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One would have to be living under a rock to have missed the drama that has unfolded in recent weeks between Charlie Sheen and his former employer Warner Brothers — the studio that produces the CBS show “Two and a Half Men.” Following Sheen’s rash of media exploits — from his interviews with ABC’s “Good Morning America” and CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight” — to his own webcast, “Sheen’s Korner,” Warner Brothers announced on Monday that it had fired Sheen from the show.
After the studio suspended production of “Two and a Half Men” in January so that Sheen could obtain treatment for the underlying causes of his bizarre behavior, the network officially canceled the remainder of the season in February after Sheen publicly lambasted Chuck Lorre, the show’s co-creator. Since then, both sides have lawyered up in preparation for what is sure to be a hard-fought legal tussle between Sheen and the network that once made him the highest paid actor on TV.
Sheen’s contract with Warner Brothers is the focal point of the dispute. In an eleven-page letter sent to Sheen’s attorney on Monday, the network’s attorney outlined the chain of events that led Warner Brothers to terminate its contract with the actor. Using Sheen’s media blitz as a sword against him, the letter emphasizes how Sheen’s public rants have alienated network executives, who he has called “fools and trolls,” and co-creator Lorre, whom Sheen challenged to a fight in the “octagon.” The letter also references Sheen’s admissions of drug use, including his boast about consuming seven gram “rocks,” a slang term for cocaine.
The Warner Brothers letter points to specific contractual provisions that Sheen allegedly breached. First, the network argues that Sheen’s conduct constitutes “incapacity” under the contract, referencing his deteriorating physical appearance, poor delivery of his lines, and need to move his mark so he could lean on objects for balance. Next, in support of its allegation that Sheen failed to fulfill the “material obligations” of his contract, the network cites one of Sheen’s many interviews in which he maintained that he would not return to the show without “radical changes” in its management. Warner Brothers also asserts that Sheen’s erratic conduct interfered with the producer’s ability to use his services and thus falls within the “force majeure” clause, a provision that releases contracting parties from their obligations in extraordinary events. Additionally, Sheen’s public tirades against the show and its executives (which motivated his publicist’s resignation) violate the “publicity” clause that bars Sheen from issuing any publicity about the show without the producer’s prior written approval. Lastly, the letter addresses the provision that has garnered the most attention, namely the “morals clause” that Sheen claims does not exist. On the contrary, the letter declares Warner Brothers’ good faith belief that Sheen breached the morals-based provision that forbids him from committing a felony involving “moral turpitude,” pointing to his admission of providing cocaine to others.
With respect to the disputed “morals clause,” Sheen’s attorney argues that the studio’s “moral turpitude” argument is a mere pretext for its motivation to fire Sheen for insulting Lorre. Entertainment attorneys familiar with “morals clauses” designed to restrain actors’ off-screen conduct argue that in this case, proving Sheen’s felonious moral turpitude will be more difficult than proving his violation of a standard “morals clause.” Because the contract bases its morals provision in violation of a felony, the studio will need to present specific facts to support its belief that Sheen violated each element of the felony cocaine distribution to which the letter alludes. However, even if the studio cannot substantiate its allegation beyond pointing to Sheen’s boastful admissions, the studio alleges breach of at least four other contract provisions to support its termination of the actor.
While entertainment attorneys and Hollywood observers alike await the next phase of the legal drama, the contract’s arbitration clause will likely shield any court filings from public view. However, given Sheen’s penchant for publicly airing his personal grievances against network executives, the results of the case would likely not remain private for long.
-- Kathryn Brown
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