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CBS sidesteps scrutiny in Charlie Sheen case -- for now

Charlie Sheen is quietly working on 'Two and a Half Men.' But attention to his case could lead to bad PR for the network.

January 09, 2010|By Scott Collins

In a now-discontinued commercial for T-shirts, Charlie Sheen playfully accosts former NBA icon Michael Jordan, who just wants to speed away as fast as he can from the encounter.

Sheen's TV employers may now be getting a taste of how Jordan felt.

Arrested in a domestic-violence incident on a Colorado vacation last month with his third wife, Brooke Mueller, the star of "Two and a Half Men" has threatened to bring tabloid shame to CBS at the worst possible time, just as the Tiger Woods mistress melodrama has heightened popular cynicism and sponsor anxiety about the off-camera behavior of male celebrities.

But the network and the studio division of Warner Bros., which makes the series, have so far escaped much public censure, partly because Sheen was arrested over the Christmas holidays and still hasn't been charged.

The actor returned to Los Angeles just after the incident, his spokesman said, and resumed work on "Two and a Half Men" earlier this week as scheduled.

"It's business as usual" on the set, said his publicist, Stan Rosenfield, who immediately following the arrest issued a statement urging the public not to rush to judgment.

That doesn't mean, however, Sheen's private woes are disappearing. Hanes decided that the former star of "Platoon" and "Wall Street" was no longer fit to be an underwear pitchman and earlier this week dumped the attention-grabbing spots featuring Sheen and Jordan.

The corporate world -- which, after all, hires spokespeople to enhance a company's reputation -- tends to be more sensitive to a celebrity's alleged transgressions than the general public. Hanes said the move to ditch Sheen was "a straightforward call" given the circumstances.

But then, any revelations of a sordid private life would hardly come as a shock when considering Sheen, who plays an irredeemable cad on "Two and a Half Men," TV's most-watched sitcom.

According to scorching divorce papers filed in 2006 by his second wife, Denise Richards, Sheen was a violent man addicted to gambling, prostitutes and Internet pornography (the pair said they have since patched things up for the sake of their children).

He's admitted to serious drug abuse in the past, was cited in Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss' black book and was once involved in a strange incident in which then-girlfriend Kelly Preston was shot. Sheen later said the shooting was accidental.

But if CBS -- the oldest-skewing and in some respects the most tradition-minded broadcast network -- has skirted a Sheen backlash, its luck may not hold out.

A Colorado court will decide Feb. 8 whether to charge the actor, which has already necessitated rescheduling a table read for "Men." And officials at the normally sedate CBS will likely face questions about their resident bad boy this morning at the TV media tour in Pasadena.

Since the story broke on Dec. 26, the gossip site TMZ has delivered at least 20 items -- more than one a day -- on Sheen's latest scandal, mostly culled from police reports or unnamed sources.

Meanwhile, CBS and Warner Bros. have been silent; a network spokesman declined to comment and a studio publicity executive referred inquiries back to Rosenfield. "Two and a Half Men" executive producer Chuck Lorre could not be reached for comment.

Sheen was arrested early Christmas morning during an Aspen vacation on suspicion of second-degree assault. According to TMZ, Mueller told the police Sheen had threatened her with a knife, but she later stopped cooperating with the authorities.

The timing of the incident was unfortunate for Sheen because the media have spent much of the last few weeks chewing over the allegations of domestic misbehavior involving Tiger Woods, who has since sunk from view. But even though Sheen's arrest would seem a much more serious transgression, he's faced nothing like the scrutiny reserved for the golfer.

"The key difference is that Tiger's public persona was one of steely control and of transcending the behavioral problems that define many major athletes," said John Rash, an analyst for Minneapolis ad firm Campbell Mithun.

"Charlie Sheen's on-air and off-air persona has been at best a bad boy, and at worst a really bad guy. And he's lived down to that reputation." Because of that, Rash added, he expected the arrest to have little effect on the popularity of "Two and a Half Men" -- unless serious charges follow.

That means that Sheen, whose now-yanked undershirt commercial lives on on YouTube, likely won't lose his own shirt any time soon.

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