Since getting sober more than two decades ago, Tom Arnold, the actor and comedian, has been a quiet force in Hollywood’s recovery community, helping stage a number of interventions for drug-addicted executives and alcoholic stars.
But even a seen-it-all show business survivor like Mr. Arnold was stunned by what happened when he tried to pull his friend and former neighbor, Charlie Sheen, back from the brink.
“I went to a person close to him and said, ‘This guy is in serious trouble with serious drugs. We’ve got to help him,’ ” Mr. Arnold recalled in an interview.
“And this person flat-out told me to my face, ‘We make a lot of money from him. I can’t be part of it.’ That tells you everything you need to know.”
While bad behavior by star performers is tolerated in a number of industries — sports and high fashion, for example — Hollywood has a longer public history of aiding and abetting addicts.
Doctors employed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer famously gave Judy Garland amphetamines and other drugs to combat fatigue and control her weight, setting up a life-long battle with drug addiction that she ultimately lost.
“One of the problems with the entertainment industry is that, to protect the image of these people, they try to deal with the problem by sweeping it under the rug,” said John T. Schwarzlose, chief executive of the Betty Ford Center, the licensed addiction hospital in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
In the case of a crack-smoking, prostitute-frequenting Mr. Sheen, many people in Hollywood say there is a long list of enablers: managers and agents and publicists; a coterie of assistants and party buddies; prostitutes, drug dealers and sex film stars; and the tabloid media, which have fed on Mr. Sheen’s antics for years.
Their efforts may have sustained Mr. Sheen during his long career, but they seem to have finally backfired. As the lead actor of a No. 1-rated sitcom, Mr. Sheen is that rare commodity in today’s Hollywood — a bankable and irreplaceable star — and his public crackup has come at perhaps the most valuable point in his career.
CBS, which broadcasts “Two and a Half Men,” and Warner Brothers, which makes it, have shut down the remainder of this season and could lose more than $250 million in revenue if next season is lost as well.
That decision was made only after what executives from the two companies described as years of efforts to try to convince Mr. Sheen to concede he had serious addiction problems.
“There is a long history here,” one senior executive involved in the supervision of the program said. The executive asked not to be identified because of the potential legal conflict looming between the network and the studio and Mr. Sheen.
(Mr. Sheen, who has talked to just about everybody else in the past week, did not respond to requests to comment for this article.) The senior executive described a recent trip to Mr. Sheen’s home by the top executive at CBS, Leslie Moonves, and the head of the Warner television group, Bruce Rosenblum.
They reported that Mr. Sheen had looked haggard and nothing like the leading man of a hit show. They said that Mr. Sheen had agreed to enter a rehabilitation facility, but when he decided a few days later that he would conduct his own rehab work at home, they concluded that “Charlie had thumbed his nose” at them.
It was not the first time that the show’s managers had tried to intercede, but they had limited options: Mr. Sheen’s contract does not include any kind of morals provision that would have allowed him to be fired or replaced.
According to one longtime Hollywood agent (who, like many people quoted in this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to create any conflicts in their business), the show’s success had provided him with the leverage he needed to keep any such clause out.
“He’s money,” this agent said. “He makes the cash register ring.”
Many of the people in the best position to discuss Mr. Sheen’s drug abuse over the years declined to speak. His father, Martin Sheen, is out of the country, according to a spokesman; Charlie Sheen’s managers, Mark Burg and Oren Koules of Evolution Entertainment, did not respond to multiple interview requests.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Sheen’s brother, Emilio Estevez, was similarly unresponsive. Oliver Stone, who directed the young Mr. Sheen in two seminal movies, “Platoon” and “Wall Street,” declined to comment.
A person who was closely associated with Mr. Sheen in the 1990s said the actor’s sheer stamina allowed him to mix work and play in ways that would surely have immobilized others.
“He does show up,” this person said of Mr. Sheen’s work habits. “He might be out until 5 a.m., but he always showed up on call at 7.” But it was not just Mr. Sheen’s iron constitution that allowed him to keep working.
Ask people who have worked with him what they remember about him and the answer almost always involves generosity on the set and an almost otherworldly degree of likability despite his demons.
Jim Abrahams, who directed Mr. Sheen in two comedies from the early 1990s, “Hot Shots!” and “Hot Shots! Part Deux!,” remembered how Mr. Sheen, learning that the director was a sports fan and from Wisconsin, bought memorabilia for him as thank you gifts, including a signed 1957 Milwaukee Braves baseball.
