Like everyone else who owns a television or a computer and has paid their electric bill lately, I have found it impossible to avert my gaze from the wreckage of Charlie Sheen’s personal and professional life as it melts down before our eyes. The spectacle is impossible to avoid seeing on nearly every channel and website of the information superhighway, and can only be ignored by the most stalwart devotees of Rubberneckers Anonymous.
I’ve never been to a RNA meeting, since A) it is a non-existent organization with a zero percent success rate, B) I am special (newsflash), and C) I’ll therefore never be one of “them.” Using just the power of my mind, I can exercise superhuman restraint to avoid rubbernecking as I drive past even the most horrific multi-car pileups on the freeway. Even when the tires are still spinning, still-twitching limbs litter the side of the road, and blood splatters are all over the windshields inside the mangled automobiles. Don’t ask me how I do it, because your mind is not evolved enough to process it if I were to tell you. Suffice it to say that I just close my eyes, tell myself not to look, and then I make it so. (http://insidetv.ew.com/2011/02/24/charlie-sheen-slams-men/)
Except in this case. I can’t help watching – gawking, in fact – because I have a deep and abiding fascination with how people can and do change, both for the better and the worse. And I can’t get over how a certain Carlos Irwin Estévez (yeah, that’s Charlie’s real name) has changed since I first saw him way back in 1986, when he was barely still a boy. For the record, he seemed perfectly normal back then – for a Hollywood brat who had grown up in an alternate universe known as Malibu, that is. At least, I didn’t come away with the impression that he had any tiger blood in his veins, but of course, this was before he hit California’s drinking age. I do recall hearing about his excitement, however, when he learned that the local bars in Arizona would serve anyone age 19 or older.
We were high up in Tucson’s Sabino Canyon, on the set of The Wraith – a ridiculously awful film that Charlie made just before shipping off to star in his break out role in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. For a couple of bucks more than minimum wage, I was working (if that’s what you can call it) as an extra for a local casting agency every chance I got, in addition to managing a SCUBA shop and a charter boat operation down in Mexico. Up to that time, I had spent a couple of hundred billable hours on various film sets. I had even been sent to makeup and wardrobe a few times, but I never received the coveted SAG (Screen Actor’s Guild) card – or the pay rate that went with it – that you are automatically awarded when given just a single word or sentence to speak on camera. I obviously never had a director’s chair with my name embroidered in the back, a dressing room, or any handlers following me around. When lunchtime rolled around, I got in line for my grub from the roach coach just like anyone else on the set – besides the principal actors and the director, of course.
So I was a little surprised when, on my first day on the set, I unwittingly found myself eating lunch with the film’s leading star. I had just sat down at the only empty picnic table I could find when a director’s assistant walked up briskly and set down a plate of food. Before turning around, she tersely informed me, “Charlie Sheen is going to be sitting here.”
It took me a few seconds to figure out who she was referring to, since nobody told me much about the film or who was in it when the agency called the night before. I took the hint straight away, though, and was hastily scooping up my things when she returned with a kid in tow, wearing a bathrobe. I heard him say to her in a soft voice, “no, it’s okay,” and she motioned vigorously to me to sit back down. She caught my eye then, and shot me a daggers look that let me know I was not to speak unless spoken to. I wasn’t, and I didn’t. He nodded at me to acknowledge my presence as he sat down, and then I immediately became invisible.
As we ate our lunches in grim silence, I was barely able to stifle a chuckle as I checked out his attire, since it seemed at first that he was impersonating either Hugh Hefner, or one of those stone-age movie stars out of the Flintstone’s – Rock Quarry or Gary Granite. He just needed a scarf, a pipe, and dark sunglasses to make the caricature complete. Charlie never cracked a smile, though, and his eyes never met mine, although I was less than three feet away, sitting directly across from him. I was trying to decide if he was shy, nervous, or just taking himself way too seriously when the table was swarmed by a makeup artist, production assistant, and finally, the director himself. He had the script in hand, and he sat down to discuss the “really intense” semi-nude love scene that they were preparing to shoot with Charlie and his co-star, Sherilyn Fenn. (That explained the bathrobe.)
