How Will It End, Charlie Sheen?
A Robert Downey-type recovery? A Lindsay Lohan-esque netherworld? Mel Gibson-style infamy? Or worse?
Charlie Sheen has a plan. "My plan is the best one," he said on NBC's Today show on Monday. "You gotta have a plan," he told TMZ later the same day. His last plan—to move a bunch of porn stars into a house down the street—didn't work out, he admitted, but "now every plan I have is the best plan in the room." What is that plan, exactly? "You're watching it," he said. "You're in the middle of it." In other words, the plan is whatever is happening at any given moment. "Sorry my life is so much more bitchin' than yours," he said, addressing his critics. "I planned it this way. You could have planned better. You didn't."
Things don't always turn out as planned. Sheen's media rampage—starting on Friday when he phoned into Alex Jones' radio show to insult his boss, Two and a Half Men creator Chuck Lorre, and culminating in a spate of sit-down interviews with NBC, ABC, TMZ, Piers Morgan Tonight, and TheHoward Stern Show—has provoked more than a little concern. Dr. Drew Pinsky called Sheen's behavior an "acute manic episode." His uncle, Joe Estevez, says he's "on a journey, and we wish we could help him along with it." But does the journey end with a multimillion-dollar movie deal and an Oscar or with Sheen driving off a cliff on national television?
Luckily, Sheen's not alone. He stands on the shoulders of giant screw-ups like himself. There are an infinite number of possible outcomes when a celebrity has a public meltdown. Here are a few of the most likely, from best-case scenario to worst.
The Robert Downey Jr. Model. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Downey's life seemed like an ongoing near-death experience. Arrested several times on drug-related charges, in and out of rehab, jailed for missing a drug test, he became better known for his off-screen behavior than for his acting. "It's like I have a loaded gun in my mouth and my finger's on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gunmetal," he told a judge in 1999. But some of his best work was ahead of him. Downey got sober after his last arrest in 2001, and went on to earn an Oscar nomination for his role in Tropic Thunder and to win a Golden Globe for his role in Sherlock Holmes. Sheen may not have the acting chops to pull a true Downey-style career 180—or the willingness to enter rehab. (He slammed Alcoholics Anonymous in his TMZ interview.) Downey also didn't have the reputation for nastiness and megalomania that Sheen does. But if the guy from Less Than Zero can get clean and turn his life around, anyone can. Of course, Sheen would probably argue that his career doesn't need resuscitation: As the (until recently) highest paid actor in television, he's still on top.
The Keith Richards Model. Richards proved that destroying your body does not mean destroying your career. Richards, a longtime heroin addict, was arrested regularly for possession, and was once so high he let a firework "burn his finger to the bone." His days of hard drug use are behind him, he said in 2008, but he still "smokes weed all the damn time." Richards has even outlived the joke about how he can't die. Sheen seems to think he's already following in Richards' footsteps. If he was going to overdose, he told TMZ, he would have done it already: "It's not gonna happen now; I survived it," he said. "I'm here to talk about it."
The Palin/Hilton/Blagojevich Model. The best fix for overexposure is more exposure. That's the lesson taught by Paris Hilton, who leveraged her sex-tape scandal into a career as a famous person. For Sarah and Bristol Palin, reality TV was a way to earn money and (in theory) resuscitate their image. Patti Blagojevich competed on I'm a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here after her husband Rod was impeached by the Illinois House of Representatives. The last few days have proven that Sheen, with his bravado and knack for language—he described himself in a Today show interview as a "rock star from Mars" with "tiger blood and Adonis DNA"—would make a compelling reality show character. (Sheen's uncle, Joe, reportedly tried to get a show produced called "About the Sheens.") But they've also shown he's willing to do it for free.
The Lindsay Lohan Model. Lohan's penchant for self-destruction has affected her career, but it's not yet clear whether her acting is derailed or merely on hold. Lohan has been to court eight times in the last nine months for hearings related to DUI arrests and parole violations. In February, she was charged with stealing a $2,500 necklace from a jewelry store. The last movie she made was Machete, a campy shoot-'em-up in which she played a spoiled socialite version of herself (only with less clothing). Sheen could easily spend some time in the same netherworld of drugs and court dates, which would force him to put projects on hold, as the cost to studios of insuring him rises.
The Mel Gibson Model: Racial slurs, anti-Semitism, and domestic abuse should be enough to end a Hollywood career. Mel Gibson tried all three. First came the vaguely anti-Semitic Passion of the Christ. He then called a female police officer "s---- t---" and made anti-Semitic remarks to a Jewish cop when they arrested him over for driving drunk in 2006. His career ended for real after tapes emerged of him screaming at his ex-wife on the phone, saying, among other insults, that she would be to blame if she were "raped by a pack of n------s." Sheen seems to be going for the Gibson hat-trick. In 2010, he faced charges of assaulting his wife. He referred to his boss, Chuck Lorre, on a radio show as "Chaim Levine," a quip some have interpreted as anti-Semitic. If he keeps talking, he may inadvertently drop an n-bomb. The fact that two out of three doesn't get you barred from Hollywood says a lot.
The Heath Ledger Model. Ledger accidentally overdosed on prescription medication in 2008 at the top of his still-young career, and has since become the go-to cautionary tale for stars in peril. Sheen acknowledged the tragedy in his TMZ interview: "It's like, damn, damn, damn, damn, and that sucks bad." But Sheen says he's past that phase of his life—he now knows how to take drugs safely. "Don't do drugs that are only supposed to be administered in a hospital, not at home," he says. "I mean, read the warnings, read the black labels … Do your freakin' homework."
Perhaps the biggest cause for concern is that despite the domestic abuse charges, his recent job loss, his estrangement from his father, and the fact that a porn star and a model are helping take care of his children, Sheen seems to think he's on the right path. (Update, March 2: A Los Angeles judge ordered that Sheen's twin sons be removed from his home last night.) This, apparently, is the plan. As Sheen himself might say, he could have planned better. He didn't.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Photograph by Riccardo S. Savi/Getty Images.