From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Denise Richards can attest: Her "compassionate" and "sensitive" husband can also be devilishly charming. But at 3 a.m. on a recent Wednesday morning, the lady at his side—his newborn daughter Sam—was simply not going to be soothed. "I changed her three or four times and fed her and did the burping," he says. For four hours he tried to get her to go to sleep, but she still wailed every time he left her nursery. "Finally I took her to Denise, and we put her between us," he says, "and she fell right asleep." The lesson? To heck with experts who suggest you let babies cry themselves to sleep. "You know what? No," Sheen, 38, says. "There's a time when compassion outweighs everything else."

Compassion—and gratitude. For the star of CBS's top-rated sitcom Two and a Half Men, late-night sessions with Sam have done more than perfect his diaper-changing technique; they have provided the actor with ample time to thank his lucky stars. The ones, for instance, that sparked his dimming career when he took over Michael J. Fox's part on Spin City in 2000. He began dating Richards, 33, after she did a guest stint on the series in 2001 and married her in 2002. Their first child, Sam, arrived at 10:57 p.m. on March 9. "I don't want to say he was instantly changed," says his father, West Wing star Martin Sheen, 63. "But he was instantly changed."

Two decades ago, when Sheen had his first child, Cassandra, 19, with his high school sweetheart Paula Profitt, he was but a kid himself. Riding high on acclaimed parts in such '80s landmarks as Platoon and Wall Street, the third of four actor children of Martin and Janet Sheen, 65 (siblings Emilio, 41, Ramon, 40, and sister Renee, 37, all took their father's given surname, Estevez), was a party boy less than committed, he has said, to fatherhood. Today, being a father—to Sam and Cassandra—is a top priority. "With a bigger life comes more responsibility," says Sheen, who has been sober for six years. "But it's not like I didn't earn it. It's pretty friggin' cool."

The added responsibility arrived sooner than he and Richards had planned. The two had just finished filming Scary Movie 3 last June when, on a vacation, Richards noticed she "didn't feel right. I felt tired." The night they returned to their postmodern home outside L.A., she took several pregnancy tests—all positive. A blood test by her doctor confirmed the news—and that day, during a break on a photo shoot, Sheen went outside and looked up to see a giant billboard. "It was a guy looking forlornly off into space, and it said something like, 'Unplanned pregnancy is my responsibility too,' " recalls Sheen. "People talk about God giving you signs."

Though surprised, both he and Richards were "thrilled," she says. "So many women have a hard time conceiving. It was a blessing." The couple learned their baby's sex after Richards's four-month ultrasound; her doctor wrote it down on a piece of paper and handed it to them in a sealed envelope. "That night," recalls Richards, "I told Charlie, 'We either open it now or we throw it away. I can't have it sitting in a drawer.' " They opened it, telling only their parents (though not Sheen's father, who didn't want to know). Elated, Richards's mom, Joni, 50 (who lives in San Diego with Denise's father, Irv, 54; her sister Michelle, 31, is a facialist), urged her anxious daughter to "just enjoy" being pregnant. The advice proved easy to follow. During her first trimester, Richards felt only mild queasiness and some fatigue. She continued to work (appearing as Sheen's ex-girlfriend in Men and in the film Elvis Has Left the Building) and work out. "I was walking and doing light weights, easy stuff," she says.

Richards also indulged her cravings for French toast and grapefruit, rubbed coconut butter cream on her belly to avoid stretch marks ("It worked," she says) and refused to step on the scale: "After I hit the 10-lb. mark, I didn't want to know."

Sheen, meanwhile, read books on fatherhood but soon decided that "you're not really going to know [what to do] until it happens. So I just put down the books and had faith that my instincts would kick in and new talents would be discovered." He was right. While his wife reveled in the "amazing" feeling of their daughter hiccuping in her, Sheen rubbed her back, which "always hurt," she says. "Charlie was great at giving massages."

As the months passed, there were the usual decisions to make. Choosing a name was easy. Sheen wanted something simple. "Some of these celebrity names today are way out there," he explains. "It might be cool for a parent to introduce Binocular Jones when he's 6 months old, but in school, it's sort of a curse." Sam, he explains, was the name of a cat he once had. "I hated the cat," he admits, "but loved the name." For her part, Richards oversaw turning Charlie's office into Sam's nursery, with jeweled picture frames and little mermaids everywhere.

In a final act of organization, they scheduled Richards for a cesarean section on March 10, nine days before her due date, to coincide with a weeklong hiatus in the shooting of Men. "It was convenient," says Richards. "We like to plan things."

But Sam had plans of her own. On March 9, Richards woke up with what she called "bad cramps." By 7 p.m. she was doubled over in the kitchen. She told Sheen that she would be okay and wanted to wait for the scheduled delivery. Sheen ignored her protestations. He called the doctor, grabbed their bags—his with three containers of dental floss ("I don't know why," he says), mouthwash and, anticipating a lot of pacing, tennis shoes—and calmly followed the 30-minute route he had mapped out to a Tarzana hospital.

Richards was surprised by the intensity of her contractions. "I had read every book, but I had no idea," she says. "They were awful." After an epidural relieved her discomfort, her biggest issue was getting her husband to put down his camcorder. "I was like, 'Please sit down. I'm really scared,' " she says. But the C-section went smoothly, and 30 minutes later Sheen cut the umbilical cord on their 7 lb. 3 oz. daughter. His first words, recalls Richards, were "Oh, little princess."

Six weeks later, Sheen and Richards are sharing baby duties and settling into their new routine, or at least trying to. A week after Sam was born Sheen returned to the Men set—but couldn't remember his lines. "All I was worried about," he explains, "was what was going on at home." If memory loss is an unexpected challenge, the new father is enjoying surprise perks too. Having Sam "has opened the door for Cassandra and me to be closer," he says. "She has already offered to babysit."

Like many parents viewing the world anew, Sheen and Richards see lessons everywhere—including on a shoe charm dangling from the diamond bracelet Sheen gave his wife in the hospital. On the back he inscribed the date their daughter was born. Or rather, the date she was supposed to be born. "It's so cute that it's wrong," says Richards. "Sam's telling us you can't plan anything. Go with the flow." Sheen has never been more ready. "He has realized himself in this relationship and this new parenthood in a way that is very gratifying," says his father. "We all have our journey to become ourselves, and he's there now."

Karen S. Schneider. Julie Jordan in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Julie Jordan.