What's eating Charlie Sheen?

He is the highest-paid television star in the US despite nearly overdosing on cocaine, using call girls and questioning if his government was behind 9/11. Now he's spent Christmas Day under arrest for domestic violence. David Usborne reports

Peace and goodwill were not the main features of yuletide for the American film and sitcom star Charlie Sheen. Instead of enjoying turkey and crackers, he spent a large part of Christmas Day in jail in Aspen, Colorado, when he was arrested following a domestic dispute that allegedly turned violent.

Mr Sheen, who last year was America's highest-paid television star thanks to the enduring popularity of the sitcom Two and a Half Men, was released later in the day from Pitkin County jail on $8,500 bail after being booked for investigation of second-degree assault and menacing, which are both felonies, along with criminal mischief, a misdemeanour.

The police and an ambulance were called to a house in the swanky Rocky Mountain ski resort on Christmas morning. While the actor, whose father is Martin Sheen, was taken into custody, the ambulance left empty. Mr Sheen lives with his third wife, Brooke Mueller Sheen, with whom he had twins in March. Police declined to identify the person who lodged the complaint against him.

But yesterday, Richard Cummins, a lawyer for Mr Sheen, responded to reports that the fight had been with the actor's wife, telling People.com the couple would seek counselling assistance. "They have two children together and they love one another and they're going to work through what is a difficult time and they're going to do that together and as privately as possible," he told the website.

Successful or not, the attempt to patch things up will not be Sheen's first attempt at starting afresh. The actor has a long history of scandalising Hollywood-watchers with off-screen dramas. His hugely successful sitcom, a smutty riff on Sheen's longstanding image as a womaniser and all-round cad, pales in comparison to the real-life details. Sheen was arrested in 1996 for assaulting a woman and entered rehab in 1998 after a drug overdose. After being released he was arrested for drinking while under the influence of drugs and alcohol and was returned to rehab on the orders of his doctor. And when only one star was named as a client of the so-called "Hollywood Madam", Heidi Fleiss, and admitted in court to spending $50,000 on her services, no one was very surprised that it was Sheen.

And yet those personal difficulties have sat in sharp contrast alongside his professional successes. His sitcom remains one of the highest-rated shows on US television, for which, as its co-star, he earns an estimated $825,000 per episode. And if not every one of his films has been a home run, the best of them – including Platoon, Wall Street and Hot Shots! – have secured him a place in Hollywood history.

His shot at genuine stardom has been somewhat compromised by his chequered history, which Sheen has never tried to keep secret. But in Two and a Half Men, it may have finally done him a favour, with the parallels between fact and fiction keeping audiences perennially interested.

The sitcom is only the most recent feather in Sheen's cap in a career that began when he was only nine years old. He was cast alongside his father in a TV movie. Martin Sheen – a noted film actor who has been elevated to the status of the man liberals wished was America's real president, thanks to his role in The West Wing – has since worked with his son, as has Charlie's brother Emilio Estevez (who used the family's real Hispanic name, which the others abandoned). But those relationships have also not been simple: indeed, in 1998, Sheen Senior reported his son for violation of parole, in desperation at his continued drug abuse.

Things are supposed to be different now. Sheen, who has long since declared himself a reformed character, has children with his second wife, Denise Richards, as well as his twins with Mueller. But the latest court date, set for early February, will cast doubt on the sincerity of his reformation once again. The second-degree assault charges could in theory lead to a prison sentence as long as 12 months if the case is pursued and Sheen is convicted. Media reports yesterday said the argument between the two began after they had started drinking early on Christmas morning. Allegedly, it spiralled out of control after Sheen, enraged, grabbed his wife's throat. It appears that when the police arrived Sheen insisted that his wife had been the aggressor.

But whatever the actual circumstances of the squabble, the couple, married since 2008, will not split, Sheen's manager told Radar.com at the weekend. "There are no plans for divorce. They are both deeply upset about what happened and are trying to work things out amicably," said Mark Burg. "They both want to get away from all the sensationalism surrounding what happened and quietly resolve things." Sheen is said to be planning to attend anger management classes.

There is little doubt that this would be preferable to Sheen's experience last time around, when his relationship with Denise Richards deteriorated to the point that, when she filed for divorce while pregnant, she publicly accusing her husband of abusing drugs and alcohol and exhibiting violent behaviour towards her.

The divorce case became particularly toxic after a nanny to the couple signed an affidavit accusing the actor of inappropriately touching the two young girls he had had with Richards. Sheen hit back by calling the accusations "laughable and inane".

In this case, too, his camp has dismissed the attention as speculation. "I think at the end of the day it will be much ado about nothing," lawyer Richard Cummings told the Associated Press. That remains an open question; that Sheen is a magnet for bad publicity and relationship disaster, however, is surely no longer in doubt.

The charge sheet against Sheen

*1990 Sheen "accidentally" shoots fiancée Kelly Preston in the arm. Two stitches later, their relationship ends.

*1995 He testifies at the trial of renowned Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss and admits that he paid $50,000 for at least 27 of Fleiss's call girls.

*1996 The actor is given two years probation after being charged with attacking a girlfriend.

*1998 Sheen's father, Martin, turns him in for violating his parole when he overdoses while injecting cocaine.

2005 Second wife Denise Richards files for divorce and alleges abuse. During custody battle for two children, a former nanny accuses Sheen of inappropriately touching them. Sheen denies it.

2006 Sheen says that the 9/11 attacks looked like a "controlled demolition". He later becomes an advocate of the 9/11 Truth movement.