Charlie Sheen may think that he's winning, but Brett Butler knows he's fighting a losing battle.
It was 13 years ago that ABC and producers Carsey-Werner opted to pull the plug on Butler's hit sitcom, Grace Under Fire, after deciding that her addiction to painkillers left her in no condition to continue working. Now living on a farm in Georgia and celebrating 12 years of sobriety, Butler says she's still aghast at the events that led to her show's demise — and surprised to be alive.
"It's amazing, not just that I didn't die, but that somebody didn't kill me," she says. "The Hollywood experience is so surreal to begin with, to add drugs to it, it's like you're inside a kaleidoscope. And by the time I started feeling besieged, it was much worse than I knew."
The Sheen saga has unfolded much differently from what happened to Butler, but the similarities are there: Chuck Lorre created both Grace Under Fire and Sheen's Two and a Half Men — and clashed with both stars. (Lorre eventually departed Grace to create another show, Cybill.) Sheen and Butler also share the same manager, Mark Burg, although Sheen's relationship with Burg has soured in recent days.
And, most obviously, Butler, like Sheen, fronted a network sitcom that had to be shut down several times due to the star's personal problems. While CBS and Warner Bros. TV mull the fate of Two and a Half Men — already shut down for the season — one option is to follow precedent and cancel the show all together, much like the demise of Grace. In the case of Grace, the show was permanently canceled despite receiving a hefty 25-episode order from ABC, causing the producers to lose millions of dollars.
"The network was kind of over the antics," says one exec involved with the show. "I think there was genuine concern for Brett, and this was the only way to show that we were serious."
Butler says she managed to keep things relatively under control at first. But her clashes with the Grace Under Fire's producers became legendary, leading to serious turnover. She remembers trashing a script, only to be asked by a writer why she had earlier been fine with the jokes.
"Well yeah, after eight vicodin and a coffee at a table read," she says. "It was just getting ridiculous... It's a rarefied playing field to have your own show and everything you need. There's just something inside of me that could not get filled up on this alone."
Butler said she lost all credibility with her cast and crew, even if she was right on something. "For me, active addiction removed all of my credentials for any kind of argument," she says.
And for famous people, there are plenty enablers to keep you in that state, she adds. "Anyone out there who's addicted could end up exactly like Michael Jackson," she says. "There are doctors and, quote, 'friends,' to help you along the way... It wasn't just what I was doing to myself. People will hand you matches as you're standing right next to that container of flammable stuff."
But the actress adds that she wasn't on the hard stuff (like crack or needles), and that she never lost sight of the fact that she was an addict. (In comparison, Sheen has told interviewers in recent weeks that he doesn't believe he has a problem.) Eventually, the show had to endure several shutdowns as she got help. "I remember telling my bosses, 'I think I'm dying and you need to take this show down.' And somebody said, 'Oh, you could do it, you're really tough.' And I wanted to argue, 'Just the fact that you think I'm having some kind of rational conversation right now must be proof that I'm really good at this.'"
Despite reports of Butler's problems and the constant production shutdowns, the decision to cancel the show in midstream still caught the TV industry by surprise. Butler remembers the cold day in February when she lost her show.
"All in one day, like a bad country song, my husband left me, I got fired and he even gave my dog to my sister," she says. "And I knew for sure it was all over [when] I went to the lot to get my stuff and armed guards escorted me."
It took another six months for Butler to clean up her addiction to painkillers. "I'd been sober before, or else I would have never gotten that show. I remember going to all the rehabs that they sent me to and being really pissed. Because if you're not ready, you're just not ready."
Butler says the story behind how she finally cleaned up is personal, but she may ultimately write a book about it. "The worst part of it was I disappointed people that I respect greatly as humans and as business people and creative forces in the industry," Butler says. "I still feel awful for the people I worked with who were so kind to me and still speak to me now."
Butler says she has spent time making amends, contacting individuals like Lorre and Carsey-Werner principals Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner. ("Over the years there were some connections and conversations," an insider confirms.) "But there are some things you can't ever fix, and there's a lot of things that money won't fix," Butler admits. "And some people will not take your calls no matter what."
Butler has continued her stand-up career and has made a handful of appearances on shows like My Name is Earl and Last Comic Standing. She also worked on developing a new series with producers Don Reo and Tom Shadyac, and even toyed with starring in a USA update of McCloud; neither of those ultimately proceeded. But now, having lost more than 100 pounds and getting back into fighting shape, the actress says she's ready for a comeback.
"I love being down to this size and at this place in my life," Butler says. "I'm starting to put a toe in the water again. I think something will happen when the right person remembers me and knows that I'm available. I'll always have to look people in the eye and tell them I'm OK... I would want to know if I was sober if I were [them]."
Butler says she's not looking to take a job she hates just to get back in to Hollywood. "That's not going to happen," she says. "That would still be me beating myself up for something just to say, 'Oh, I'll do anything to get back in.'"
The actress hasn't been following the recent Sheen saga but says, "I know the people close to him have to be in anguish." She adds, "I know this: Charlie Sheen has huge talent. I'm a complicated, interesting, talented woman with a broken 'no' switch. I would feel terrible to think there's a lot more people that have to go through what I did."
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