A talented but troubled actor potentially suffering from a bipolar disorder is fired from a hit TV show after one too many embarrassing incidents involving substance abuse.
And less than a decade later, Robert Downey, Jr. goes from a tabloid story and "Ally McBeal" sideshow to the second-highest grossing film of the year.
It's far too early (and pat) to suggest that Charlie Sheen is headed for a career revival along the lines of Downey's "Iron Man" comeback or anything else possibly portended by Sheen's cameo in Downey's "Due Date." First, Sheen (like Downey, 45) has to demonstrate he wants a comeback. Unlike the Iron Man's fall from grace in the late 1990s, which seemed to contain a certain amount of private shame, Sheen has embraced the dysfunction. Downey at his lowest moments seemed at least nominally interested in rehab, or not outright disdainful of it. Sheen's heal-thyself attitude doesn't exactly scream 12-step program.
Still, here are five reasons why an "Iron Man"-style resurrection isn't out of the realm of possibility for Sheen in the years to come.
The comeback factor:
Americans love a public comeback almost as much as they love a public spiraling. In fact, "Different Strokes" cast members aside, it's hard to think of actors with substance-abuse problems who weren't given second and third chances. (Allegations of misogyny and anti-Semitism are a separate issue.) Whether Sheen seizes the comeback opportunity is an open question. But he should get one.
The talent show:
Sure, you can mock the "I wasn't even trying" quip Sheen made to "20/20" about his early acting roles. But long before he bolstered a prime-time sitcom by playing a thinly disguised version of himself, Charlie Sheen had some promising film roles, including "Wall Street" and "Platoon." In fact, stack Sheen's early-career filmography against Downey's (best known in that era for "Less Than Zero" and "Chaplin") and the actor formerly known as Carlos Estevez probably comes out on top.
Right now, Sheen must seem like plutonium to anyone casting a movie, not least because of the insurance issue. Lindsay Lohan could probably get bonded more easily. But solve that conundrum and producers could make a case. Putting Sheen in a movie gets you instant attention that even millions of dollars in marketing couldn't buy. And sure, there's the distraction factor -- but the actor by most accounts showed up for work on "Two and a Half Men" no matter how hard he was partying the night before. What's more, unlike TV, you wouldn't need a major commitment from Sheen to cast him -- just his willingness to step up for a few months of shooting and promotion.
Sheen's got plenty in the bank now. But unless Mark Cuban pays him Dirk Nowitzki money to appear on HDNet, he'll will need some cash at some point in the next few years. And celebrities have a strange way of straightening out when their bank accounts are on the line.
Downey fought his way back to respectability the old-fashioned way -- semi-privately and with a steady diet of film roles. Sheen has far more potent and fast-acting tools at his disposal. As much as Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle have sped up and made public the actor's unraveling, they can also hasten his return, if and when he chooses to make one.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Charlie Sheen leaving a Colorado courthouse last summer. Credit: Rick Wilking / Reuters