When all hell broke loose this year on Two and a Half Men, and it was clear that his relationship with star Charlie Sheen had turned toxic, executive producer Chuck Lorre came up with a way to end the madness.
"I offered to quit the show last winter," Lorre, 59, reveals for the first time. "I said, 'Listen, if for some reason I'm now the Antichrist I'm happy to leave. It's not in my interest to stop the show, and I certainly don't want to put all these people out of work. Keep going. Get another guy. Don't stop on my account."
Not only did Sheen take a thinly veiled anti-Semitic jab at Lorre, but he also began regularly vilifying his boss in interviews, calling the sitcom hitmaker a "stupid, stupid man" and "a little maggot" — as well as plenty of things that can't be printed here. "I can't work with a guy who has decided that he hates my guts," Lorre says he told the network and studio.
Such a move wouldn't have been unprecedented. Stars and producers frequently butt heads, and it's the producers whom often end up taking a hike. Lorre, who would have still kept an ownership stake in Two and a Half Men, knew that game well, having created and later departed Grace Under Fire after run-ins with star Brett Butler (who, like Sheen, struggled with addiction).
But this was different. To put it bluntly, as Lorre, CBS and Warner Bros. TV watched Sheen quickly spiral out of control, they were concerned that he might die — and they weren't going to let him do it on their watch.
"[The studio and network] chose to make a moral decision as opposed to a financial one," Lorre says. "But people were really frightened that they were signing off on what could have had devastating consequences. This was not a game. This was drug addiction writ large. This was big-time cocaine and in his own words, an 'epic drug run' that could have ended with either his death or someone else's."
Fortunately, that didn't happen. Still, Lorre says, "It was a painful year. I'll be sorting it out for a long time."
Chances are you had never heard of Chuck Lorre before this year, but you likely watched his shows — Men, The Big Bang Theory and Mike & Molly. Lorre has built up an unprecedented comedy empire, making CBS a dominant Monday-night force and Warner Bros. TV a big-time supplier of sitcoms in syndication.
In 2011, Lorre had what may be the most successful fall of his storied career. After years of being snubbed by the TV Academy, The Big Bang Theory finally earned an Emmy nomination for outstanding comedy. Plus, Big Bang star Jim Parsons collected his second best comedy actor Emmy, and Mike & Molly star Melissa McCarthy, who became a bona fide superstar this summer thanks to the feature Bridesmaids, scored a best comedy actress Emmy.
Beyond the Emmys, Lorre's biggest coup this year was the successful reinvention of Two and a Half Men. After Sheen was fired in March, CBS convinced a reluctant Lorre to give the show an extreme makeover. "I thought, why not find out if we can do it. If we fail, what have we failed at? Making a sitcom? Then it became exciting. We got to do something none of us ever dreamed of doing: We got to end a series and start a new series in 20 minutes."
Lorre first cast Ashton Kutcher as a hotshot Hollywood actor, straight out of an Entourage-like world, but later decided a character like that would be too much in the mold of Sheen's hedonistic jingle writer Charlie Harper — and he was done with that. "It was time to come out of the darkness," he says. "Maybe for my own heath and welfare, I wanted to write a character who was coming from the light."
It's working: Two and a Half Men, starring Kutcher as bighearted Internet billionaire Walden Schmidt, opened to 32.8 million viewers (including seven days of DVR use), and continues as TV's most-watched comedy (and No. 2 scripted series overall, behind only NCIS). Thanks to the show's big open this year, Men is up 41% among adults 18-49 from a year ago. "Ashton slipped into it so seamlessly," says co-star Jon Cryer.
"When Chuck comes in and talks on a set, everyone listens," Kutcher says. "He's been around it enough and seen it enough that he knows what's going to work and he knows what's not going to work. Everybody respects that."
