Ashton Kutcher on ‘Two and a Half Men': How Did We Get Here?

The long, strange trip that led to TV’s highest-paid star getting replaced on its biggest sitcom

Ashton Kutcher's new place at the center of "Two and a Half Men" seems normal now, thanks to months of planning and a well-orchestrated rollout by TV's most-watched network. At Sunday's Emmy Awards, even Charlie Sheen seemed resigned to the idea.

But it would have been hard to imagine, a year ago, Sheen ever parting ways with the show that returns without him tonight.

Also read: Sheen Tweets Pictures With Kutcher at Emmys

As the CBS show started its eighth season on Sept. 20, 2010, it was the top-rated sitcom on the air, and Sheen TV's highest paid star. Everyone was on cruise control, including Sheen, who would later say he was able to hit his marks even after long nights. He received about $1.8 million per episode.

The arrangement was so mutually beneficial that Sheen's bosses were willing to look past his guilty plea, just a month before, for assaulting his wife during a drunken Christmas Day argument. He was sentenced to 30 days in drug and alcohol rehab.

Also read: Ashton Kutcher Confirms Charlie Sheen's 'Two and a Half Men' Death (Video)

Everyone agreed the show should go on, as long as Sheen's troubles were behind him.

How naive that seems now.

The show remained top-rated, as voters assumed Sheen was past his violent behavior, or chalked it up to more exaggerated bad-boy behavior. He made no secret of his past affinity for drugs and hookers. 

But within a month, police found Sheen naked and apparently intoxicated at a New York hotel, and his porn star guest later accused him of assault. (Though police never charged him.)

In January, he spent a weekend partying in Las Vegas, barely making it to set on Monday morning. He missed a Tuesday call time and went to the doctor for what his then-spokesman, who has since left, called an ear infection.

Two days later, at the Television Critics Assn. winter press tour, CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler had a long-scheduled session with a room full of reporters. She expressed a "high level of concern" about her highest-paid star.

Less than two weeks later, on Jan. 27, Sheen was rushed to the hospital with what his spokesman said were abdominal pains. But in an on-camera interview with TMZ, another porn star described a long binge that included a dealer bringing Sheen a satchel full of cocaine.

Sheen announced the next day he was entering an "undisclosed rehabilitation center." CBS announced it was halting production on the show, and it, production company Warner Bros., and executive producer Chuck Lorre expressed support and concern.

No one knew that the Sheen era on "Two and a Half Men" was over.

Especially Sheen. On Valentine's Day, he said, he went to the set and screamed himself hoarse trying to be let in. Later in the day he called in to "The Dan Patrick Show" for the first of many bizarre interviews.

"I guess they're closed," he said of the set, which it was, because of his rehab. He said the show should bring him back fast, while he felt healthy, and said he believed he could handle crack "socially," but added, that "kinda blew up in my face…like an exploding crack pipe."

On the night of the interview, Lorre wrote in a "Two and a Half Men" title card that, given his own healthy lifestyle, "If Charlie Sheen outlives me, I'm gonna be really pissed."

It was hard to say if Sheen and Lorre were kidding. Word came Feb. 16 that Sheen would return to the show at the end of the month. That was the same day he called Patrick again, and volunteered that he sometimes asked that furniture be moved closer to him on the "Men" set, to help him keep from falling after long nights.

The statement would come back to bite him.

For the next three weeks, he seemed to be everywhere. He said in a slew of interviews that he had "tiger's blood" and was a "Vatican assassin." He coined the catch phrase "winning." He introduced the world to his live-in goddesses, another porn star and a former marijuana magazine model. He acknowledged he had not gone to a formal rehab facility, but was staying at home, which he called the "Sober Valley Lodge."

Two psychologists interviewed by TheWrap speculated that he might be suffering long-term effects of abusing crack.

Sheen didn't deny drug use, telling one interviewer that a month earlier — around the time of the widely reported binges — "I was banging seven-gram rocks and finishing them because that's how I roll."

Sheen's father, Martin Sheen, expressed concerns about his son's health; Sheen told him publicly to, "Shut it."

He also ripped his boss, addressing him as "Chaim Levine" — which he said was his Hebrew name — and ridiculing his writing. He said he had spent the "last decade effortlessly and magically converting your tin cans into pure gold."

Finally, Warner Bros. TV, which produces the show, had had enough. On March 7, it fired Sheen, using his own comments against him. Noting his admissions about drugs and using furniture to stay upright onset, studio lawyers said Sheen had demonstrated "dangerously self-destructive conduct and appears to be very ill."

Sheen quickly sued for $100 million, saying he was actually fired for criticizing his boss. (The case is in arbitration.) He continued to rip his former boss on "Sheen's Korner," an Internet show he soon abandoned. Then he embarked on his "Violent Torpedo of Truth" national tour, which proved to be as erratic as he was.

CBS and Warner Bros. TV, operating in secrecy, began looking for ways to keep the show afloat without Sheen. The actor critiqued his possible replacements, including John Stamos and Rob Lowe, who was already locked into NBC's "Parks and Recreation."

Warner Bros. talked to Hugh Grant — also known for a bad-boy past, because of the night he picked up a prostitute in 1995 — about replacing Sheen for less than $1 million. He eventually declined.

On May 13, Sheen said there had been "discussions" about his returning to "Men" — which his former bosses immediately denied.

Three days later, Ashton Kutcher's hiring was announced. He will make less than $1 million per episode.

Tassler introduced him to advertisers at CBS's May upfront presentation to advertisers, bringing him onstage with co-stars Jon Cryer and Angus T. Jones. He said he felt like he'd "won the lotto or something … which I kind of did."

At a tense first table read over the summer, full of apprehension about whether the new cast would gel, they quickly did, according to those involved. Soon Kutcher was on the "Late Show With David Letterman," confirming reports that Sheen's character would die in the first episode of the new season.

Sheen at first took small shots at his former show, saying it would score mediocre ratings without him. During his media blitz he called Cryer a "troll," and said Cryer should have supported him. (He later apologized.)

But as Kutcher and his former castmates have declined to criticize him, Sheen has mellowed. In a "Today" show appearance Friday, he said he would even be willing to come back and guest star. (Of course, the show would have to work around his character's death.)

At the Emmys on Sunday, Sheen wished his former show "nothing but the best" and tweeted pictures of himself backstage with Kutcher (one of them, above). "Giving the new kid a little advice..!" he wrote with one of the pictures.

His Comedy Central Roast, meanwhile, airs half an hour after the "Men" premiere, ensuring he won't cede the spotlight.

It's hard to imagine what's next.