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02.10.10

Teflon Charlie

Charlie Sheen has been accused of a felony and could face three years in jail. So why is he being given a free pass by the press and Hollywood?

Following in his wife's footsteps, Charlie Sheen is checking into rehab, according to his publicist. The decision is a "preventative measure," and will require a hiatus from filming his television show Two and a Half Men. Sheen is also facing felony charges for a Christmas-time domestic dispute with his wife, Brooke Mueller, and could spend up to three years in jail. So why is he being given a free pass by the press and Hollywood?

One would think that a major TV star showing up at a courthouse in Aspen, facing domestic violence allegations, would merit a blitzkrieg of paparazzi and press. And yet x17, one of the leading celebrity gossip Web sites, which chronicles every Britney Spears-Starbucks entry and exit, and every step Jessica Biel takes on Robertson Blvd., didn’t even send a photographer when Charlie Sheen showed up in in early February with his wife, Brooke Mueller.

On Christmas day, Mueller called 911 and alleged that Sheen had held a knife to her throat, threatening to kill her. (The couple now seem to be headed for reconciliation.)

“If Charlie Sheen’s arraignment hadn’t happened within 15 minutes of Conrad Murray’s arraignment, the media would have covered [Sheen] like crazy,” TMZ.com founder Harvey Levin told The Daily Beast.

“For us, it is pretty far down on the list,” said x17 co-owner Brandy Navarre, of the action in Aspen.

“Violence against women is a controversial topic, it does generate some interest online, but I don’t think our recent stories [about Sheen] have been getting a lot of attention,” Navarre said. “So we didn’t send anyone to Aspen. It wasn’t really—it’s not that important for us.”

Not as important, say, as the world’s best golfer having sex with a harem’s worth of women, or the Tonight Show fiasco at NBC, or Brad and Angelina possibly splitting up—events which, for much of the media, have overshadowed Sheen’s latest, and potentially most serious, bad behavior: In court earlier this week, the star of Two and a Half Men was slapped with felony menacing and misdemeanor charges of third-degree assault and criminal mischief. He could face up to three years in prison.

Accused of a felony. An alleged knife to the throat. This is a bit more than Ambien-fueled sex and a golf club through the windshield. And yet Teflon Charlie—as he’s often referred to—is sailing through the media scrutiny line, relatively unchecked. There has been coverage, certainly. (TMZ.com, of course, has been all over it, but nothing close to what Tigergate merited. Or even what was unleashed on Alec Baldwin in 2007 after a voice message was leaked in which he tore into his 11-year-old daughter, calling her a “thoughtless little pig.”)

Nor has there been any visible, professional punishment (other than from Hanes, which ended its sponsorship deal with Sheen) of the sort that Chris Brown suffered after his own domestic violence episode with then girlfriend Rihanna. (Brown accused Walmart of banning his new album, Grafitti, by not stocking it on shelves.) Or that Isaiah Washington received after making a homophobic slur, allegedly against a Grey’s Anatomy cast member—Washington was eventually fired from the show.

Over at CBS, it’s been “business as usual,” as CBS president Nina Tassler put it during last month’s Television Critics Association tour. Two and a Half Men creator Chuck Lorre even attempted to joke about the matter: “I’m sorry. What happened with Charlie? Did something happen?” Lorre asked—to very few laughs—at the TCA tour.

Of course, business as usual is how things tend to be in Hollywood when business means the highest-rated comedy in the land; besides which, Sheen is essentially one-half of that show, thus he is hardly dispensable. This past Tuesday, the day after he was charged, a Warner Bros. TV publicist Tweeted: “Series-high total viewers for #TheBigBangTheory last night + season-high for #TwoandaHalfMen, which also posted best A18-49 in three years.”

(Warner Bros. produces Two and a Half Men—a studio spokesperson did not return a call from The Daily Beast.)

So what’s Sheen’s secret? How is he managing to appear, for now, anyway, so—untarnished?

Part of it is luck. Sheen’s arrest occurred in the middle of the biggest celebrity maelstroms in decades; i.e., the Woods scandal, a snowball that, over the course of days and weeks, turned into a blizzard of press as the details surrounding Woods’ many mistresses leaked out.

“Tiger Woods definitely overshadowed Charlie Sheen,” said Courtney Hazlett, MSNBC’s celebrity correspondent, who was at home in Pittsburgh for the holidays when she was alerted of Sheen’s arrest. “I remember reading it on email, and being, like, ‘Are you kidding me? I just wanted to have Christmas!’ But no one cared. On air, it ended up being nothing more than a talking point.”

(As for non-celeb outlets, they were busy covering the Nigerian terrorist who attempted to down a plane via a packet of powder sewn into his undergarments.)

Sheen’s luck continued when his court date arrived last Monday—the same day that, in a courtroom in Los Angeles, Michael Jackson’s doctor, Conrad Murray, was charged with involuntary manslaughter.

“If Charlie Sheen’s arraignment hadn’t happened within 15 minutes of Conrad Murray’s arraignment, the media would have covered [Sheen] like crazy,” TMZ.com founder Harvey Levin told The Daily Beast.

“You have to look at every case you cover in the context of what else is going on. And I think that when you look at Charlie Sheen against Michael Jackson? It’s no contest.”

Aside from fortunate timing, what has, ironically, been most beneficial to Sheen in the public eye is his reputation. For a man whose first wife, Kelly Preston, was shot after Sheen left a .22 gun in his pants pocket (it went off when Preston picked up the pants in the morning); openly ‘fessed up to using “Hollywood Madam” Heidi Fleiss’ services; assaulted a porn star (resulting in two years’ probation and a fine); and has a history of drug abuse, his most recent fall from grace was—unlike that of the thought-to-be squeaky clean Woods— ultimately, not much of a fall.

As James Surowiecki recently wrote, in a piece about Woods, in The New Yorker: “Scandals that aren’t out of tune with a celebrity’s image are often surprisingly easy to bounce back from: After images of Kate Moss snorting coke surfaced, her bookings fell, but, over time, they went up. Revelations that Michael Jordan had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars gambling, barely dented his appeal, since the story reinforced the image of him as a fierce competitor.”

“The stories of Charlie’s misbehaving are legendary,” said Ross Johnson, a crisis and corporate communications specialist at PMK-BNC. “But Charlie has always done the one thing that Mel couldn’t do—he’s always apologized for his behavior. Charlie’s always honest with his people. He liked hookers, and he was honest about liking hookers! He’s got a rapport with his audience. He doesn’t lie to his audience.

“The thing that hurt Tiger more than anything was that it was all so contrary to his image. But Charlie’s image has always been, ‘Hey, I ain’t perfect. I never pretended to be a role model.’”

Sheen’s publicist-cum-media-strategist, Stan Rosenfield, flatly denies the notion that Sheen’s troubles have been a footnote in the press. Besides coverage from sites like TMZ, Oprah recently had Sheen’s ex-wife, Denise Richards, on her show, where Richards discussed Sheen’s history of violence, saying he was “at times” abusive to her, and that she was afraid of him.

“All you have to do is pull the clips. Anyone can do so, and they will see that 90 percent of the stories embellish what Charlie was accused of in Aspen,” Rosenfield said. “At most, 10 percent say this is a ‘Teflon’ situation.”

As to whether Sheen has suffered any backlash, Rosenfield said, “He lost his endorsement contract. And he has not been hired for any work in the entertainment industry, independent of Two and a Half Men.”

As TV’s highest-paid star, Sheen—who reportedly makes $825,000 an episode—will hardly have trouble surviving without other offers. The real threat to his career will be if he does, in fact, wind up behind bars.

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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.