Look, nobody fantasizes about being Charlie Sheen. You wouldn't trade brains with the guy, or kidneys, or crotches, or arrest records. What we fantasize about sharing is his delusions, his unkillable conviction that he's the shit, despite a 100 percent failure rate as a human being. That's how he became America's most beloved sitcom star for more than a decade, playing oafish party boys named Charlie on Two and a Half Men and Spin City. And that's why he's suddenly a bigger star than ever.
Staring failure in the face and calling it "winning" — that's the closest thing we have to an American religion. It's the native tradition, from Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick to Ron Burgundy in Anchorman. And if that's our religion, Charlie Sheen is our Vatican assassin warlock. Lots of us can look back on ruined lives, lost jobs, squandered fortunes. But to look back on it all and shrug, "I'm tired of pretending I'm not a total bitchin' frickin' rock star from Mars"? That's up there with Ahab threatening to strike the sun if it insults him.
This article appears in the March 31, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now on newsstands and will appear in the online archive March 18.
Just think — until this year, none of us had ever heard him speak his mind. Who knew he was sitting on a verbal gold mine? He's like a volcano that's been dormant for years, until it suddenly erupts to spew tiger blood and Adonis DNA all over a grateful nation. Axed from his usual gig — blandly reciting his writers' bland jokes on Two and a Half Men — he has finally broken his silence, and it's turned into the performance of a lifetime, because he really is brilliant at this shit. His delight in language, his high-energy flair for catchphrases and neologisms — it's genuinely exciting, in a way that Charlie Sheen has never been.
The last time Charlie Sheen spoke to the world, it was at a press conference to promote his 1997 movie Money Talks. "You guys don't want to know about this crap," he announced. "You just want to know about the drugs and the whores." For the next 14 years, his handlers kept him pretty well-muzzled and away from a live microphone. But we all knew he was crazy, hence the jubilation over this coming-out party for the American celebrity machine's depraved unconscious.
Let's put his one-of-a-kind career into historical perspective. He came up at the same time as Tom Cruise, when they were the new beady-eyed beefcake bros in town. They both played Vietnam vets in Oliver Stone movies. They both seemed like likable lightweights: not too bright, but desperate to be taken seriously. One of them grew up to be batshit-loco Cocoa Puffs. The other turned into Charlie Sheen.
Sheen went from pompous actor to knowing self-parody in record time, jumping from films like Wall Street into the Hot Shots! franchise. In 2000, when Michael J. Fox quit Spin City, Sheen waltzed right into the lead role on a hit sitcom without paying any dues. Then came the break of his career, Two and a Half Men — washed up in the movies, he became even more famous playing a cartoon version of his already-cartoonish image.
His vices first became public knowledge in 1995, after the Heidi Fleiss bust. But while Fleiss landed on Celebrity Rehab, Sheen has made millions playing himself on sitcoms. When Whoopi Goldberg hosted the Oscars back in 1996, she joked about how many of the nominated actresses were playing hookers: "Sharon Stone played a hooker, Elisabeth Shue played a hooker, Mira Sorvino played a hooker. How many times did Charlie Sheen get to vote?" That was 15 years ago. Now James Franco can make the same joke at the Oscars and get the same laugh. Has anyone else ever had a 15-year reign as Hollywood's go-to man-skank punch line?
As Charlie says, "The run I was on made Sinatra, Flynn, Jagger and Richards look like droopy-eyed armless children." But those guys are actual stars, fantasy figures, the kind that people imagine being. Not Charlie. Maybe you dreamed about having sex with Denise Richards, but you didn't dream about marrying her, spawning a couple of kids, and bumbling through the relationship in a doped-out rage cloud. Nobody wishes they were a 45-year-old drug zombie with five kids and various ex-wives with their hands in his pocket.
No, it doesn't look like fun to be Charlie Sheen. But to have that much ego, for just one day? To look at total defeat and say, "Sorry my life is so much more bitchin' than yours — I planned it this way"? To rail against failure with fire-breathing fists? That's an American dream for sure. It's like Albert Camus said of Sisyphus, "There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn." Charlie doesn't have much of a life, but he's got a supply of scorn that anyone can envy.
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