The Kid is snuggled into a back booth of a dark L.A. restaurant, wrapped in cigarette smoke, sucking a cold beer. There's not a woman in the place who hasn't eyed him. Charlie Sheen, Martin's 21-year-old son, has got his old man's brooding good looks—an open face that Wyeth would love to paint, steady brown eyes smoldering with a Bogart blaze. That compelling face is very much in evidence in this season's ripsnorting box office success, Platoon, in which Charlie plays Chris Taylor, whose purity of soul becomes the murderous plaything in an allegorical battle of Good and Evil "Charlie's very cool, very much part of a new generation," says Platoon's writer-director Oliver Stone. "He was idealized in the movie, but the real Charlie has got a bad boy quality." Sheen laughs at the idea, using his favorite phrase to sum up everything that's been happening in his life since the movie leapt into the big bucks ($66.5 million to date): "It's dubious." To be sure, Sheen was not favored with one of Platoon's eight Oscar nominations, though salutes for Best Supporting Actor went to the two men who personify good and evil, Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger (see boxes). Oscars, for the moment, at least, are not near the top of Sheen's priorities; good times are.
He's had a helluva week. Monday he was on the set of his new movie, No Man's Land, playing the leader of a ring of car thieves. That's when a prop explosive accidentally discharged, ripping his chin into a bloody mess that required seven stitches. Rubbing a two-inch scar on his left jawbone, Sheen says, "I don't know exactly what went down, man. I'm still evaluating the situation."
Off recuperating for a week, he roused himself on Tuesday night for a party thrown by David (Knight Rider) Hasselhoff for the 30th birthday of his wife, Catherine Hickland. "I went to drink some beer and check out butts," says Sheen, who drank and checked till dawn. No matter that the Oscar nominations would be announced in the morning. "I didn't care," he says. "If it happened, I would have been happy. But I didn't sit home and chain-smoke myself to death." In a way, he's grateful that he didn't make the cut. "The pressure is off," he says.
Sheen seems to be in the minority concerning his Platoon performance: "It was not Best Actor caliber." His father is in the majority, saying, "I was stunned at Charlie's ability to get that deeply into his self." The son just shrugs, crediting Stone for "making magic" in the editing room. "There are a few moments I'm pleased with," he says, "but looking back now I know I could do better."
Sheen's lack of pretense proves intensely likable no matter how outrageous he gets. Spying a familiar blonde in the restaurant, he excuses himself for a quick detour. The blonde is supermodel Kim Alexis. Sheen slips into her booth, talks briefly, then returns disappointed. Alexis is married. "I've been in love with her from afar for a long, long time," he says. "There are 10s and there are No Scale Required. Kim's a No Scale Required." As she leaves he smacks the table with his palm. "Man, I'd lay a thousand miles of telephone cable just to..."
Well, you get the picture. Sheen sees himself as "the captain of my own ship, the consummate bachelor." He closed the deal for Platoon from the phone in his $50,000 black Porsche. His six pre-Platoon feature films may not have brought fame, but they did bring ready cash, an estimated $2 million. Sheen carries a roll of $100 bills, figuring, "I love going into a shopping area just knowing I have the option to buy anything I want." As for romantic entanglements, he says with characteristic callowness, "I had a girlfriend [actress Dolly Fox], but I got that piano off my back." He takes out a piece of paper, his list of women, neatly numbered 1 through 25. Some names are starred, one to three, like restaurant reviews. Other names are labeled: breasts, Jacuzzi, cheerleader. His other major addiction is the lottery. Sheen carries nearly 50 tickets in his wallet. "I just want to win the lottery, man—and disappear for a while."
