Bad Rehab

Rebranding Charlie Sheen and the naughty boys

It is no surprise, then, that when a celebrity falls from grace, plenty of allies are waiting to lift them right back up—and place them atop a pile of cash. But most who misbehave still need to perform at least some sort of public penance. “There is a PR strategy that can almost always be employed,” says Linden, “and No. 1 is to apologize—repeatedly, if necessary.”

The gold standard for the so-sorry rebrand may well be actor Hugh Grant’s appearance on The Tonight Show in 1995 soon after his arrest on a misdemeanor charge for receiving oral sex in a car from a hooker, despite his relationship with winsome actress Elizabeth Hurley.

The scandal blew up only a year after the indie hit Four Weddings and a Funeral cemented Grant’s persona as an adorably stammering heartthrob, one whose popularity largely depended upon his good-guy charm. His dalliance with a Sunset Boulevard streetwalker named Divine Brown could easily have derailed his career.

But several weeks later, Grant addressed his publicity pickle when Jay Leno famously asked, “What the hell were you thinking?” A sheepish Grant apologized, saying simply that he had done a bad thing. He would repeat his mea culpa in subsequent interviews, and the media ate it up. Positive coverage helped his next film, Nine Months, finish the year with a respectable $69 million in box office receipts, despite tepid reviews from critics.

In other instances, the answer to recovering from a scandal is to wait it out. After earning an Oscar nomination for the 1992 film Chaplin, Robert Downey Jr. spent much of the next decade in the gossip pages for numerous drug arrests. In the years to follow, Downey’s repeated comeback bids were stifled when bond companies balked at insuring him.

But after proving that he could stay sober, Downey climbed his way back via smaller films such as Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and David Fincher’s critically lauded Zodiac. By the time he won the superhero lead in Iron Man—which ended up as the second-highest-grossing film of 2008, with a box office of $318 million—Downey had paid his dues (again), after working steadily to rebuild his reputation.

Then there are the hotheads who betray themselves by audio recording. In 2007, Alec Baldwin called his daughter a “rude, thoughtless little pig” on the answering machine of his ex-wife, actress Kim Basinger. Not to be outdone, in the summer of 2008, Christian Bale reamed out a staffer on the set of Terminator: Salvation in an expletive-laden rant that eventually would be leaked and turned into YouTube gold.

Both Baldwin and Bale apologized publicly—Baldwin on his personal website and The View, Bale on Los Angeles radio station KROQ. After their involvement in respectable and popular projects, both would escape virtually unscathed. Baldwin would go on to a five-year string of Emmy nominations for his work on NBC’s 30 Rock, winning in 2008 and 2009. Bale, meanwhile, was coming off 2008’s top-grossing film, The Dark Knight, followed by his 2010 Oscar-winning turn in The Fighter.

Keeping one’s head down can work for those outside Hollywood as well. When once-squeaky-clean Spitzer was revealed to have patronized a call girl and resigned office in March 2008, his career seemed finished. After publicly apologizing and laying low for several months, Spitzer began writing regularly for the website Slate. Among his pieces: “Credit-Default Hypocrites.”

Spitzer would become a commentator on MSNBC and the host of a short-lived CNN show before joining Current TV earlier this year as the host of Viewpoint With Eliot Spitzer, replacing ousted pundit Keith Olbermann. Ratings crashed, declining 62 percent among viewers 25-54. (Still, chatter about falling ratings beats what people were talking about in 2008.)

The same bad-boy-goes-good theme is at the heart of Sheen’s comeback strategy. And it is an appealing package, says one veteran media buyer. “The pairing of Charlie Sheen and a show titled Anger Management seems to be a marriage made in heaven,” says the buyer, who adds that the program is perfect for food, beer, auto, soft drinks and movie advertisers.

While the series is expected to get strong viewership out of the gate, the jury is still out, of course, on whether the public will embrace the new and improved Sheen for the long haul. “People will see sides to this character they haven’t seen Charlie play for a while,” says Helford. “I think people are going to say, ‘You know what? This guy is back on top of his game.’”

Perhaps. But either way, FX may be able to have its cake and eat it, too, with potentially two popular shows available for future reruns. Instead of flaming out, Two and a Half Men roared back after Ashton Kutcher entered the plot, playing a heartbroken Internet billionaire to replace Sheen, whose character was dispatched in a bloody train wreck.

That was no metaphorical series ending, since ratings climbed to 12.9 million viewers and a 4.3 rating after the entrepreneurial acting hunk joined in Season 9, raising the cost for 30-second commercials 25 percent to a whopping $250,000.

Whether riding off the rails—and back again—works for Sheen, too, remains to be seen.