Saving Ferris: My Charlie Sheen Years and Yours

It was only in watching Monday’s “Two and a Half Men” that I began to realize how intertwined all of our stories had become

A decade ago, I helped oversee a “table read” at the HBO offices in Century City of an exciting new screenplay, “Save Ferris,” a parody/sequel to the legendary John Hughes’ movie, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

The organizer was an aspiring producer, Holly Wiersma (“Factory Girl,” “Wonderland”) who had talked almost the entire cast of the then-new “That 70’s Show” into reading. She had help: The HBO producer involved was legendary sports announcer Jim Lampley. (How do you think we got such swanky offices for a table read?)

But it was only in watching Monday’s “Two and a Half Men” that I began to realize how intertwined all of our stories had become. Because, as I recall it from that fall Saturday, 10 years ago it was Ashton Kutcher who played the young Charlie Sheen in “Ferris!” So Monday wouldn’t have been the first time Kutcher would have replaced Sheen — but it did jog my memory.

Back to, back to…

In this case the memory begins with his father. Martin Sheen was already a legend for “Apocalypse Now” which was released the year I got out of college. I’ll never forget coming home from my first job at Newsweek only to be assaulted by my then-best friend M. George Stevenson when he broke in pretending to “dive” on a grenade to save me from the blast. The after effects of a screening of “Apocalypse.”

Several years passed but I still didn’t understand how far the Sheen family had burrowed into our national psyche: A pitcher himself growing up in Malibu, Charlie played  “pitcher” to a tee in John Sayles’ 1988 film “Eight Men Out” (about the Chicago White Sox’ “Black Sox” scandal) and then in numerous “Major Leagues.” 

But Sheen had already hit the public’s imagination as the “bad boy” arrestee who hits on Jennifer Grey in the final scenes of “Ferris.” It was such a tour-de-force that another bad boy, Oliver Stone, cast him as the lead in his breakthrough Vietnam epic, “Platoon.”

Which is where it gets creepy. 

Oliver was smart enough to “sneak” the movie for selected writers, of whom I happened to be one. As I’ve written before, having walked out of a solo screening in August 1986, I immediately called Newsweek’s esteemed critic David Ansen and told him “I’ve got our Christmas cover!” David remembers it differently, but the reality is that we spent that fall working on a Christmas cover story for Newsweek, only to be beaten out a week before by Time, which put it on their cover. Our story ended up running a week later as a “takeout” or major feature just after the New Year (Newsweek, 1/5/87).

I moved to Disney as a VP and didn’t really think about Charlie or his family for a while — until Michael Douglas hired me as VP of production for his new Columbia Pictures’ company, Stonebridge Entertainment.

What was our first movie? An update of the quintessential youth romance, “Heidi,” starring Charlie Sheen as “Peter.” Understand, this wasn’t much of a stretch: In those days, independent films were largely financed by foreign “presales” and, thanks to back-to-back Academy Award-winners “Platoon” and “Wall Street”(the latter not only starring Michael, but both Martin and Charlie), telling the foreign buyers that you had Charlie Sheen meant you were in like Flynn. They weren’t the only ones, however.

Cut to: A year or so later I’m sitting around the office one night with Michael, his partner and one or two others and suddenly, out of the blue, we start talking about this new ”Hollywood hooker”/Heidi Fleiss story that the press had glommed onto. It seemed Charlie and his then-girlfriend Ginger Lynn were at the center of the storm.

After that, it gets scarier — I mean, many producers have interactions with stars, but how many can say their first son was born while watching Charlie Sheen on cable TV at Cedars-Sinai in “Hot Shots”? Or later to have been cutting his own Sundance movie, “Shadow Hours” in the same room in which Charlie’s brother, Emilio, was editing Charlie’s Sundance movie that year, “Rated X”?

Similarly, how many could also say that their wife was at the same time the producer of a vast majority of the ‘90’s Toyota TV spots that featured Martin Sheen as the “voiceover artist” (who earned a cool $1 million per year.) Later, of course, that marriage broke up over (among other things) my dalliance with Charlie’s friend Heidi’s ex-partner, who I lost (according to her) to rock guitarist Dave Navarro.

But that wasn’t really the defining moment — rather, it was probably a year or so later when, having moved to Malibu to escape the temptations of the city, my sons and I were at the 10 a.m. mass every Sunday at Our Lady of Malibu. We happened to habitually sit on the right side of the congregation, behind the then “President” of the United States, Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen.

So it all comes full circle: Like Charlie, both my sons became pitchers for Malibu-Santa Monica school teams — though neither is called “Wild Thing.”  Martin may be gone from the church, but so is my ex-wife.

Weirdly, my new wife and mother of my twins was born the same day as Charlie. And every time I watch the “classic” “Two and a Half Men” episodes, I can’t help but forget the old, rotting-wooden beach house down in Malibu that legendary producer Roz Heller (“All the President’s Men,” “Who’s That Girl?) and I shared from 1990 on. It’s a spitting replica — and not nearly what Ashton Kutcher (or should I say “Walden Schmidt”) paid!

Thanks to Charlie, I was able to afford to raise my children in his home town. Whatever his problems, we should all be so lucky. Now that one’s off to college and another on the way, salute to Charlie.

We couldn’t have lived this life without you!