Most recently, Lorre — whose credits also include Dharma & Greg and Roseanne — was named to the TV Academy Hall of Fame. And after years of almost single-handedly propping up the multicamera sitcom (shot on a stage in front of an audience), Lorre is witnessing a comedy comeback this season that he helped initiate.
McCarthy credits Lorre's ability to pick the right team of producers, which includes Men's Lee Aronsohn, Big Bang's Bill Prady and Mike & Molly's Mark Roberts. "That's the right way to run something: Hire people [who] you know can do it and let them do what they do." Adds Parsons: "It's this musical ear that he has, this understanding of the rhythms and the beats that make up a 22-minute TV show."
Lorre also credits the natural conflict that comes with working with the same group of writers for such a long time. "These are passionate, creative people; there are no pushovers," he says. "Out of the friction comes something better than what would happen if I had autonomy. Out of that cauldron of dissent comes a better show."
Cryer says he wishes he knew Lorre's secret formula. "Then I would be the most popular sitcom producer on TV," he jokes. But as he helped keep the sitcom alive during the genre's lean years, Lorre says he never intended to dominate the form.
"There was no master plan," Lorre says. "It just worked out that way. It's not about how many cameras you have. It's about the characters — are they interesting? Do you want Dharma to be with Greg, do you want Mike and Molly to make it, do you want Sheldon to find happiness, whatever that might be?"
Leaning back in his spacious office on the Warner Bros. lot — where, like one big comedy factory, his three shows take up an entire building — Lorre says he agreed to finally speak about his tumultuous year in order to help promote his three shows. But it's clear that his fallout with Sheen continues to weigh heavily on Lorre — and subtly addressing it via quips on his famous production vanity cards (which weren't well-received by Sheen) wasn't enough of a release.
In hindsight, Lorre says he regrets not quitting the show after Sheen was accused of holding a knife to his wife, Brooke Mueller, on Christmas in 2009. "When he started attacking people with knives, that's it," Lorre says. "That should have been it. I should have walked. That's unthinkable. No more. I'm done. But for some reason I thought that because she was willing to forgive him... we could emerge from this fiasco and be stronger and healthier."
At the same time, even as Sheen slipped up, he was able to hide much of his substance abuse behind his signature laid-back façade. "He always reminded me of Dean Martin," Lorre says. "Charlie is the epitome of cool and he made it look effortless. People never gave him enough credit for how skillful he was because he made it look so easy. There's that element of Charlie that's admirable and he was the kind of guy you wanted to hang out with. He was a special guy. But special guys are not immune to drug addiction."
When Sheen wound up in the Cedars Sinai emergency room after another bender last season, it came just months after he allegedly trashed a room at New York's Plaza Hotel. The actor's problems, which he had long kept off the set, were finally impacting the job. "Last January and February it was not working anymore," Lorre says. "You couldn't do that much cocaine and work. It was heartbreaking to be around here last year."
Cryer recounts how tension began to fill the set. "It became clear that he was not sober, and we weren't sure how hard he was trying to be sober anymore," says the Men star, who still hasn't talked to Sheen since he left the show. "We were used to things being just a little off balance for many months. You could tell his personality was changing... Finally toward the end it was undeniable."
Lorre still wanted to believe that Sheen could turn things around, and concocted an idea to produce four more episodes once the actor got out of rehab. "We were going to have a 20-episode [instead of 24-episode] season. And I thought that given what happened in Aspen and the court case, and then what happened at the Plaza on Thanksgiving and then the Cedars Sinai emergency room trip, 20 instead of 24 was pretty good."
For Lorre, the decision to give Sheen the benefit of the doubt was also deeply personal: "Sobriety is a big part of my life, and it's been that way for almost 13 years," he says. "I'm eternally grateful I've been able to find this in my life."
But instead, Sheen went rogue: He refused treatment and began trashing his boss. "I embarrassed him in front of his children and the world by healing at a pace that this un-evolved mind cannot process," Sheen famously said in one rant. "I've spent, I think, close to the last decade I don't know effortlessly and magically converted your tin can into pure gold." (Sheen declined comment for this story.)
