In the TV sitcom Two and a Half Men, Charlie Sheen plays a hard-partying but ageing bachelor with a large house in Malibu and more money in the bank than is perhaps healthy for him.
Not long ago, his screen character, who is also called Charlie, discussed the perils of this lifestyle with his young nephew, Jake. "Why do you drink?" asked the boy. Sheen took a deep breath. "Because", he replied, "I have things inside me that I need killed."
This week, Sheen's life collided with art, in the most spectacular fashion. In a rambling and at times incoherent series of interviews, open letters and public statements, the recently divorced former "brat pack" actor declared war against his Hollywood paymasters. It was, to all appearances, the end result of a personal crisis, exacerbated by copious quantities of drink and drugs.
Calling a radio DJ from the Bahamas, where he is holidaying with a small harem of adult movie stars, Sheen declared himself sick of having to deal with the "fools" and "trolls" who make Two and a Half Men. He also issued what some believe to be an anti-Semitic attack against the show's creator, Chuck Lorre, branding him a "turd" and a "clown" and repeatedly referring to him as "Chaim," a Hebrew form of Lorre's real name, Charles.
The response from CBS, which broadcasts the hit programme, was immediate. In a statement, the network announced that "based on the totality of Charlie Sheen's statements, conduct and condition", they had immediately "decided to discontinue production" of the show for the remainder of the current season. It remains to be seen whether Two and a Half Men will ever return.
In the highly strung world of Hollywood, the implosion of a major star is nothing new. Indeed, it only seems like yesterday that tape recordings of a ranting Mel Gibson were turning up on entertainment websites. But for an industry that revolves around money to consciously destroy a show that represents one of its most profitable creative products is different.
For the past eight years, Two and a Half Men, which follows the travails of a middle-aged party boy who lives with his brother and young nephew, has been one of TV's great commercial hits. The show, in which Sheen plays an exaggerated version of himself – dating younger women and often strolling around his beach-side home with a bottle of lager – has turned its star into one of the best-paid actors on television; estimates of his salary range from $1.2m to $2m per episode, which equates to between $30m and $50m a year (roughly £18m to £30m).
No one would accuse Sheen of artistic brilliance – indeed co-star Jon Cryer has won the show's only Emmy in a major category – but you don't rake in that kind of salary without serious audience pulling power. An estimated 200 to 250 people work on the Warners lot where Two and a Half Men is produced. And they are all now looking for a new job.
If these folk are inclined to bitterness, they are perfectly entitled to blame Sheen. After all, it's not as if the actor, whose private troubles publicly surfaced when he was arrested for spousal abuse in Aspen last Christmas, hasn't been given plenty of chances to clean up his act.
CBS stood by the wayward star through the Aspen court case last summer, which saw him sentenced to anger-management and rehab. It watched silently while his character was dissected during a divorce from his third wife, Brooke Muller, and again after his arrest in New York last October for trashing a hotel suite. Police were called to that scene by a prostitute who claimed Sheen had imprisoned her, inside a wardrobe, while high on cocaine.
Remarkably, given the family-friendly nature of American TV, CBS even made light of their 45-year-old star's hospitalisation in January, after he had spent the night "partying" with pornographic actresses, one of whom talked of him purchasing a $30,000 suitcase of cocaine. The show merely went "on hiatus" while Sheen attempted rehab, at home.
Yet that process appears to lie behind this week's events. Sheen, who believes himself ready to return to work, became frustrated when CBS told him they would prefer the show to remain on hold while he continued to clean up his act. He explained his feelings on Thursday in a telephone call to Alex Jones, a radio DJ.
"I'm sick of dealing with these clowns, and their judgement and their stupidity," he said of the network's executives. "They hang out with their ugly wives, in front of their ugly children, and just look at their loser lives, and then they look at me and say 'I can't process it'."
Sheen added that he had now checked himself out of rehab (Alcoholics Anonymous is a "bootleg cult" with a 5 per cent success rate, he complained) and was instead on holiday with a pair of pornographic actresses. "For now," he declared, regarding his blonde companions,"I'm just going to hang out with these two smoking hotties and fly privately around the world. It might be lonely up here, but I sure like the view."
In his own words
On the women he is holidaying with
"I'm 0 for 3 with marriage...the scoreboard doesn't lie, never has. So what we all have is a marriage of the heart. To sully or contaminate or radically disrespect this union with a shameful contract is something that I will leave to the amateurs and the Bible grippers."
On critics of his lifestyle
"I'm so tired of pretending like my life isn't perfect...I'm dealing with fools and trolls. You know they lay down with their ugly wives in front of their ugly children and look at their loser lives and then they look at me and they say: "I can't process it." Well no, you never will – stop trying, just sit back and enjoy the show. You know?"
On Chuck Lorre, his sitcom's creator
"I've spent, I think, I don't know, the last decade effortlessly and magically converting his tin cans into gold and the gratitude I get is this charlatan chose not to do his job. Later, via email: Clearly I have defeated this earthworm with my words – imagine what I would have done with my fire-breathing fists."
"I'm sorry man I got magic and I got poetry at my fingertips most of the time and this includes naps. I'm an F-18 and I will destroy you in the air and I will deploy my ordnance to the ground."
"Funny how sleep rhymes with sheep."Reuse content