In the mid-1990s, my day job was bartending at a world-class hotel in Beverly Hills. As low man on the totem pole, I was relegated to the day shift. The money was lousy but the star power, both actors and bad-tipping executives, was excellent. Which explains why, on a lazy afternoon 15 years ago, director Peter Bogdanovich, displaying the quiet, unassuming manner of a high-school math teacher, entered my bar, toting along actor Charlie Sheen, who was displaying the loud, rambunctious, erratic behavior that still has him making headlines today.
Charlie became immediately obsessed with my plastic hotel name tag. He teased me about it and when I brought the drinks back to their table, he offered to buy it from me for $50. Given that I had already lost two in my brief employment at the hotel, and didn't feel like explaining a third, I declined his offer. "One-hundred dollars," he proposed as I turned and went back to the bar.
"Sold!" I said turning around quickly. Charlie handed me two $50s, I handed him my name tag, they returned to their meeting, and I went back to the bar to cut lemons and limes for the night shift.
Moments later, Charlie's New York Yankees baseball cap came sailing across the room and struck me in the head. I walked it back over to him. Moments, later it sailed across the room and struck me in the head yet again. I returned it a second time. Charlie chuckled that he got me to pick up and return it, somewhat like a dog. He had just purchased $100 worth of fun at my expense.
After a few minutes, I smelled smoke. Not cigarette smoke. Fire smoke. I looked over to see Charlie holding a lighter and a $10 bill, which he had just ignited trying (I surmised) to make some sort of point. Before those flames reached the sprinkler directly above their table, I rushed over with a cotton napkin to put out the fire.
There are several ways one can react to a celebrity provocation like this. I chose the high road. "Whenever this movie you two are talking about gets released, I predict it's going to burn up the screen." Both Sheen and Bogdanovich laughed.
But then I apparently went too far, picking up Charlie's weapon of choice, a silver Tiffany cigarette lighter. "You can have this when you leave, young man," I said, trying to make light again.
After a few minutes, I smelled smoke. Not cigarette smoke. Fire smoke.
• Why Denise Richards Stands by Charlie SheenCharlie stood up. "Young man? Young man? Who the hell are you to call me like that?" I thought he was going to hit me. Bogdanovich thought he was going to hit me. And so we both backed away from the table. "No one speaks to me like that!" Charlie threw another $50 bill onto the table, exited via a service entrance into the kitchen.
Bogdanovich, looking dumbfounded, followed Charlie into the kitchen where, I was later told, they finished their meeting in the chef's office. My assistant general manager appeared out of nowhere, telling me I had handled the entire thing well except for the "young man" part. I didn't get hit, the hotel didn't burn to the ground, and Charlie was unlikely to even remember this happening. A few tabloid reporters came sniffing around days later, but I needed the gig, so I told no one.
And that should have been that. Then, a few months later, I scored an invite to a celebrity-thronged restaurant opening in Beverly Hills. Right in the mix: Charlie Sheen, surrounded by a half-dozen hot, cartoonishly buxom blondes.
I tried to avoid eye contact, but Charlie stared at me from across the room, as I saw him process a vague recollection that he remembered me from somewhere, a feeling he probably gets a lot.
After a few uncomfortable minutes, he made a beeline in my direction, all six women in tow. "I know you," he said slurring his words.
"Well," I carefully told him, "you threatened to beat me up in a hotel bar a few months ago." He thought for a moment processing what I had just said. Then, suddenly remembering, he said: "That's right! I'm really, really sorry!"
And then he hugged me—a hug so long it could've been timed with a calendar.
Despite being in pretty much the same condition he was the first time we met, there was an underlying sweetness this time. I felt sorry for him, and protective of him at the same time. So without really thinking about, my mouth started giving him the kind of speech my Jewish mother might have spoken.
"You know, Charlie," I told him, "you got a lot of money and a lot of fame and a lot of beautiful women surrounding you, but if you keep abusing drugs and alcohol the way you've been it's all gonna go away and you'll be left broke, alone, and unemployed one day wondering what happened. And that would be a shame." As I was saying these words, Charlie's friends and my friends all backed away just like Bogdanovich did that day in the bar.
But there were no fireworks. "You're right," he said to me sadly. "No one has ever said that to me before." Then he hugged me again.
And offered to buy me a drink.
I never again saw Charlie Sheen, but his recent tabloid exploits reminded me of this brief interlude. The ensuing 15 years apparently haven't taught him many lessons. I used to tell the core part of this story to friends with gusto, for the laughs it invariably engendered. I don't anymore. A decade-and-a-half later, and just as fresh as ever, it's no longer so funny.
Robert Schwartz has written for film and television, and contributed to Variety and Entertainment Weekly.