The next day Charlie materializes at his parents' home in Malibu. There's what Charlie calls "the usual bustle" in the rambling ranch house. Father Martin is finishing lunch and discussing his passionate interests: the madness of the arms race and the sadness of the homeless. Actress sister Renee, 19, listens intently. Older brothers Ramon, 22, a screenwriter, and Emilio, 24, an actor-writer-director, have moved out on their own. Mother Janet, 47, turns out sandwiches behind the kitchen counter. "She's the warden," says Charlie admiringly of his mother. "She keeps us all wired tight." Charlie tells his father that he'll take his mother to the Lakers game in his Porsche. "Promise me," says Janet to her son, "that you won't turn my hair white on the way there."
Born Carlos Irwin Estevez in New York City, where he lived until he was 3, Charlie has until recently called this Malibu retreat home for the past 18 years. "The best group of people I know," he says, gazing at his family. His mother smiles wearily. Like her husband, Janet is reluctant to brief the press on life with Charlie. "How can I talk about one child and not the others?" she says. "But you can quote me on this: I could write a book." Charlie beams. "I got a terrific relationship with everybody here," he says.
It wasn't always so. Young Charlie admittedly was a handful. He says he was a good enough baseball player at Santa Monica High to get a scholarship to the University of Kansas. "I could compete," he says. "I had a decent arm." But he couldn't bring himself to turn up at school often enough to earn a diploma. "I just couldn't get it together," he says of his 33 percent attendance record. "The problem is my parents bought me a car when I was 16, and L.A. was at my feet."
Growing up in Malibu, Charlie hung out with future Brat Packers: the Penns (Sean and Christopher) and the Lowes (Rob and Chad). "When all the other kids were out surfing, smoking dope and doing crazy things, we were making super-8 movies," says Charlie. "There was never a script, just improvisation. Sean has moments in our films that are better than anything he's done professionally."
Older brother Emilio intimidated him at first. Emilio was a good student ("he always had that over me") and the first of the Sheen progeny to launch a successful acting career. "I had a thing with Emilio," Charlie admits. When Emilio chose to use the family name, Estevez (his Spanish-Irish father had changed his name from Ramon Estevez to Martin Sheen for career purposes in 1959), Charlie decided to be different. "As soon as I became a professional peer," says Charlie, "we got along great."
Charlie's feature film career began less than auspiciously with 1984's exploitation horror film Grizzly II. He asked his father for advice. "I went to Dad and told him I was thinking of getting involved in an acting workshop. Dad said, 'Look, Charlie, don't become a classroom actor. Don't do things by the book. As an actor, things just happen. You have to trust yourself.' "
He followed Grizzly II with a TV movie on teen suicide with buddy Chad Lowe. And then a string of lightweight movies—Red Dawn, The Boys Next Door, Lucas, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and the critically crucified Wisdom, directed by Emilio. And then, because it was "only three weeks' work for a nice piece of cash," he starred in a sci-fi trash-and-slasher, The Wraith. "It's probably double-billing with Wisdom right now on malfunctioning airplanes," says Charlie.
When Platoon came along, Charlie knew he had "a brilliant script" and his first substantial challenge. Actually, Charlie had auditioned for the role three years earlier and been rejected by Stone in favor of brother Emilio. Then Stone's financing fell through. Later, when Charlie read again for the part, Stone was startled. "The first time around," Stone recalls, "Charlie was a kid. He was thinner, he hadn't filled out. But this time I knew in 10 minutes he was right."
Charlie prepared by talking with his father, who had played a similar part in another acclaimed Vietnam film, 1979's Apocalypse Now. Shadowing his father's most significant role left Charlie shaken. "If you put it on paper," he says, "Apocalypse versus Platoon, Martin Sheen and Charlie Sheen, both of us the lead characters, both narrating, both films shot in the Philippines, you'd think you'd win the lottery before that would happen."
The Platoon company arrived in Manila just a few days after Cory Aquino came to power. Charlie had spent eight months there as a 10-year-old when his father made Apocalypse. "I stepped off the plane and stopped," Charlie recalls. "That smell hit me immediately: burning rubber, that poverty, that stench, that malaria that's always in the air. I thought, 'I'm back. I'm back here doing it again.' "
Martin had suffered a heart attack while shooting Apocalypse. Charlie had a different kind of crisis. He was wary of Stone, who had based Charlie's character on his own experiences in Nam. "When he arrived for filming, Charlie was still a nerd," says Stone. "Then each week there was a perceptible change as he became a soldier."
