Charlie Sheen fired up a cigarette in the back of a huge mansion in Pasadena, flashing a sheepish smile tinged with befuddlement. Moments earlier, he had been surrounded by a throng of reporters bombarding him with questions on topics including his personal life and earth-scorching meltdown last year and the status of "Anger Management," his upcoming series on FX.
"Man, it's a bit nutty," he said, puffing with a bit of a gleam in his eye. "I'm just a white guy from Malibu who dropped out of high school. I'm amazed that there's still all this interest in what's going on."
Of course, Sheen knows deep down he's not just a "white guy from Malibu." He's the "warlock" with "tiger blood" coursing through his veins, the guy whose drug-and-sex-soaked antics wreaked havoc on his family life, his career and his reputation while costing him his high-paying starring role on CBS' "Two and A Half Men." Video of his wild-eyed rants, in which he lashed out at his bosses while declaring he was "winning," were revived during the holidays as one of the top news stories of the year.
Photos: Fox's all-star party
But the Charlie Sheen who appeared at the Fox party Sunday for the Television Critics Assn. medias tour bore no resemblance to the 2011 model. Wearing glasses and looking trim, Sheen was matinee-idol handsome, looking healthier and clearer than he had in years. He was mobbed by reporters almost as soon as he walked into the Castle Green house. Although numerous other stars such as Keifer Sutherland and the cast of "Glee" attended, Sheen easily attracted the biggest crowd.
It was his first public appearance since September, when he allowed himself to be lovingly lashed and humiliated during his roast on Comedy Central. Though he seemed to embrace the vicious humor, he appeared a bit uneasy afterward and declined to speak to reporters.
But at the Fox party, Sheen was effortlessly charming, self-deprecating, patient and forthcoming, even though the swarm of reporters and photographers was so relentless that a bodyguard had to keep moving them back. Anyone who wondered why FX would want to do a series with a performer who has drawn more than his share of unsavory headlines in recent years would have had their doubts answered: Despite his notoriety and troubles, Sheen's considerable star power is undimmed -- and may have brightened with his fiery shenanigans.
And he maintained that his worst days are behind him. "Well, I'm not crazy anymore," he said to reporters when asked if he was a different person than last year. "That was an episode. I'm a different person than I was yesterday!" Asked whether he would leave the outrageous antics on screen, he offered, "Let's just say I have a mellower plan."
In a quieter moment after the reporters departed, Sheen said, "I find it really strange now when someone comes up to me in the supermarket and says, 'Winning!'" He said he realized he was one of the most famous people in the world last year, noting that one popularity measure concluded that 3 billion people knew about him ("That's half the planet"), and that he had little concept of how much of a cultural impression he was making at the time.
"I know I used it a lot and abused it a lot," he said.
These days, he said, he's spending more time with his kids and family, and has cut down on his tweeting: "To tweet while sitting at home watching a ballgame isn't very exciting."
Joined at the party by star sitcom producer Bruce Helford ("Roseanne," "The Drew Carey Show"), Sheen's main purpose at the party was to promote "Anger Management," which shares the title but little else with the 2003 Jack Nicholson-Adam Sandler comedy. The show is in early development; Sheen will play an anger-management specialist, but so far little else has been determined.
Said Helford, "Everyone in the world has called and wants to be on the show. They want to be a patient."
Helford, who is an executive producer of the show, and Sheen had high praise for FX and John Landgraf, who heads the network. Sheen said he was a fan of several of the cable channel's series, including "Sons of Anarchy" and "Louie." He said his series would probably premiere in the summer and would be a multi-camera show filmed before a live audience.
Sheen told reporters that working on the new series was already a more gratifying experience creatively than his previous series, "Two and a Half Men": "It's exciting to be in a situation where the people I work with are excited about my input. That hasn't happened in a long time. But I still know my strengths and weaknesses," adding that he looks to Helford to guide him.
Still, he was mostly gracious about "Two and A Half Men," though he said he felt that killing off his character (he was stuck by a subway train) was "a little mean-spirited." Ashton Kutcher, who replaced him on the show this season, is "doing a good job. But it's a different show now," he said.
He added that he thought Kutcher's introduction on the show (Jon Cryer, who played Sheen's brother, drops the cremated ashes of Sheen's character as Kutcher appears outside, wet and naked) "was one of the great TV moments of all time. That's how the show should have ended ... and then 'to be continued.'"
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Photo: Charlie Sheen at his Comedy Central roast in 2011. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times