Trouble and Charlie Sheen have never been strangers, but now the star's felony rap could cause major headaches for his TV bosses.
Sheen was charged last week with felony menacing and two lesser counts in connection with a Christmas incident in which Aspen, Colo., police said he assaulted and threatened his wife, Brooke Mueller. Sheen, out on bail, didn't enter a plea and is due back for a court hearing March 15. If convicted, he could face three years behind bars.
What does that mean for CBS' "Two and a Half Men," the No. 1-rated sitcom that stars Sheen as a caddish lout? Well, probably nothing good.
Insiders say that the producers can likely rejigger the remainder of this season's production schedule while Sheen prepares his defense. But the long-term situation is much more uncertain. And uncertainty drives TV executives nuts when it comes to a cash cow like "Men." The sitcom is the TV's most-watched, with an average of nearly 15 million viewers this season, according to the Nielsen Co.
CBS will likely find itself in the unenviable position this May of having to announce a fall schedule that relies heavily on "Men" without even knowing whether the star will be available to shoot new episodes starting in late summer. That could affect the network financially because the "upfront" market is where the bulk of commercial time is sold during late spring and early summer.
"Men" has been the anchor of CBS' top-rated Monday comedy block since 2005, when "Everybody Loves Raymond" went off the air. But advertisers may stay away from Sheen's sitcom, or at least bid down the price of commercial time, if the star still faces serious legal problems.
Through spokespersons, CBS and Warner Bros., which makes the show, declined to comment, as did executive producer Chuck Lorre via e-mail.
Sheen's spokesman, Stan Rosenfield, said the actor had missed a table read for "Men" the day he was charged last week. He referred other questions about the upcoming work schedule to Lorre.
The situation is especially complex because the network and Warner Bros., which makes the show, have banked so heavily on the series, in its seventh year, lasting at least through the 2011-12 TV season. "Men" over the years has become expensive to produce, in large part because of Sheen's high salary. In 2008, a TV Guide survey ranked him the highest-paid actor on TV, making $825,000 per episode, or nearly $20 million per year.
Warner Bros. sued CBS in 2008 for more than $49 million, claiming the network had failed to reimburse the studio as promised for deficits it had incurred making the show. The case was settled last year when CBS agreed to renew "Men" for three more seasons and also gave a multi-year pickup to "Big Bang Theory," another Monday comedy produced by Lorre.
However, that deal could end up going bust if Sheen -- the onetime star of films such as "Platoon" and "Wall Street" -- winds up in prison or has to miss long blocks of production days because of trial prep.
Sheen's co-workers and defenders have tried to downplay his situation. When a reporter asked about the actor's arrest at a January news conference in Pasadena, Lorre joked, "Did something happen with Charlie?"
But his criminal case could prove challenging for the defense, according to Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson.
Mueller has reportedly stopped cooperating with authorities and expressed a desire that the case against her husband be dropped.
But Levenson said prosecutors may still use the tape of her 911 call to authorities, in which she said Sheen had a knife. "I'm scared for my life and he threatened me," Mueller told the dispatcher.
The overall legal climate also may bode ill for Sheen.
"Prosecutors don't want it to look like he was given a break because he's Charlie Sheen," Levenson said. "You don't want to be a celebrity in the post-O.J. era. Judges have gotten sick and tired of celebrity justice."
Sheen's current predicament may not seem surprising given his history. He's admitted to serious drug abuse in the past and was the only major celebrity whose name surfaced in the black book of Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss.
During their 2006 divorce, Sheen's ex-wife, actress Denise Richards, characterized him as a porn addict who spent huge sums of money on gambling and prostitutes.
Meanwhile, the ongoing soap opera between Sheen and Mueller has continued to grip celebrity websites. Earlier this week, radaronline offered an item headlined "Brooke Mueller Partied With Charlie Sheen Hours Before Going Into Rehab."