Over the years, I’ve often been surprised when someone I’m meeting for the first time says to me, “I’ve seen you on TV.” To which I often reply, “Which one?”
I’m referring to those biographical shows A&E or E! puts on (A&E Biography; the E! True Hollywood Story). I’ve been a “talking head” on a number of them: Al Pacino, Goldie Hawn and Kate Hudson, Patrick Swayze, Jet Li, Anthony Hopkins, Jean Claude Van Damme, Angelina Jolie, etc. I get recognized far more for these than my books, which is depressing, but to be expected. TV is a far more powerful medium. And it’s not just in the U.S., but in England, France, Poland, Japan. These shows are popular around the world, and they get repeated over and over, so once you’ve done one, you’re connected to that star seemingly for the rest of your life.
I’ve never claimed to be an authority about any of these celebrities. But once you’ve written about them for a magazine, you become attached to them. So when a TV producer is looking to put a show together, besides the clips and the narration, he’s trying to find a few reliable “authorities.” I get called to do a lot more than I end up doing because I always ask to be compensated for my time, and these shows think that just being on TV is payment enough.
The most recent request came from E! asking if I would be willing to talk about Charlie Sheen. After the predictable back-and-forth we came to an agreement and I went into my files for the trip down memory lane. I had interviewed Sheen for Movieline twenty years ago, had even been a “talking head” for A&E Biography about him in the late ‘90s. So it was déjà vu, except for the fact that in the last twenty years, Charlie Sheen has been in an out of new marriages and relationships, in and out of rehab, fathered a few more children, and found enormous success on the TV show Two and a Half Men.
One of the first things I read about him in my preparation for E’s coming to my house with their TV crew was a 1994 Movieline article with Stephen Rebello in which Sheen spoke about the encounter he and I had had four years earlier. “Sheen had vowed he did not want to handle this Movieline interview the way he handled his previous Movieline interview,” Rebello wrote. “What, no spilling the beans on such escapades as a youthful four-day crime spree? A credit card scam? A supposed accident involving a loaded gun with his then-girlfriend? …Why ever not? ‘Because I thought I was an a-hole in that interview,’ he confesses. ‘It was during that whole crazy period when I was feeling very much like being an outlaw. Or maintaining the image of an outlaw. Which can be interesting and fun, but not real productive. I was just talking about all kinds of s—, you know? Now, the press wants to maintain that outlaw image?’”
What struck me reading this was that I had no idea how Sheen had felt about our interview. I hadn’t read this piece by Rebello before, and sitting on my patio, a cigar in one hand, some dark chocolate raisins and a cup of decaf on a table next to me, I found myself smiling. Ah Charlie, I thought, I remember so well the time we met….
He was living in Malibu. I drove to his place and I parked next to his black Mercedes 560 SL, thinking, this guy is surely living the high life. Young (he was 25), handsome, a movie star (Platoon and Wall Street were already behind him), a womanizer (he lost his virginity at 15 during a trip he took with his father, actor Martin Sheen, to Las Vegas. Dad had gone to bed early, Charlie and his cousin found a friendly service and ordered in, then he borrowed his father’s credit card to pay the woman $400), and a distant dad (he had fathered a daughter when he was 19). I was more interested in his years growing up in a famous family as I was about his acting career, and when I asked him to tell me about how he once got arrested as a teenager, he gave me this:
“I had a four day crime spree before I got arrested,” Sheen told me. “We got credit card receipts from the trash of the Beverly Hills Hotel. I told the manager I left a term paper in the lobby and he let me look through the trash. I got all these receipts and we’d call up stores in Westwood and ask if they took phone orders. Then we’d order things like televisions, Walkmans, jewelry, watches, and say ‘I’ll send my son in to pick it up.’ So we’d go in and collect the loot and have the option of having it gift wrapped. Very blue collar crime, when you look somebody in the eye and they say, ‘You want your shit gift wrapped?’”
When one of his best friends got caught at a photo store, Sheen was implicated. “I’m standing in front of my art class, second period, senior year, when two cops came walking down the hallway,” he recalled. “They said, ‘You are under arrest for credit card forgery.’ I was 17. I had to find an angle. I got to the station and indicted my friend and gave them all the receipts and told them everything. It was totally despicable and highly illegal but hell, we gave it a shot.”
He wasn’t thrown out of school then, but he managed to screw up by failing English. “I needed a C- to pass the course and if I didn’t get it I’d be off the baseball team. There was a lot of shit riding on this test. And because I didn’t have a note from my parents because of my absence the day before, she wouldn’t let me take the test. So I pretty much melted down in front of the whole class. I took the test, which was pretty thick, rolled it up into a ball and fired a strike in the middle of her forehead. It knocked her glasses off. She stood there staring at me and in the middle of my rage I said to her that she was lucky I hadn’t killed her yet. Then I ran out of shit to say, it was really an embarrassing moment, so I just started walking out, and there was that infamous trash can. I grabbed it and threw it about thirty feet into the chalkboard and said, ‘Here’s your f***g trash!’ That was my exit.”
