LOS ANGELES (USA TODAY) - For a guy who seems to have spent much of the past year 6 feet under, Charlie Sheen looks very much alive.
His last TV show, CBS' Two and a Half Men, ran him over with a subway train, and a promo for his new comedy, FX's Anger Management, premiering Thursday (9 ET/PT), plays off his Men funeral, featuring the actor in a casket. At a September Comedy Central roast, comics made brutal jokes about his impending death that even he found "a little spooky."
His career seemed mortally wounded after the bizarre rants and behavior that led to and followed last year's firing from Men. And family and friends were worried about him.
"It was like a weird dream I couldn't wake up from," Sheen says. "You know, when you're at one of those water parks, and you're in an inner tube, and you get that final wave that sends you toward that final deal. I couldn't get away from that moment."
Sitting near his tiled backyard pool in the hills above Los Angeles, Sheen, 46, is clear-eyed and comfortable, not the wild-eyed rambler who got the world hooked on "tiger blood" and "winning." There are no "goddesses" in sight, and his national My Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat Is Not an Option tour is just a memory.
He credits some down time with cooling the situation from a perpetual boil. "I went dark as soon as I came home (from the tour). I didn't give a single interview. I didn't talk about tiger blood, winning or anything. Without me fueling it, it died off," says the actor, dressed in a long-sleeve blue shirt and plaid shorts. That and other events, such as the purgative roast, let the tumult "come to a peaceful halt, not going 150 miles per hour into a brick wall playing Freebird."
Advertisers have come back, with Fiat and DirecTV casting him in commercials playing off his bad-boy image. So has Hollywood, with his role as the president in Robert Rodriguez's Machete sequel. But whether viewers will return for more than a curious peek after all that has taken place remains to be seen.
"I'm a retired gambler, three years. Not recovering, retired. But this is a gamble I'd be willing to take," he says. "The show, I believe, will remind people that they were curious about the work at first and not the antics."
Those antics would have destroyed many a career. Sheen says his honesty may have helped him survive. "I think there's been an ingrained likability to that. Even if they hate me, they can always say the frickin' guy told the truth, and that led to some attempt to deal with his own shortcomings."
As for Anger, the actor, whose films include Wall Street, Platoon and the Major League franchise, felt a cathartic desire to go back to work. "I was really not feeling great about how that other thing ended. It just felt messy and disconnected. I can't have that be my TV legacy."
FX executives had concerns at first, executive vice president Chuck Saftler says. "Those concerns started to fade as I got a sense of the real Charlie Sheen, as opposed to the media version that we all read about and saw from last year," he says. In focus-group testing, "there were nothing but massive positives about Charlie and people's desire to see the next chapter."
Win or lose, this is it for Sheen, at least for now. "I've got no more comebacks in me. It's too much work. I'm feeling like this is a really (great) way to at least temporarily have a swan song," he says.
'A delight' to work with
On Anger, he plays a version of himself, again named Charlie - as he did in Men and Spin City and will in an upcoming Roman Coppola film, A Glimpse Into the Mind of Charles Swan III. ("I promise the world this will be the last thing I do where my name is Charlie.")
Anger takes the title but little else from the earlier film, Sheen says. Charlie Goodson is an ex-baseball player who, in a fury, broke a bat over his knee, destroying his career. After undergoing his own anger treatment, he becomes an anger management therapist with clients ranging from a Paris Hilton-type to a group of prison inmates.
A divorced dad on good terms with his ex-wife (Shawnee Smith), he helps raise his teenage daughter (Daniela Bobadilla). He carries on a friends-with-benefits relationship with his therapist (Selma Blair).
"Charlie is a delight, and he's so good," Smith says. "Acting with him, it's a real game of tennis. The better your opponent, the better you're going to play. It's like playing tennis with John McEnroe."
Sheen's friend Michael Boatman, who plays Charlie's neighbor on the show, says he was concerned about Sheen during his turbulent times, but all has gone smoothly on set. "Being unhappy on his last show had a lot to do with it. And I think the fact that he's been able to create an environment here in which he's happy and feels good about what he's doing, that makes all the difference in the world."
