Open Mic

It's Not Rocket Science, It's TV. Charlie Sheen Claims to Have a Michael J. Fox Clause in His Contract, So That If Sheen Is Replaced, He Still Gets Paid. Don't Know About That. What We Do Know Is That Warner Bros. and CBS Have the Santa Clause

Chuck Ross Posted March 8, 2011 at 5:54 AM

Rule No.1: Follow the money.

“Two and a Half Men” is too important to both CBS and Warner Bros, moneywise, to just disappear at the height of its popularity.

For CBS, while the company says it might save money in the short term by canceling some episodes, the halo effect of having it on its schedule—both to help launch future sitcoms and to get top dollar from advertisers—is worth many more millions.

For Warner Bros., the way its syndication of the show is set up, there’s no question that the studio makes a lot more money keeping the series in production.

Rule No. 2: It’s the writing.

“Two and a Half Men” is a remarkably well-written sitcom. And those writers aren’t going anywhere.

In Disney’s original movie “The Santa Clause,” as you’ll recall, Tim Allen’s character, Scott Calvin, had to replace Santa after Calvin caused Santa to fall off Calvin’s roof and die.

Given the money at stake, Warner Bros. and CBS will replace Sheen. Most likely they won’t get someone else to appear as Sheen’s character, but, rather, they’ll likely find someone who they think can play off of Jon Cryer, Angus T. Jones and the rest of the cast in much the same way Sheen did.

I asked Tim Brooks, who co-wrote the indispensible "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present," his opinion. "I do think it's possible for 'Two and a Half Men' to continue without Sheen, but it will be an uphill struggle," Brooks replied to me in an email.

He added, "The key I think is to first acknowledge the star's departure in some way in the plotline--don't 'pull a Darren' (referring to the replacement of Dick York with Dick Sargent in 'Bewitched' in the 1960s, without notice). Second, make the 'replacement' different in some interesting way, so as to spark some new interpersonal relationships and potential storylines for the show. Long-running shows almost always evolve in that way, rather than keeping the relationships static."

Successfully replacing characters in TV shows is a time-honored tradition. Ask Dick Wolf, who created “Law & Order.”

Or ask Valerie Harper. Harper rose to TV fame as Rhoda Morgenstern, a character on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in the 1970s. She was then spun out as “Rhoda,” headlining her own show.

In 1986, she starred in a new show, “Valerie.” Harper played the mother of the Hogan family in the show. The series was a hit, but after second season, I believe, Harper and the show’s producers, Miller/Boyett, got into a creative dispute about the show’s future. Harper was written out of the show, victim of an auto accident.

Another actress, Sandy Duncan, came in, introduced as Harper’s sister-in-law, and the show continued another three or four seasons.

Now, check out this next part. Harper and the producers of the show, Miller/Boyett and Lorimar Telepictures, had a huge legal tussle over her dismissal.

Here’s an account of it from People magazine on Oct. 3, 1988: “On Sept. 16, after five weeks of testimony, an L.A. Superior Court awarded Harper $1.8 million in compensatory damages and a share of the show's profits that could top $15 million. A delighted Harper says the jury's ruling that Lorimar treated her with ‘oppression and malice’ is even more gratifying than the cash. ‘I wasn't thinking of huge money settlements,’ says Harper of her long legal battle. ‘I was honestly thinking of clearing my name and getting my reputation back.’

“Both had taken a beating. In their testimony and in the press, the Lorimar people have been accused of painting Harper as a greedy, menopausal shrew. Lorimar executives described her in court as a woman ‘on the verge of a complete nervous breakdown’ and told the jury that on one occasion, Harper screamed at her producers, ‘Let me go! I'm not going to win an Emmy this way!’ Lorimar President David Salzman testified that after one such outburst during contract negotiations, he scribbled the words ‘change of life’ on his notes of the meeting.”

Later in the article it says, “Lorimar attorney Donald Engel admits that it was hard to overcome Valerie's ‘emotional appeal to the jury,’ even though Lorimar presented evidence that Harper was often difficult on the set and, in July 1987, failed to appear for a taping. ‘We felt we had a strong case that her disruptive behavior was sufficient grounds for terminating her,’ Engel says. ‘We felt she walked out on us.’

"The jury felt otherwise, and Engel thinks he knows why. ‘The guy in charge was a postal worker. I don't think anybody on the jury was anything but an employee in their entire lives,’ the attorney says. ‘They're going to be sympathetic to an employee, and particularly one who is famous. When [the jurors] were discharged, they ran to get her autograph.’ ”

So, trolls, does any of this sound familiar? I’m sure Sheen and his lawyers are studying the Harper case closely.

In a TMZ story today it says, “Sources connected with Charlie tell us ... Charlie has what they call a ‘Michael J. Fox clause' in his contract. When Fox was doing ‘Spin City,’ his contract provided that he would keep getting paid as long as the show was in production, even if he left the show. Ironically, when Charlie took over for Michael, Michael kept drawing his salary.”

Thus Sheen believes he should still get paid even though he’s been fired. However, Warner Bros. believes it fired Sheen for cause, thus nullifying the clause, TMZ notes. Again, more that the lawyers will be fighting about.

The Valerie Harper case is also not lost on Warner Bros. My guess is that Sheen’s case will never get to court, and that eventually a multimillion-dollar settlement will be made.

On Piers Morgan’s CNN show Monday night, March 7, our good friend, TV reporter Bill Carter of The New York Times, cited the success of the Harper show after her firing in his analysis that Warner Bros. and CBS would hunt for a replacement for Sheen. He was agreeing with another friend of ours who was also on Morgan’s show, TV Guide’s Steve Battaglio.

Where Carter and Battaglio differed was in predicting Sheen’s future. Battaglio said Sheen’s only future on TV would be on a reality show, partly because Battaglio doesn’t think Sheen is insurable. Steve said Sheen would be back on TV in a reality show that few will watch.

Carter agreed that Sheen will be back on TV within a year, but probably in a scripted show.

I tend to agree with Carter, though I wouldn’t predict a timetable.

But Battaglio is also right about the prospect of Sheen’s popularity in a non-scripted format. Despite the clear public popularity Sheen has displayed lately, I think most of us will tire of him quickly if he just continues to spew his semi-coherent populisms.

In a recent column I reviewed the 1976 classic movie “Network” upon the occasion of its release on the Blu-ray format.

What’s happened since I wrote that review is that Sheen has really embodied that movie's Howard Beale character, and, for the first time ever we’ve really had a “mad prophet of the airwaves.”

But, in the end, it’s the studios and the networks that win. They have the most power, the most clout. Sheen will get a nice payout, but that’s likely to be the extent of his winning.#