It's easy to forget that the people we love to watch on TV aren't necessarily the same offscreen. Steve Carell isn't a self-absorbed, narcissistic paper pusher. Sandra Oh isn't a compulsive, overachieving M.D. in training. After all, they're actors -- if they're good at their jobs, we forget everything we've heard about their actual lives -- or, at least, we tune it out for 30 to 60 minutes and get wrapped up in their roles.
But sometimes the discrepancy between onscreen and offscreen is too big to ignore. Take Charlie Sheen. On "Two and a Half Men," CBS' No. 1 sitcom and the No. 1 comedy on television, he plays a bachelor-for-life who loves his brother and nephew almost as much as he loves the ladies.
In real life, he's accused of indulging in prostitutes, downloading underage porn and telling his "whore" ex-wife to "get cancer" and "rot in hell" in a text message, according to several published reports.
Should Sheen be canned, considering his off-camera reputation?
The actor has been embroiled in a bitter divorce with ex-wife Denise Richards for more than two years, and the two haven't held back from dragging each other through the mud. He accused her of sending his fiancée an e-mail asking for his sperm; she retaliated by telling the New York Post he sent her a text message saying, "I hope you and your worthless retarded father get cancer and join your stupid mom. Rot in hell you [bleeping] whore." (Richards' mom died of cancer in January.)
Did Sheen actually send that text message? His representative won't deny it.
"If that text was sent by him, who made it public?" Sheen's publicist, Stan Rosenfield, told ABC News. "He didn't make that public. He might have said it, but he didn't make it public. And there's a huge distinction between something someone said and something someone made public."
Regardless, it's out there. Sheen may play the part of a carefree Malibu lothario but his ex-wife's allegations paint the picture of a bitter, vindictive, potentially violent ex-husband. According to Robert Knight, head of the Culture and Media Institute at the Media Research Center, if CBS cared more about its image than its ratings, the network would fire Sheen.
"In an age of instant communication, public figures should know that their reputedly private lives are not so private and that what they do will reflect on how they're seen by their fans. As with any employee, they have a responsibility not to embarrass their employer. So if CBS set a high standard and one of its stars violated it very blatantly, the network would have every right to show that person to the door," he said.
But considering "Two and a Half Men" isn't exactly the most family-friendly show on TV -- Sheen's character, Charlie Harper, lives by the law of bedding women today and blowing them off tomorrow -- Knight doesn't see why CBS would kick him to the curb. Sheen's had his share of problems with drugs and prostitutes. He's No. 2 on Maxim magazine's "Top 10 Living Legends of Sex," having reportedly slept with 5,000 women. He's no Carroll O'Connor, and CBS knew that when they hired him.
"If this show were wholesome, this would be an easy call," Knight said. "They would have to get rid of him. But since the show is a nonstop sex joke about men using women just for sex and teaching a boy about alley cat ethics, Sheen's behavior off the set probably won't be an issue."
And it shouldn't be, according to Ray Richmond, television columnist and critic for The Hollywood Reporter. As long as Sheen leaves his divorce drama at the door when he shows up to work, CBS has no reason to can him.
"If you're molesting children in your off-hours, that's one thing, but this is a nasty divorce," Richmond said. "It shouldn't impact Charlie Sheen's day job. He's still an actor. This is still a role. Given the situation, it's probably no more incongruous knowing what we know than for Ellen DeGeneres to play a straight woman with a husband."
Sheen's the second sitcom actor in about a year to come under question because of his personal life. Last April Alec Baldwin, who plays a TV exec on the NBC sitcom "30 Rock," raised questions about his sanity as a star and a parent when TMZ.com leaked an expletive-laden voice message he left for Ireland, his then 11-year-old daughter with ex-wife Kim Basinger. In it, Baldwin berated Ireland for missing his scheduled phone call, calling her "a rude, thoughtless little pig," adding, "you have insulted me for the last time" and threatening to "straighten her out."
After publicly apologizing for the outburst, Baldwin asked NBC to release him from his "30 Rock" contract so he could focus his time on "parental alienation." But despite Baldwin's request and the many questions raised about his character, the network declined to let him go.
All the major networks -- NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox -- refused to comment on the record about what it would take for an actor to be removed from a series. But one network executive, who asked that his name and affiliation not be used, said it all boils down to TV's old system of checks and balances -- advertisers and viewers.
"When advertisers and viewers say things have crossed the line, they're usually right," he said. "If advertisers become shocked, offended and want to distance themselves because of something an actor did in their personal life, that elevates the issue. It's usually a case of someone doing something racially or politically insensitive or getting arrested."
Indeed, last June, ABC chose not to renew Isaiah Washington's contract after he reportedly called his "Grey's Anatomy" co-star T.R. Knight a "faggot" and got into a physical altercation with Patrick Dempsey.
And in May, the character played by "CSI" star Gary Dourdan was shot and killed in the show's season finale. Dourdan, who had been on the CBS drama since 2000, was arrested and charged with felony possession of heroin, cocaine and ecstasy in April. It is widely suspected that Dourdan's offscreen troubles might have played a part in his character being written off the show.
So whether or not Sheen should star in today's most successful comedy on television, unless he racks up charges or runs his mouth on the set, there's about as much of a chance of CBS removing him from its payroll as there is of Sheen and Richards resolving their differences over a nice bottle of Pinot and a candlelit dinner.
"Are you going to dump the star of your highest-rated comedy because he's going through a nasty divorce? No," said Culture and Media Institute's Richmond. "Are you going to support him any way you can and provide whatever assistance you can to help this pass as quickly as possible so he can concentrate better on his job? Yes."