Before this week, Two and a Half Men star Charlie Sheen kept his job as TV's highest-paid star, despite a 2009 arrest on domestic violence charges connected to threatening his then-wife, getting sentenced to rehab and anger management therapy, destroying a hotel room in New York City and going into rehab again this year, requiring a monthlong production shutdown.
But when Sheen publicly insulted the creator of his hit TV show, Chuck Lorre — stressing the Hebrew translation of the producer's given name, Charles Levine, in a way many found offensive — CBS and Warner Bros. Television pulled the plug on the show, canceling production for the rest of the season and leaving open the question of whether it would come back at all.
Which leaves an interesting question: Why did insulting a producer bring the kind of action that threatening his wife and destroying a hotel room didn't?
It's an issue at the heart of how Hollywood handles celebrity excess. And it's a point reinforced by a surprising source: Lindsay Lohan's father Michael Lohan, who grouses that his long-troubled daughter has been treated far harsher than Sheen; faced with the choice of pleading guilty to jail time for stealing a $2,500 necklace (while on probation for a 2007 DUI conviction) or risking a long sentence by fighting it in court.
"(Sheen) got to have a couple of weeks of therapy at home; my daughter has gone to jail and she hasn't been convicted of anything," said Michael Lohan, reached Wednesday hours after his daughter's most recent court appearance. "But she's not on a hit TV show."
The list of celebrities who seemed to deteriorate in the public eye while the entertainment industry tolerated their addictions and self-destructive behavior is far too long, including Anna Nicole Smith, John Belushi and Michael Jackson. But the line between an addict in crisis and self-indulgent celebrity is a thin one, especially when the ratings dominance of a network and billions in advertising revenues are at stake.
Sheen's recent break was at least the third stint in rehab for the star, who spent just a couple of weeks getting at-home treatment before appearing on radio shows to insist he was ready for work. Even amid denials from HBO, Sheen on Friday insisted he was offered a new show with the premium cable channel, telling ABC's Good Morning America via text message he was "100 percent clean" and planning to show up at Two and a Half Men's studios for work next week.
But experts doubted Sheen's conclusions. "You don't get treated at home alone," said John Harden, executive director of the Florida Recovery Center, the addition treatment program at the University of Florida.
He said success in rehab comes from group therapy "of an adequate duration to match the level of pathology" — which would seem longer than a week or two for a guy who was destroying a hotel room back in October.
The problem with helping celebrities in crisis, Harden said, is that many addicts enter treatment under pressure; to keep a job or sustain a relationship. But celebrities can use their money and power as insulation from harsh consequences — buying silence and freezing out those who challenge their decisions — until an overdose or health issue kills them.
"Is it CBS' job to say (to Sheen) 'You must go to extensive rehab'?" Harden asked. "A lot of people would say that it is."
Now that executives have acted, it remains uncertain whether they will replace Sheen, cancel the show or try to help him get better for next season. But the most important question left is the simplest: When this happens to another big star, will Hollywood handle it differently?