Sheen's attacks on Lorre's sobriety particularly stung deep. "That broke my heart," he says. "I thought we were on the same road together. I mean, we held hands and prayed when his sons were born prematurely."
It was pretty much "all hurtful," Lorre adds. "There was a great deal of grief and anger about how that all went down. But my intent from the very beginning was I didn't want to look the other way." Says Cryer: "It's a guy with a problem lashing out at the people trying to help him. Anyone who has had a substance abuser in their lives knows that's what happens sometimes. But it happened over the Internet and blew up huge into this crazy thing, and it was horrible to be a part of."
Production continued on Big Bang and Mike & Molly, and Parsons remembers that "work just kept going on, and things were kind of unchanged — which was frankly, looking back now, a remarkable moment in our four-and-a-half year history." Still, he says the Sheen story was inescapable. "I had to get off the treadmill four times one day and change the channel because it was something about the story and I was just so tired of it. There was no joy to be had from our end... I did feel certainly a real protectiveness for Chuck. I don't think anyone would have blamed him if he took off and went to a beach."
Soon after being fired, Sheen filed suit against Lorre, CBS and Warner Bros. TV, accusing them of breaching his contract. Lorre says he was taken back by the allegations that he stood to gain if Two and a Half Men was canceled. "It was preposterous," he says. "I have a vested interest in the show. I want it to go on forever." (The suit was later settled.)
By the summer, media attention had turned to how Two and a Half Men would explain Sheen's exit (it turns out, Charlie Harper would be killed off) and Kutcher's arrival. "We were all like little kids here back in June, writing the show, trying to create a brand new series starring Ashton Kutcher," Lorre says. "It was fun."
Then, as Emmy night arrived, word leaked that the TV Academy had agreed to give Sheen a platform as a surprise Emmy presenter. Lorre and Warner Bros. TV strongly pressed the TV Academy and Fox (which carried this tear's Emmy telecast) to reconsider.
"I thought it was really disrespectful to the nominees," Lorre says. "That's their moment, and it was somehow undermined by this melodrama that was happening on stage. I don't have any regrets about making some phone calls and saying, 'Really? You're going to do this?'" Fox and Emmys producer Mark Burnett didn't back down, and a subdued Sheen wound up awkwardly handing the best comedy actor Emmy to Big Bang star Jim Parsons.
Despite what happened this year, Cryer says he's still on "Team Charlie" — "We all really loved working with the guy," he says — and Lorre says he hopes that Sheen is well and able to be there for his kids.
"The man was my friend," he says. "I cared for him deeply. We had a great time. We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. Sometimes I'll watch some of the reruns and I'll go, 'That was really funny. That was worth watching.' I'm proud of what we did."
But Lorre's focus now is keeping Men 2.0 alive for years to come. "I have to be grateful," he says. "We got the show back. Everybody's working. I'm eternally grateful we didn't walk away last winter and wrap it."
The future is contingent on Kutcher renewing his one-year deal, but the actor hints that it's very likely. "Right now I'm still enjoying it," Kutcher says. "And as long as I'm enjoying something, I'll stick with it."
Cryer, for one, hopes that his new co-star renews his deal. "What's been great is coming up with an entirely new comedic dynamic with Ashton," Cryer says. "He's such a different actor. Charlie would sort of amble in, run a scene once or twice and he would nail it. With Ashton we rehearse things, he improves on it and we find new stuff all the time, and it's a great breath of fresh air. I'm enjoying that process. The show already has had more sentiment invested in the friendship between Alan and Walden than we ever did in the old version of the show, and that's fun."
And who can blame them for wanting to keep the party going? "I was in Borneo and people told me how much they love Two and a Half Men," marvels Lorre. "It's humbling to see the reach of American TV. When I take it for granted it will be time to quit. But not yet."
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