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."