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Charlie Sheen imbroglio is no morality play

Experts say contractual morals clauses are largely a thing of the past in show business, where murky legality and the earning clout of big stars may preclude such a clause.

February 21, 2011|By Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times
  • Actor Charlie Sheen in 2009.
Actor Charlie Sheen in 2009. (Mark Ralston, AFP / Getty…)

Charlie Sheen has been far too busy with his at-home drug rehab project lately to spend much time reading, say, his contract. But he seems sure of one thing: It contains no provision that says he can't enjoy himself as he pleases.

"I haven't read it," the wayward star of CBS' hit sitcom "Two and a Half Men" told radio host Dan Patrick last week, but "I don't think it covers, 'Let me totally dominate and interfere with your personal life.'"

Sheen was referring to a morals clause, the contractual provision that since the early days of Hollywood has governed any conduct by a performer that might pose problems for the studio. Given that in less than two years Sheen has been notorious for his carousing and been in rehab twice, he would seemingly be the sort of person a morals clause was designed for. "Two and a Half Men," TV's most-watched sitcom, is on hiatus while he is in rehab and isn't due to resume production until at least the end of the month. CBS has exhausted its supply of new episodes and will start airing repeats Monday, in the middle of the February sweeps.

If Sheen is correct about not having a morals clause — and Warner Bros. Television, which makes the show, has neither said nor done anything to contradict him (a studio spokesman declined to comment) — why doesn't he have such a provision in his contract? And would a morals clause really help, in his case?

A morals clause allows a buyer — in this case, a TV studio — to bail on a contract if a star's conduct is "detrimental to the buyer's interests," according to a 2005 Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts article by Noah B. Kressler.

But lawyers and studio insiders say that while morals clauses remain a fixture in the popular imagination, they are seldom used anymore in deals for entertainment talent.

"In terms of my own practice, I haven't seen a lot of them," said Doug Mirell, a partner and entertainment litigator at Century City law firm Loeb & Loeb.

The clauses, however, are still widely used in sports contracts and product-endorsement deals. When golfer Tiger Woods was caught up in a heavily publicized cheating scandal that led to his divorce, a number of companies quickly dropped or downgraded their sponsorships. Kellogg dumped swimmer Michael Phelps after video surfaced of the gold medalist smoking marijuana. And Sheen himself was nixed as a spokesman for underwear purveyor Hanes after the actor was accused of threatening his wife in 2009.

In Hollywood, morals clauses began cropping up starting in 1921, when silent-film star Fatty Arbuckle was accused of raping and accidentally killing a young actress at a wild party in San Francisco. A series of scandals led to popular outrage and calls for censorship.

"There was the murder of [director] William Desmond Taylor, the Fatty Arbuckle thing, [actor] Wallace Reid's drug addiction," said USC professor and cultural historian Leo Braudy. The morals clause became a way of warning actors to govern their behavior — and it gave studios an escape hatch if a hard-partying star failed to get the message.

In the late 1940s, morals clauses provided a convenient out for studios looking to get rid of suspected communists in Hollywood. Writer Ring Lardner Jr. was among the "Hollywood 10" who were notified that their studio deals were being dumped under the morals clause.

But as the old studio system collapsed through the 1950s and beyond, increasing the negotiating clout of top stars, morals clauses began to slip away. Nowadays, studio officials say, there are other forces pushing stars to avoid publicity for drug or other personal problems. An actor who has a history of substance abuse can be much riskier to employ because bond companies generally do not want to insure a motion picture that depends on such a person.

Also, as chemical dependency has come to be seen as a chronic illness, studios may be leery of entering a legal minefield. "A lot of those moral clauses are unenforceable because they constitute discrimination," Braudy said.

But even if Sheen's contract did contain a morals clause, it's highly unlikely it would give Warner Bros. and CBS a good way out of their current mess. That's because Sheen, no matter his off-screen diversions, is still the star of a top-rated TV show.

"You have to weigh the alleged misconduct against the value of the performer," Mirell said. "And if you have somebody like Sheen who is integral to an ongoing, highly rated TV series, you'd almost have to have your head examined to invoke a clause like this in an effort to get rid of him."

Legalese or no, then, studio bosses are stuck with an actor who likes his partying and doesn't care who knows it. "I was sober for five years a long time ago and was just bored out of my tree," Sheen told Patrick. "It's inauthentic — it's not who I am."

scott.collins@latimes.com

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