Chariie Sheen, whose contract with the studio extends through next season,… (Mark Ralston / AFP/Getty…)
The fate of CBS' No. 1-rated sitcom smash "Two and a Half Men" now rides on the toxic relationship between two TV industry powerhouses, troubled leading man Charlie Sheen and his driven, often caustic boss Chuck Lorre.
FOR THE RECORD:
Charlie Sheen: An article in the Feb. 26 Section A about the troubled relationship between actor Charlie Sheen and executive producer Chuck Lorre misspelled the last name of Lee Aronsohn, the co-creator of "Two and a Half Men," as Arohnson. —
Ties between stars and the writer-producers who control their shows are often fraught with tension, but the war between Sheen and Lorre spilled out this week into a bitter public feud that has jeopardized the future of TV's most-watched comedy. Capping a series of headline-grabbing stunts, Sheen — who spent the last month in an unusual home-based rehab program — on Thursday called his boss "a clown" and a "little maggot," disparaged his talent and referred to him in a way that many viewed as anti-Semitic. Within hours, CBS and Warner Bros., the studio that makes the series, announced they would cancel production for at least the rest of the season.
After months of executive indulgence of Sheen's tabloid-ready antics, the star evidently had finally crossed the line by vilifying a man whose three current shows — he's also behind the comedies "The Big Bang Theory" and "Mike and Molly" — are vital to the futures of both CBS and Warner Bros. At least 200 show staffers have been thrown out of work because of the shutdown, and Warner Bros. would stand to lose tens of millions of dollars in syndication revenue if the series never returned. CBS would also lose the anchor of its top-rated Monday comedy block.
The off-screen drama would seem to bring to an end, after 177 episodes, one of the most successful and lucrative — although not critically acclaimed — comedies of the last decade. While the masses may love "Two and a Half Men," its tale of odd-couple brothers raising a teenage boy has drawn critical scorn for what some say is a frat house view of gender roles.
But it was clear Friday that Lorre — because of his status as one of the most successful and prolific show runners on TV — had gained the upper hand in one of the most striking splits between an executive producer and a star in network history. Lorre's spokeswoman said he would have no comment.
Brad Adgate, a vice president of research at Horizon Media, noted that Lorre carried considerable power as a longtime hit-maker in challenging economic times.
"Even if he's having trouble getting along with people, you can't argue with the fact that he's an extremely successful executive producer in a genre that has gone through some tough times over the past 10 years, and there's a lot of power in that," Adgate said. "Comedies are very lucrative. They repeat better than other shows, they bring in a younger age that advertisers look for, so there's a lot of upside to what Lorre's been doing over the years."
While such wars are hardly unprecedented — a bitter feud with "NCIS" star Mark Harmon, for example, eventually led to the departure of creator Don Bellisario from the CBS hit — executives historically have tended to side with talent over behind-the-scenes players, viewing the lead performers as indispensable to a hit.
Beneath the rift is a collision between two key Hollywood players with tangled career trajectories. Sheen, 45, was lauded for his early work in Oliver Stone's "Platoon" and "Wall Street." But the actor has battled addiction for much of his adult life. He entered a drug treatment facility in 1990 and eight years later was rushed to a hospital by paramedics after what his father, former "The West Wing" star Martin Sheen, described at the time as a drug overdose. The younger Sheen, who's getting divorced from third wife Brooke Mueller, admitted during 1995 testimony that he was a repeat customer of Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss.
His career had declined until he was cast in the lead of ABC's comedy hit "Spin City." That work helped persuade Lorre to cast Sheen in the role of Charlie Harper, the ne'er-do-well playboy on "Two and a Half Men."
Meanwhile, Lorre, 58, has had a career as tumultuous as it is successful. After working as a writer-producer on "Roseanne," he created the 1993 sitcom hit "Grace Under Fire," only to clash with star Brett Butler over creative control; he would end up leaving the series. He likewise battled Cybill Shepherd on their CBS hit "Cybill." Lorre, who's been open about his own history of alcohol abuse, once admitted that he handled conflicts with his female stars by sticking to a "primal scream and bourbon combo."