His Downfall is not Surprising in the Hollywood Circus of Addiction

As he collapsed from the resulting stroke, he told his bodyguard to phone 911.

Published: 18th November 2015 08:07 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th November 2015 08:08 AM   |  A+A-


Charlie Sheen at the MTV Movie Awards in Los Angeles (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP, file).

ON May 20, 1998, Charlie Sheen was rushed to Los Robles medical centre in California after injecting himself with cocaine twice in rapid succession - because, he later explained, the first shot did not seem to be working.

As he collapsed from the resulting stroke, he told his bodyguard to phone 911. On the way to the hospital the paramedics were selling their story to the highest bidder.

So many things about that story are troubling that it is hard to know where to start, but let's begin with the bodyguard. If you are hired to protect someone's body, perhaps waiting around for them to have a stroke before calling an ambulance is not the most proactive way to approach your job? But that's Hollywood. It's a story we have heard so many times that we are shocked to find it is still true.

Sheen's life has always been turbulent. Raised on location - including, when he was 10, the Philippines set of Apocalypse Now, where he watched his actor father Martin fall off the wagon and have a heart attack on camera - he was a star by the age of 23, washed up at 33, the comeback kid at 40 and now, at 50, says that he is grateful finally to announce that he is HIV positive because the freedom from hiding the truth might help him stop drinking.

The problem he will have is that Hollywood has no interest in forcing anyone to stop doing anything as long as they are making money.

Mega-star actors, such as football players, become multi-millionaires before their school friends have paid off their college loans. From the instant of their first success they are surrounded by a system that needs them to remain frozen exactly in that moment for years to come, endlessly repeating the role that signalled their earning potential.

Sheen's first word on screen was "drugs" in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. He had a reputation for being a bit of a bad boy - even among his notorious Brat Pack peers including Robert Downey Jr and Kiefer Sutherland - which chimed well with his on-screen rebellious roles in the Eighties.

"With Charlie, there's never been a problem when he's working," his manager Mark Burg told Vanity Fair's Mark Seal in 2011. On the set of his sitcom Two and a Half Men, according to the crew, he was a friendly, professional actor who knew everyone by name. The trouble started in the hiatuses - around Christmas in particular, when filming stopped for almost a month and he started to fill the void with drink, drugs and prostitutes.

We all have a friend who gets a bit too drunk every time the booze comes out. In Hollywood, industry parties are full of those people. Hollywood, as River Phoenix, Heath Ledger and Philip Seymour Hoffman all found, is what the addiction industry calls an "enabler" - and the addiction industry itself, of course, is part of the game. When CBS suspended Two and a Half Men in 2011 because of Sheen's behaviour, his managers were bombarded with emails from rehab clinics across the country, allegedly desperate for some of that Sheen glamour to sell on to future clients.

That glamour may be wearing thin. A hot young actor going off the rails is one thing; and even a 40-something man has a certain "save me" quality - when Sheen's life appeared to unravel in 2009 and 2010 the resulting headlines boosted ratings for his show. But a 50-year-old man's midlife car crash, culminating in telling the world that he has HIV is not so sexy for an industry built on glamour.

The good news for Sheen and his steadfast legion of fans is that he has spoken the truth about his secret four-year battle with HIV. The outpourings of support from fellow celebrities have been much louder for this revelation than for the news, over the years, that he has been in drugs rehab clinics.

Some stars - Johnny Depp, Elizabeth Taylor - pull themselves through self-destructive behaviour. Others are not so lucky. In a town where even bodyguards and paramedics are part of the circus of addiction and shattered lives, few will go out of their way to make this stop.

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