Not since Carmela Soprano has a wife stood so loyally behind her n'er-do-well husband as Denise Richards has in recent months. Of course, Carmela was actually married to Tony Soprano: Richards, the sunnily Midwestern actress and one-time Bond Girl, has been divorced from her man, Two and a Half Men star Charlie Sheen, for years—a divorce, lest anyone forget, that involved restraining orders, alleged death threats, and claims by Richards that Sheen was a gambling and porn addict who once posted a photograph of his erect penis online.
Gallery: Charlie Sheen's Ladies
All of which makes it rather curious that as Sheen has been on his latest, most severe, bender of self-destructive implosions, which finally resulted in his show shutting down, his ex has been steadfastly at Sheen's side.
(Through a publicist, Richards declined to comment for this story.)
She's been stopping by the actor's gated mansion to try to convince him to enter a rehab facility, according to RadarOnline. (Sheen announced he would seek drug addiction help, but only in the comfort of his own home.) And during the Plaza episode last October, when Sheen was rushed to the hospital after trashing his hotel room and frightening his prostitute date, it was Richards—who was also at the hotel with her and Sheen's two young daughters—who called the front desk at 2 a.m. and screamed for help. She also accompanied Sheen to the hospital, and, according to a source, dropped him off at the airport the next day before heading to The Joy Behar Show, where she was scheduled to talk about her guest stint on the TV series Blue Mountain State.
Throughout all the media appearances that were lined up over the next few days, Richards remained composed and on-message, much to TV producers' frustration. When tirelessly probed by Today co-hosts Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb, who attempted to loosen her up by offering her a glass of wine (Richards declined), all Richards would say was, "I have faith in my ex." Her tone was in keeping with the Oprah interview she did last year, during which she was more forthcoming but still extremely diplomatic about her history with Sheen.
• Confessions of Charlie Sheen’s BartenderNeedless to say this, new, discreet, all-forgiving Denise is a far cry from the woman who, during her and Sheen's nasty divorce in 2006, painted Sheen as a Mel Gibson-like demon who once shoved her to ground and screamed: "I hope you fucking die, bitch!" Or who, in 2008, told Larry King that "every chance that Charlie tries to discredit me or say negative things about me in the press, he does."
What, exactly, happened?
Sheen "has something over her," said PopEater.com columnist Rob Shuter, who has been friendly with Richards for years. "I'm not saying that in a sinister way, but Denise genuinely feels something toward him that pulls her heartstrings. It's like that guy you're always trying to fix, or that college boyfriend you know is bad news, but you can't get over."
(As for Sheen's appreciation of Richards, Shuter said it stemmed from Richards' refusal to tell him what to do. "She doesn't lecture him the way his father and brothers do. She listens, but doesn't judge.")
Richards' Fix-It impulse kicked into high gear once Brooke Mueller, Sheen's most recent ex, was out of the picture following the infamous Aspen assault incident in 2009, when Mueller alleges that Sheen held her at knifepoint on Christmas Day.
Sheen “has something over her,” said Rob Shuter. “I’m not saying that in a sinister way, but Denise genuinely feels something toward him that pulls her heartstrings.”
"During the Brooke years, it was just—Brooke cut a lot of people out," said Shuter. "It was just Brooke and Charlie. And I think once that started to unwind, there was good old Denise, the one steady rock in his life."
(Unlike Richards, Mueller, who has young twins with Sheen and started rehab after the Aspen drama, has all but vanished from the Sheen scene.)
As for the barbs that came out during, and immediately following Sheen and Richards' divorce, Shuter attributed it to catharsis. "I think she needed to go out there, tell the truth, get it off her chest, and just vomit what she'd been through. Because she couldn't deal with it anymore. But once she told everyone the truth, the bitterness and the anger went away, so she could start to forgive him again. Denise doesn't hold on to anger the way that many people would."
There was also something admittedly self-serving to Richards' outpourings. When she went on Larry King, she was taking a beating in the press for "stealing" her then-best friend Heather Locklear's husband, Richie Sambora. And during the divorce, she was in a desperate custody battle for her two children, Sam and Lola. Last year, Richards was granted sole custody of her children, following Sheen's blow-up with Mueller. (Previously, she had joint custody.)
Richards' love of her kids, and the fact that they are growing up—they are now 6 and 5—seems to be at the heart of her unwavering tolerance of Sheen. She has repeatedly said in interviews that she wants her girls to have a relationship with their father and that she dreads the day they will be old enough to go online and read about Sheen's history of bad behavior—or, presumably, her own salty attacks.
"Denise is a really hands-on mom," said one source. "She does genuinely care about her kids. She doesn't use them as weird pawns the way some high-profile women do."
While working on the low-budget 2009 film Deep in the Valley, Richards brought her girls to the set every day, according to a person who also worked on the film. And friends say she routinely turns down scripts on projects that would force her to leave Los Angeles, out of consideration for her children.
"The kids change everything" in these situations, said Jenn Berman, a Beverly Hills psychotherapist and relationship expert. "They're a game-changer. They force you to switch from being a co-dependent to being a good parent.
"And when you have a couple where someone has a drug addiction—and Charlie Sheen has a long-standing drug addiction—in order to be in a relationship with someone like that, to some degree you have to be an enabler," Berman continued. "You get used to trying to fix things, clean things up… You want things to look cleaned up for the sake of the kids, who one day are going to go on Google."
Richards' Mama Bear streak flared up last week when Kacey Jordan—the porn star Sheen was with when he snorted a "tennis-ball-size" pile of cocaine last week—said on Good Morning America that Sheen had suggested that she babysit his kids.
Within hours, Richards, who uses Twitter mainly to chirp cheerfully about her workout regimen or her addiction to The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, tweeted: "If you caught GMA today..FYI..No 'adult-film star' will be babysitting our kids!"
According to a source, since that incident, Richards has not left her daughters alone with Sheen: "When he's seen the children since, she has been present. There haven't been any sleepovers."
Richards has her detractors, of course, who see her as a gold-mining, wannabe celebrity who hangs on to Sheen because he's the "goose that laid the golden egg," as one person put it. (It is well-known that Sheen was making $2 million an episode on Men.)
"Denise is an actress who is on a time clock," said one source close to Sheen. "There was a time she used to star in movies. Now she doesn't star in movies." Thus, being in involved in Sheen's shenanigans is one way to "stay in the spotlight."
It's also much less fraught for Richards to be in that spotlight these days. As Berman pointed out: "I think it's easier for her to stand by him now that they're divorced. She's left, they have these kids—it's very different from if she were at home with him being beaten.
"She's in a safer place. I'm sure she's done some healing and empowered herself in a way that can allow her to stand by him in a healthy way, protected by a lot more boundaries."
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.