High school behind, Sheen became a movie star, got involved with women, and guns.
“With [actress] Rebecca Schaeffer being murdered at her own door one night by a lunatic, with John Lennon, with the continual threat of crazy people towards celebrity, I’ve been carrying a weapon for quite some time because I felt that if shit ever went down I’d want to return some fire. And that even if I was taken out I would want to take the sonofabitch with me. So I used to carry a little .22 Mag and five-shot revolver.”
This was where Sheen paused and asked me to turn off my tape recorder. “Here’s my problem,” he said to me, “I don’t know how to talk about the incident with my girlfriend.” His girlfriend at the time was Kelly Preston, who would go on to marry John Travolta. I had no idea what incident he was even talking about, but all my instincts shouted, Just keep him talking! So I said, “Charlie, in my experience, the best way to talk about an incident is to tell it truly, so that the media can’t distort it. This is your chance to lay it out. I’ll just turn back on the recorder and ask you, simply, what happened. You take it from there.”
This is what he told me:
“I had the revolver in my back pocket where it lived for a number of years. I was downstairs in the bathroom one morning and my girlfriend Kelly was upstairs. She went to move my pants off the weighing scale and the gun fell out of the back pocket and hit the linoleum floor and discharged a round that, thank God, didn’t hit her directly, but it hit the toilet that she was standing next to. She got hit with the porcelain shrapnel and lead from the bullet itself. I heard the shot and I’ve been around enough weapons to know that it wasn’t the shampoo bottle falling in the shower. I knew immediately it was gunfire. I rushed upstairs and there was Kelly in her underwear, holding her wrist and bleeding from several places. I was panicked. I picked up the phone and didn’t know whether to call 411 or 911. It was a terrifying moment. The paramedics came and the police had to come because it was a shooting incident. The police didn’t haul me away for shooting her, but she was taken to the hospital and then released the same day with four stitches, two in her wrist and two in her calf. I felt that if it should have happened to anybody it should have happened to me. We were very fortunate that the bullet itself didn’t hit her directly. I took that particular weapon, after claiming it from the police station where they held it for seventy-two hours, and I threw it in the ocean because it had a vibe about it that was not healthy.
“It was kind of a turning point in my philosophy of arming myself in the streets. I’m studying hand-to-hand now instead of carrying a weapon, learning how to disarm the assailant. It doesn’t mean that I’ve removed the weapons from my house. In the times we live in and the profession we work in I feel it necessary to keep armed.
If some lunatic wants to come and do some damage, he’s going to walk into an arsenal and I’ll have a bead on him.”
To me, what Sheen had just said was a gift. I wasn’t up on my tabloid news, and had no plans on asking him about this because I was clueless. But he offered it up, I encouraged him, and he hit it out of the park. If this would later make him feel like an “a-hole” I really can take no credit. If it enhanced his outlaw image, that was his own doing. Little did I know that twenty years later, the E! True Hollywood Story would be knocking at my door, asking me to repeat Charlie’s stories.
Back at the time I interviewed him, Sheen enjoyed signing autographs. I don’t know if that’s changed over the years, but what he said then was, “It takes more time explaining why you can’t give an autograph, which is usually b.s., than to just do it. I like to sign autographs or pictures because you’re giving people something back for supporting you. Somewhere down the line somebody may think you treated them well and buy a ticket to your film.”
I didn’t ask Charlie for his autograph, but he signed two of his poems to me anyway. He likes to write poetry. He said that 17 publishers had turned down his book of poems because they were “too dark and too violent,” so he started writing poems that were “more romantic and revealing.” He eventually got one published. He also got two highly successful sit-coms, Spin City, replacing Michael J. Fox; and Two and a Half Men, which made him a household name and where he now earns $1.2 million per episode. Well, he was already a household name, appearing on the cover of Time when Platoon came out, and in 1993 when he was singled out in the Heidi Fleiss call girl scandal—he paid her $53,000 in traveler’s checks for services rendered. He’s still in the news for fighting with his wife, again, and going back to rehab to try to take control of some bad habits. But that’s Charlie. What you see is only half of what you get. The whole package makes for a wild ride. As he once said when asked how he’d like to go out:
“Driving a ’67 Stingray off the Grand Canyon on fire, dressed as Spider Man, screaming ‘Mom!’ as it’s all videotaped.”