And how. Stone had arranged for Capt. Dale Dye, the film's technical adviser and a retired Marine Corps vet, to conduct a two-week boot camp for the actors. "It was 100 percent military," says Sheen. "We were told if we disobeyed an order, we'd be off the film." Wake-up calls were at 5:30, followed by hours of calisthenics and 12-kilometer humps that pushed the actors to the edge of mutiny. "I think it was Day Two when me, Kevin Dillon [Matt's brother] and Francesco Quinn [Tony's son] got together and said, 'We're actors, not infantry. Let's just walk.' "
They didn't, of course, but Sheen recalls the time he came closest. During one scene, in which he was to help unload a helicopter, Sheen wanted to keep his T-shirt on to protect his back from the rocks and debris kicked up by the chopper. Stone wanted the shirt off. Sheen refused. Stone turned on him and said, "What? Are you a pussy? Are you a little pussy from Malibu? Played too much volleyball all your life?" That infuriated Charlie. "I got so pissed off I ripped the shirt off, did the scene and had scars on my back for weeks."
Sheen now takes pride in having seen the role through without turning himself into a gung-ho Rambo. He thinks he's learned a political lesson as well. "The Vietnam War was something that never should have happened. I'm hoping guys my age can see this film and not want to perpetrate a similar situation in, say, Central America. If we can achieve that, then we've said something with the movie."
Charlie is home now. His new home. Shortly after his return from the Philippines, he left the family residence and moved to a two-story town house whose balcony hangs out over the sandy beach of Malibu. The "place of his own" was part of what Charlie calls a one-month period of readjustment after his Platoon experience. "It's like I came back to the real world and suddenly I have to deal with traffic lights, eating with utensils and leaving tips." He says he finally understood a little of what those returning soldiers felt.
Despite the sober lessons, there's still much of the school kid in Charlie, the one who years before—to his father's disapproval—had a dragon's head tattooed on his right shoulder. On a recent Platoon press junket in Toronto, Charlie decided to put eyeglasses on the dragon. "Ten bucks and it's very painful, like a cat digging in at high speed," says Charlie, who insists that Stone goaded him into it. He asked the tattoo artist if he could light up a cigarette. He was told no. Said Charlie: "Look, I'll give you $25 if I can smoke." He got to smoke.
Money has become very important to Charlie Sheen. "It moves things," he says. So he's out to get more. He earned an estimated $500,000 for a new movie, Three for the Road. "Very cute," he quips. "Take the whole family." And he's excited about working again for Stone next month in Wall Street, a movie about the new breed of young traders. After that, explains Charlie proudly, "I'll hit the seven-figure mark in salary."
Scarcely into his 20s, Sheen has arrived at a profound philosophical conclusion: wealth buys happiness. As he sees it: "Money is energy, man." On the downstairs sofa of his apartment are five remote-control devices for various video and audio components. Upstairs is an office with computer and gym equipment. "I'm the definition of decadence," he says.
Sheen wants longevity in his business; he wants to keep buying toys. But he does not believe that actors survive by settling for artistic integrity. He's writing a screenplay called How To Eat and Drive. "It's stupid, really," he admits, "but look at Porky's and Revenge of the Nerds. If those films can get made and make millions, I can put something on paper and film it."
He may be right. Charlie has already directed one small film, a home movie short that he hoped would appeal to Late Night's David Letterman. He mailed it in last year. It wasn't accepted—probably, he thinks, because of the frequent use of the F word—but he did get a note back from Dave. Sheen has tacked it on his office bulletin board. It says, "Dear Charlie, thanks for letting me see your video. It's obvious you're the Sheen with talent."
By now Platoon has made Charlie Sheen's talent obvious to everyone.
- Todd Gold,
- Jamie M. Saul,
- Ron LaBrecque.