes in a second chance,” says series creator Goldberg, “and this is a guy who is grabbing this second chance with his whole heart and soul. I have never rooted as hard for anybody as I’m rooting for him.”
Mark Dagostino and Edmund Newton in Los Angeles