Anger features a more evolved character than the one on Men, Sheen says. "Right off the bat, they're going to see that maybe it continues where Two and a Half left off. ... You're not going to see a guy with two moves," he says, taking a drag on a cigarette. "I think they're going to root for me in a different way because the show is pretty smart. It's not just about (penis) jokes and poo jokes and fart jokes."
His criticism of Men today doesn't come near the over-the-top rage of his comments from last year. "I've got to wish those guys well and hope they find their stride. Ooh, that was kind of a dig. ... There are moments when they do and a lot of moments when they don't."
As for his Men replacement, Ashton Kutcher, he says: "I liked him a lot when I met him. I think he's a terrific actor who hasn't been given the best material."
He appreciates having a say in Anger's direction, something he says producers weren't interested in on Men. "I think the writing is 100 times better. We've got the best show-runner in the universe (Bruce Helford). I had more fun the first week here than I had in eight years over there."
And he declines the chance to blast Men co-creator Chuck Lorre, the target of many earlier rants. "I'm grateful for the arena he created originally for me to shine in, and regardless of how much input I had or what restrictions were on my performance, the guy created a scenario that led to a dream life."
But when things went bad, they went really bad. The show stopped production last year, citing Sheen's comments and erratic behavior, and fired him, costing the actor the remainder of his two-year, $2 million-per-episode deal. "They created a show based on a guy's life who's a partier. The guy starts partying and gets fired. I'm confused," Sheen says. "I feel bad for (former co-star Jon Cryer). I feel like I abandoned Jon, even though I got traded. I didn't quit."
He sued for $100 million, settled for an initial $25 million and is supposed to get more from syndication revenue. CBS and Warner Bros. Television, the producing studio, declined comment on Sheen.
If the first 10 Anger episodes meet a ratings threshold that puts it among the best-performing shows on cable, 90 more are guaranteed, Saftler says. Anger, which will initially be preceded by reruns of Men, is "a very traditional sitcom but a very good and unique sitcom. It offers viewers the chance to see Charlie in a different way," he says.
The milder demeanor doesn't necessarily signal an overall change in Sheen's behavior. He still drinks. "I never said I stopped. I like to drink in social situations. I like to drink in places where drink has revealed itself to be effective."
He admits to a little pot for sleep and stress, "because it's legal. I'd rather do that than take a Valium." He says he was never high on the Men set.
There are women in his life, but he's not seeing any one in particular. "They're great, and I treat them like queens. I'm not getting married anytime soon, and they know that when I meet them."
Ex-wife, father guest-star
The placid approach contrasts with a 2009 event in which Sheen was accused of domestic violence against then-wife Brooke Mueller and a 2010 incident in which a porn star said she feared for her safety while in Sheen's hotel room.
Things are good these days with ex-wife Denise Richards, the mother of two of his five children, daughters Sam, 8, and Lola, 7. Richards guest-stars in an episode of Anger as a woman who doesn't believe in therapy.
"She's great. We have our qualms here and there. Anytime we have a fight, I say, 'Hey, there's a reason we got divorced.' The communication is 100 times what it was married," he says. And "she's a great mom. How well-adjusted our children are is really a testament to her, and to them for being tough enough to deal with living in a couple of different homes."
For all the turbulence, Sheen has some less incendiary pursuits. He collects watches. ("I'm always late, but I'm a watch collector. Go figure.") He likes to fish. And he's a big baseball fan.
His ultimate goal, he says, is to be able to spend as much time as he can with his family once he stops working. He appears to be doing so even while he's on the clock. His father, Martin Sheen, is guest-starring in an episode as his father; his brother Ramon is a co-executive producer; his sister, Renee, is a writer; and his nephew Taylor is an assistant.
He admits some of his family relationships became strained during his season of outbursts. "I had to make amends for being (a jerk) and for publicly saying things to them and about them that (were) juvenile and without any compassion or reality."
His demons can still come out, as they did at a recent Stanley Cup hockey game where he swore at an arena employee who wouldn't let him back inside after he left the building to smoke a cigarette. He acknowledges that he erred, waxing both philosophical and practical.
"A therapist told me that if we're the sum total of our experiences, we've got to take the good with the bad," he says. "If our monster is part of the whole package that brings us back to the light, then embrace your monster. But leave it in the car at the hockey game."