Our front row seats for Sheen's tragedy

For one small radio station, desperate for publicity and better ratings, getting actor Charlie Sheen on air must have seemed worth any stunt.

So the producers at Wired 96.5 FM in Philadelphia hired a plane to fly over the actor's Beverly Hills home, trailing a banner that announced its love for him and included a phone number. "Call us 4 ur next role," it said.

Sheen spotted the plane. So he called in. Twice, last Friday. And a previously obscure radio station thousands of kilometres from Sheen's home inserted itself into the orgy of coverage of the actor's spectacularly public apparent breakdown.

Sheen spewed his now trademarkgibberish.

"You guys are radicals! You hatched this brainstorm like the Vatican assassins that you are, and so figured that if we fly it over his house, he has to call us," he told the station.

No one has to do anything in this epic celebrity mess. But Sheen is putting his sex- and drug-addled lifestyle on display, the media can't stop covering it, and the public can't help but read all about it.

He has publicly insulted his own bosses, causing them to cancel his TV show, invited reporters into his house to describe his menage a trois with a porn star and a former nanny, and revealed his past drug use.

He seems manic, out of control and to be loving every minute of it.

"He does not seem to care," said pop culture expert and author Richard Laermer. "There is only one way to go when you do what he does and you are in your 40s. Eventually, you die."

Not that most of America seems to care. It loved Sheen as the star of the hit sitcom Two and a Half Men, in which he played a womanising but charming cad. The show gave him US$1.2 million ($1.6 million) an episode, making him the highest-paid TV star in the US.

And now Sheen has destroyed Two and a Half Men, America seems only to adore him more. Last week his domestic antics, which included the removal of his children from the house he shares with his two girlfriend "goddesses", were all over the airwaves.

He was the subject of late-night comedy skits, internet parody videos and endless watercooler conversations. His talk of having "tiger blood" and "winning" became instant internet hits.

For decades Sheen's partying lifestyle has been an in-joke in Hollywood, but now he is inviting the media and the world to share in it.

Previously, stars in trouble would have been protected by network executives or publicists and kept behind closed doors. But no longer.

Sheen not only decided to call radio shows himself to lambast his enemies but also last week took to Twitter. Within 24 hours he had more than one million followers: a record for the microblogging website.

He happily blasted out tweet after tweet, announcing a hitherto unknown plan to write a book. "The title of my book has finally been delivered thru vast and extensive Lunar channels. 'Apocalypse Me' Warlock Latin for WINNING," he wrote.

By yesterday he had 1.6 million followers and had signed a deal for sponsored tweets that could net him US$1 million a year.

To say it has been an ugly week barely begins to cover it.

Underneath the wall-to-wall coverage there have been rumblings of a backlash, not so much at Sheen but at the attention paid to a man many believe is deeply unwell. Kristina Wandzilak, a Californian drug intervention specialist, complained to ABC: "This is more than a sensational story. This is a tragedy unfolding on a national stage."

Others went further. Los Angeles Times columnist James Rainey attacked the media as "enablers" of Sheen's problems, looking to profit from them without caring for their subject. He mused on what would happen if Sheen suddenly started to self-harm. "At the rate they're going, a platoon of television producers would rush to bring us every bloody self-mutilating moment," he wrote.

In the age of reality TV, fame comes at an ever higher cost precisely because it is now so cheap. Britney Spears had to have her hair shaved to make a cry for help. Sheen appears to want to do much more. It also threatens a terrible end to a once promising acting career.

Sheen, whose real name is Carlos Estevez, is the son of Hollywood royalty in the form of actor father Martin Sheen. He grew up in Malibu and each of his three siblings is also an actor.

He was lauded for his roles in Platoon and Wall Street. But now, at 45, he has found megafame as the punchline to hundreds of increasingly poor jokes.

Behind the jokes, however, is tragedy. Sheen's life may now resemble a bizarre piece of performance art, but real people are involved - his children.

Last week his twin 23-month-old sons, Bob and Max, were removed from his house (sparking a Sheen tirade against their mother on Twitter). His ex-wife Denise Richards also announced she wanted him to stay away from their two children, Lola, 5, and Sam, 6.

A few have pointed out Sheen's terrible two-decade record of violence against women, which includes the 1990 accidental shooting of his then-fiancee Kelly Preston, several guilty or no-contest pleas for assault and various restraining orders.

The incident last year at the Plaza hotel in New York, when a prostitute was found cowering in the bathroom of Sheen's wrecked room, was merely the last in a long list of incidents.

That has caused some to question why Sheen's career has lasted as long as it has.

Critics such as Anna Holmes, editor of the women's website Jezebel, have asked why Sheen was fired for insulting his male bosses but never for violence against his girlfriends or threatening his wife.

For any neutral observer, the latest chapter of Sheen's life looks more like a tragedy than the bawdy comedy many people are trying to pretend it is. It involves a man losing his children, grappling with demons and substance abuse and blowing up a show that not only made him rich but employed scores of people, most of whom had spouses and children and are now jobless.

Salon website writer Mary Elizabeth Williams perhaps described it best by comparing Sheen's antics to the blood sports of a former age. "How long can one man's apparent mental breakdown be America's favourite new dancing bear act?" she asked.

The answer, sadly, is probably a very long time.

THE SHEEN DYNASTY

Martin Sheen

Born Ramon Gerardo Estevez in Ohio of an Irish mother and Spanish father, Sheen is famed for his roles in films such as Apocalypse Now and the TV series The West Wing.

Emilio Estevez

The oldest child of Martin and his artist wife, Janet Templeton. Estevez has starred in the brat pack western Young Guns (with Charlie) and classic teen movie The Breakfast Club.

Ramon Estevez

Charlie and Emilio's brother Ramon has carved out a career as a small part actor and director who is also involved in production at Warner Brothers.

Renee Estevez

The boys' sister has had success in TV and theatre. Her best-known role was a regular part in The West Wing, where she played an assistant to President Jed Bartlet (played by her father).

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