I couldn’t hear much of what they were saying as a helicopter flew overhead, transporting cameras and lighting equipment to a natural pool further up the canyon where the scene was going to be shot. After it passed, he put his hand on Charlie’s shoulder, and I heard him ask very quietly, “are you okay – are you ready for this?” Charlie nodded, solemnly and tightlipped, as though he was getting in character to go clear a Viet Cong minefield, rather than make out with a naked vixen.
The director got up to leave, and it was only then that my cloaking spell wore off. He fixed his gaze on me with surprise and open disdain, as though he had noticed me sitting there for the first time. I had heard of chance moments such as this, when ordinary folk were “discovered” simply by wandering through the director’s line of vision, and went on to become big stars. (It’s actually what most extras dream about.) This was clearly not my big day, however, so I gathered up my things once again and did my best to once again disappear.
By any normal standard, The Wraith would have been labeled a B movie if it weren’t for the unusual lineup of three young Hollywood progenies in its cast. In addition to Charlie (the firstborn son of Martin Sheen), there was Griffin O’Neal (from the loins of Ryan), and Nick Cassavetes – who alone out of the three would eventually transcend his father’s talent and brilliance; actor/director John Cassavetes.
Nick was the cock of the walk on that set. He was tall, brash, and not friendly – but not rude. Perhaps he was just trying to stay in character as the film’s villain. Most of all, I could see that he was restless and going out of his mind with boredom as one camera failure after another created hours, into days of delays in shooting. He seemed to want to get the film wrapped so he could get on with his life. All these years later, I see that he has – as the director of a few masterpieces that include The Notebook and My Sister’s Keeper. Actors comment nowadays on what a warm and sensitive man he is to work with.
Chris Nash was the only star on that set whose face was more familiar to me than his name, since I had just seen him in a silly but entertaining coming of age story called Mischief, co-starring Doug McKeon and Kelly Preston (who, coincidentally, would become Charlie’s fiancé a few years later). It was set in the 50’s, and a bit reminiscent of American Graffiti. Chris’ performance as a rebel-without-a cause character earned rave reviews, but it hadn’t gone to his head as it much as it probably should have. He was affable and talkative – and he had no problem with being seen by his peers making conversation with a local hick like me to pass the time. We hit it off, and I really enjoyed getting to know him.
A few days before shooting finally wrapped on the Tucson set, Chris asked if I’d be interested in accompanying him and a few others to show them the town that evening –including Charlie and his younger brother, Emilio Esteban or somebody, who was flying in from L.A. Of course I said yes, but I was on tenterhooks at the prospect of being the emissary of fun for the second most boring town in the Southwest, next to Albuquerque. The most exciting attraction I could think of was a huge cowboy bar that held a pretty close candle to Gilley’s in Pasadena, TX, of Urban Cowboy fame. Somehow, though, my gut was telling me that sawdust covered floors and a mechanical bull were not going to be up these guys’ alley. Plan B, then, was to take them to the strip clubs and other tawdry establishments of the neon-lit Miracle Mile, just outside downtown.
Chris caught up with me right before I left the set, and said that they were going to call me from their hotel as soon as Emilio checked in. Thank God, though, that my phone never rang that night. Knowing now what I didn’t know then, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have gone square dancing. I’d hate to be sitting here all these years later, wondering if I had played any part in leading poor Charlie onto the road to perdition by introducing him to the fleshly pleasures of lap dances and agave juice. Instead, it is with a clear conscience that I can speculate on where he found his addictions.
The Wraith was the last film I worked in, since it permanently curtailed my interest in working in the film industry, in front of the camera, at least. Unlike stage acting, the life of a film or television actor is comprised mainly of cooling one’s heels in the down time between scenes and takes that can drag on for hours. The actors have no choice but to stand by like lifeless puppets, but be ready at a moment’s notice when the director’s assistant finally calls their names. I decided then and there that I no longer wanted to be a puppet, and I wasn’t enthused about being a director (puppet master), either. If I was ever to make my way in show business, I wanted to be a writer – a maker of puppets. Someone like Chuck Lorre, I guess.