“He is a profoundly talented actor,” said Mr. Abrahams, whose résumé also includes the screenplay for “Airplane.” “I don’t recognize the bitter and angry guy who has been doing these television interviews. I just never saw any of that, and it wasn’t like he wasn’t getting loaded in his private time back then.”
Indeed, Mr. Abrahams said Mr. Sheen was quite open about his drug abuse at the time, even opening up about the toll it had already taken on his mind.
“He told me that he would look at movies he had done and not remember having done entire scenes — not because he was under the influence while acting, but because the partying had started to take a toll on his overall memory.”
Penelope Spheeris, who directed Mr. Sheen in the 1985 film “The Boys Next Door,” recalled a business meeting in the early 1990s about a potential movie.
“Charlie wasn’t in the best shape — a little woozy,” she said, adding, “But you have to remember what this business is like. I’ve been in a lot of meetings with loaded people.”
Mr. Sheen’s movie paydays peaked with Disney’s “Terminal Velocity,” a 1994 action thriller for which the actor was paid $6 million. The film performed only modestly at the box-office, but the more serious blow to his bankability was almost certainly the public spectacle of his testimony in the federal conspiracy and tax evasion prosecution of Heidi Fleiss, the Hollywood madam.
In videotaped testimony, Mr. Sheen acknowledged having spent more than $50,000 on prostitutes in a single year. He looked uncomfortable during the testimony, pausing only occasionally to toss in one of the macho zingers that would be his trademark on “Two and a Half Men.”
“Heterosexual services,” he said at one point, clarifying what Ms. Fleiss had provided. Confronted with the checks he had written to her, he said: “Sheesh, it’s starting to add up.”
He has also been involved in domestic violence incidents with two of his wives, and last fall, a hired escort claimed he had put his hands around her throat.
Some in the industry said his behavior toward women was tolerated because, at some level, Hollywood retains a boys’ club atmosphere, and companies could point to the fact that he was either not charged or received light penalties in the incidents.
There have been other people in Mr. Sheen’s life aside from Mr. Arnold who have been trying to get the star into treatment. Mr. Sheen has said in interview that people like Sean Penn and Mel Gibson, along with some of his lesser-known actor friends, have tried to intervene.
Martin Sheen, who struggled with addiction in the past, has perhaps pushed the hardest. In 1998, when Charlie Sheen was taken by ambulance to a hospital for “extreme exhaustion,” his father held a tearful news conference.
“My son had a drug overdose,” he said. “It is our hope that he will accept recovery and finally be free.” Charlie Sheen eventually did go to rehab, but the incident caused a rift.
“That’s a big no-no — saying what actually happened,” Mr. Arnold said. “Charlie was mad about it. He didn’t speak to his dad for a while after that. But it saved Charlie’s life at the time, I’m sure of it.”
In 2000, Mr. Sheen largely moved from feature films to television, first as Michael J. Fox’s replacement on “Spin City,” then to “Two and a Half Men” beginning in 2003.
In some ways, his current role appears to have been tailored around Mr. Sheen’s off-screen problems. He said in a radio interview that set furniture had been re-arranged so he could lean on something for support.
The current conflict escalated after Mr. Sheen began speaking out against Chuck Lorre, the show’s creator and a reliable hitmaker for CBS. As he was criticizing Mr. Lorre, Mr. Sheen was railing against the organization Alcoholics Anonymous.
The senior executives said the two issues were linked because of Mr. Lorre’s long advocacy of A.A. “There had been stress for quite awhile between Charlie and Chuck,” the senior executive said. “The attacks on A.A. were code for Chuck.” (Mr. Lorre declined requests for comment.)
But despite his recent behavior and his attacks on Mr. Lorre and CBS, not everyone in Hollywood is convinced that Mr. Sheen is off the deep end, even now.
“I saw him a week ago,” said Mike Medavoy, a film producer who made several films with Mr. Sheen. “He was calm and funny, as usual — it’s always like he wants to be the class clown.”
Mr. Medavoy said Mr. Sheen had been a “consummate professional” when making films.
“Once the media gets hold of a story, it becomes a decision for the people to figure out whether he’s really crazy,” Mr. Medavoy said. “The truth of the matter is, he could be crazy like a fox.”