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Is It Over?

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At the Screen Actors Guild Awards last month, Charlie Sheen and Denise Richards seemed the picture of Hollywood marital bliss. Her husband’s arm around her, Richards—clad in a basic black dress she pulled from her closet—happily accepted congratulations on her pregnancy. After Sheen lost in the best actor race for his sitcom Two and a Half Men, they repaired to the patio, where Richards confided that the couple planned to ditch the afterparty in favor of a private dinner together. With 11-month-old daughter Sam at home, she said, they had to make the most of the night: “We don’t get out much anymore.”

What then happened March 2 shocked even the couple’s families and closest friends. Richards, 34, filed for divorce from Sheen, 39, whom she married in 2002. Citing irreconcilable differences, she asked for legal and physical custody of Sam and the child she is due to deliver in June.

What went wrong? Sources close to the situation say that Richards made the swift, bold move out of concern that Sheen—a once-notorious Hollywood bad boy (see box, next page) who cleaned up his act in 1998—had reverted to some of his old ways, leaving Richards worried about the environment in which their children would be raised. Richards hopes, these sources say, that Sheen will seek help—a move that could preserve their marriage and keep their family intact.

Sheen strongly denies any such misbehavior. “He did not cheat. He did not have a relapse. There is no scandal. He is not going into rehab,” says his rep, Stan Rosenfield. “Sometimes marriages don’t work. It’s as simple as that.” Sheen himself added in a statement: “I did not cheat on my wife. These stories and allegations are unconscionable. The reason for our separation is a private matter between us.”

According to a source close to the actor, Sheen had in fact moved out of the couple’s $1.6 million four-bedroom house in Agoura Hills, Calif., a few weeks before Richards’s court filing and is living nearby: “All was not well with the marriage,” this source said. Still, Sheen, who has hired a lawyer, has yet to respond to the divorce petition. “He was not expecting it,” says this source. “He was surprised.”

After releasing a statement—”We are deeply saddened by the recent events and out of our love and concern for our daughter Sam, our unborn child and each other, we ask that you respect our privacy during this difficult time”—both Sheen and Richards went on with life last week as if little were amiss. Richards, who shopped for baby items solo at Target and Babies R Us near her home on March 6, “is doing pretty good,” said her father, Irv. On March 7, heading into a scheduled one-week hiatus after several weeks of production on Two and a Half Men, Sheen appeared upbeat when he faced reporters to field questions about his CBS sitcom. Warner Bros. Television, which produces Men, released a statement that praised Sheen’s “impeccable standard of leadership” on the show and stressed that his “marital situation…has in no way affected his professional commitment to the series.” Says a source on the set: “He has been at work every single day. There has been nothing out of the ordinary; he has been his usual, professional, nice self. I have never seen any evidence other than that he adores and loves his wife and baby.”

Since their romance began in ’01 after Richards, known for her sexy turn in the 1998 movie Wild Things, guest-starred on Sheen’s sitcom Spin City, the couple had rarely given any other public picture. After Sam was born, Richards said, “We’ve fallen in love with each other on even a much deeper level.” Five months later, she posed for Playboy with Charlie’s blessing; in November she and little Sam guest-starred on Two and a Half Men and helped deliver one of the show’s highest ratings of the season.

Then in December, after they took a vacation to the Bahamas, came more good news: Richards was pregnant again. Both parents gushed how “thrilled” they were that their kids would be close in age. Sheen even mused that he might like to become a full-time dad.

Now, he might never have that chance. While Richards can call off divorce proceedings at any time—”a claimant can always dismiss a petition,” says her divorce attorney Laura Wasser—her filing asks for custody of the children with visitation rights for Sheen. If the divorce proceeds, under California law, Richards would likely be entitled to child support until the children turn 18 from Sheen, who makes a reported $170,000 an episode for Two and a Half Men and is expected to make a lot more when the show is shopped for syndication next year. (Richards, meanwhile, is working on a pilot episode for Wildlife, a Melrose Place-like drama for UPN.)

A source close to Sheen says the couple had no prenup; Wasser would not comment. Several top Hollywood divorce lawyers, however, find it unlikely, or at least unusual, that they would have wed without one, “especially when you consider that he has already been divorced,” says attorney Michael Kelly (Sheen’s 1995 marriage to model Donna Peele collapsed after just five months; he also has a 20-year-old daughter, Cassandra Estevez, with high school sweetheart Paula Proffit.)

Whatever their problems, most close to Sheen and Richards are rooting for the couple to overcome them. “He is a good guy who works hard and loves his family,” says Sheen’s on-set coworker. “I hope they can work things out.”

By Jill Smolowe and Jason Lynch. Reported by Lorenzo Benet, Chris Gardner, Oliver Jones, Kwala Mandel, Elizabeth Leonard, Monica Rizzo, Cynthia Wang and Nicolas White in Los Angeles and Danielle Anderson in New York City