My convictions were reinforced just the other day, when I read in the news that Larry Hagman was interviewed about his reprisal of J.R. Ewing’s character for the upcoming Dallas redux. He openly discussed the way in which boredom on the set of Dallas led to his alcoholism over several years of working on the original series. “It was boredom that drove me to drink, the tedium during those long waits between takes while the next shot was being set up. Now I’ve learned to fill those breaks with friends, with charity work, with phone calls, so it’s not so bad.”
Of course, alcohol can greatly enhance an actor’s performance if the character they are playing is drunk, as Charlie’s own dad also proved in the famous hotel room scene of Apocalypse Now. It can otherwise be extremely career limiting to show up slurring one’s lines. Alcohol is typically not an actor’s drug of choice – not on the job, at least.
Not long before I worked in The Wraith, I spent a few weeks on the set of Stir Crazy, the hit comedy starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, directed by Sidney Poitier. To my amazement, I watched as Pryor passed the time by sneaking furtively (but in plain sight of everyone) into his non-air conditioned dressing trailer several times throughout each day. Each time, he reappeared behaving more oddly and agitated than before, and soon everyone was whispering about his antics. Less than two weeks after the shooting of Stir Crazy wrapped, it was all over the news that Richard Pryor was clinging to life in a L.A. hospital after a terrible accident had left him with third degree burns on his face and much of his body. Reports later emerged that he had been freebasing cocaine, using highly flammable ether, although Pryor himself denied this and named rum as the ignition source. Whatever the truth may be, the incident prompted the insanely talented comedian to mend his ways and get right with God and his fellow man. In short, he found the motivation to make changes within himself – profoundly, and for the better.
At the root of Charlie’s vices is a far more dangerous and deadly addiction that he shares with Hagman, Pryor, and a litany of other entertainers we’ve known who lost their sobriety and sanity in the pursuit of their profession. Almost by definition, all successful entertainers are addicts, since they are hooked on the most powerful buzz known to man, called fame. Thanks to the machinery of Hollywood and the music industry, mere mortals can now enjoy the glorification and idolization that the public once held reserved only for God and Caesar. Just as Robert Downey Jr. credits his father with giving him his first joint, Charlie was introduced to this potent drug at a tender young age when his dad Martin invited him onto the sets of The Execution of Private Slovik and Apocalypse Now.
In the years since, Charlie Sheen has spent his entire life trying to avoid boredom. In his own words, he unabashedly declares that alcohol, drugs, and sex bring the only relief he has ever known from being “bored out of his tree.” Rather than show any repentance or remorse, he has repeatedly proclaimed that his only reason for seeking sobriety now is because getting high has finally gotten boring, too. Right now, he says that he is enjoying the rush of “a drug called Charlie Sheen,” but what he’s really referring to is the excitement – and constant attention – of being at war with the world. Anything for a fix of more fame.
Now that the gauntlet of news reporters outside his gated driveway has dwindled, the man with “Adonis DNA” is apparently desperate to get his next fix – this time without waiting around for any cameras to roll. The Charlie Sheen Live: My Violent Torpedo of Truth Tour has bookings scheduled for Detroit, Chicago, Hartford, and now New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Throngs of shameless rubberneckers have already bought up the tickets like hotcakes, with ticket prices ranging as high as $519. Little is known about the content or length of his monologue, other than the promise of shock value and uncensored vitriol. It matters little, however, since nobody signing up for this has any interest in Charlie’s “art.” These curious onlookers have paid gladly for the chance to gawk and peer like spectators at a freak show, with only one question burning in their minds. Is the man truly as insane as he has seemed lately? (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1367383/Charlie-Sheen-sells-New-Yorks-Radio-City-Music-Hall-just-30-minutes.html)
In a sane world, however, the rantings of an unemployed sitcom actor would hold little interest or relevance for anyone, when a far more serious meltdown is occurring across the Pacific Ocean. An unspeakable catastrophe is unfolding in the wake of Japan’s tsunami, and those cost of admission donations to Charlie’s “cause” could be put to much better use giving destitute people the basic necessities of food, clothing, and shelter.
In the event that Charlie’s tour comes to your city, don’t be a rubbernecker, and don’t drink the tiger blood koolaid. Remember, you can use the power of your mind to just close your wallet, tell yourself not to look, and then make a check out to the people of Japan. They’ll be a heck of a lot more grateful, believe me.