Is CBS Monday sked ‘Half’ empty?

Rumors swirl around Charlie Sheen leaving show

Primetime’s biggest cliffhanger suddenly isn’t the climax of “Lost” or the last hour of “24,” but whether Charlie Sheen will turn down a $50 million-plus payday to remain on “Two and a Half Men.”

Insiders close to Sheen confirm reports that the thesp has told friends he will end his run on the top-rated CBS laffer at the end of this season.

“Men” producer Warner Bros. TV has been trying to nail down a new contract with Sheen for some time, and both studio and network execs still believe that the actor is simply upping the stakes.

That could very well be the case — but sources close to Sheen insist the thesp is not playing contract negotiations hardball but genuinely feeling the strain of fronting a TV series and juggling his turbulent personal life.

Sheen’s world erupted anew on Christmas Day when he was arrested in Colorado for allegedly threatening his wife, Brooke Mueller, with a knife. Sheen has pleaded not guilty to charges of assault, criminal mischief and menacing, and is awaiting trial in July.

Sheen would not comment on the report that first surfaced on on Thursday, nor has he set a timetable for making a formal announcement about his future on “Men,” according to his spokesman, Stan Rosenfield. The key players guiding Sheen through what will ultimately be a major career decision are the actor’s longtime manager, Mark Burg (who is an exec producer on “Men”), and lawyer Jake Bloom.

Sheen is believed to have been offered a deal worth more than $1 million per episode for two seasons, spanning 48 episodes. Warner Bros. TV declined comment, noting its policy of not discussing contract negotiations.

The fact Sheen might walk away from that paycheck is unfathomable to CBS and Warner Bros. execs. That notion, along with the fact that his reps have been busy negotiating a new deal (presumably with the thesp’s blessing), is why they believe this is more about a negotiation than anything else.

But the actor may be emboldened to turn down that windfall because he already has a generous profit participation stake the series.

“Men” is projected to gross upward of $600 million over the first six years of its run in syndication, which began in 2007. And Sheen’s backend position in “Men” is understood to be unusually big for talent, or as one source described, “the best profit definition for talent since Bill Cosby (in the 1980s).”

Sheen already has been the highest-paid star of a contempo primetime series for several years, with a paycheck estimated at about $850,000 per seg.

However, he’s still not in the territory of Kelsey Grammer, who reaped about $1.6 million an episode during the final years of NBC’s and Paramount’s “Frasier,” or Ray Romano, who pocketed $2 million per seg for the final season of CBS’ “Everybody Loves Raymond” (another syndie smash) in the 2004-05 season. The six stars of “Friends” each pulled down about $1 million an episode (plus small profit participation stakes) in the last two seasons of that NBC/Warner Bros. TV laffer.

Meanwhile, a show insider argues Sheen would have announced his departure by now if it were for real. That’s because “Two and a Half Men” is set to shoot its season finale this week — and the show’s producers would need a heads up now in order to make any changes.

“If it’s true, Charlie should come out and say it,” one source said.

Others note that the timing is a bit odd, as the studio and network just recently threw their support behind Sheen during his recent troubles — agreeing to shut down production for about three weeks starting Feb. 23 when Sheen voluntarily checked himself into rehab (Daily Variety, Feb. 24).

The uncertainty surrounding Sheen puts Warner Bros. TV and CBS in the unwelcome position of having to quickly develop a contingency plan for producing “Men” without its marquee star. Last March, CBS gave Warner Bros. a mega three-season renewal for “Men” (just as they settled a lawsuit filed by Warner Bros. regarding CBS’ obligation to cover WBTV’s deficits on the show).

That renewal takes the show, which also stars Jon Cryer and Angus T. Jones, through its ninth year in the 2011-12 season (Daily Variety, March 19, 2009). It’s unclear whether Sheen’s departure would change the terms of the deal — but most network observers believe it would force the network and studio to rework the license fee at the very least.

At the time, it was widely presumed that Warner Bros. TV had “Men’s” core cast members locked up for the duration of the renewal, which is typical when a network makes such a long-term commitment.

But it’s understood that when CBS and WBTV finalized early last year, Sheen’s camp was adamant that the studio wait on cementing a new contract, because the thesp was still dealing with child custody and division of assets issues stemming from his 2006 divorce from his previous wife, actress Denise Richards.

Further complicating the situation now is the prospect of Sheen facing jail time if convicted on the charges pending in Colorado. Sources close to “Men” stress that Sheen has never been anything but a pro when it comes to his performing his duties on the show, but there is mounting concern he may not be able to avoid a major conflict with the show’s production sked if he is convicted.

CBS is sure to turn up the heat on WBTV and Sheen to come to a decision about next season before the Eye unveils its fall 2010 sked in Gotham on May 19.

If Sheen walks, there’s no doubt it will be a handicap to CBS in selling ad time in the show, which is the anchor of its successful Monday comedy block. Sheen’s exit could also quash any aggressive scheduling moves by CBS on the night — such as moving “The Big Bang Theory” to another night. With a Sheen-less “Two and a Half Men,” the Eye would likely move “Big Bang” into the tentpole 9 p.m. slot.

One scenario likely to be considered is the possibility of Sheen doing fewer than the standard 24 episodes per season, as “Friends” and “Raymond” did in their swan-song seasons. (More recently, well-paid “Scrubs” star Zach Braff agreed to appear in a reduced number of that series’ episodes.)

Biz observers said Sheen could easily bump up his take-home pay to around $1.5 million per seg, given “Men’s” importance as a profit driver for CBS and WBTV.

Insiders said there was no outward sign of tension on the stage, or panic among WBTV and CBS execs, last Thursday evening on the Warner Bros. lot when “Men” taped what is expected to be its penultimate seg of this season.

And sources said there were no indications that “Men” scribes were scrambling to write a farewell seg for Sheen’s Charlie Harper character. The Internet, meanwhile, was abuzz with suggestions — many tongue-in-cheek — for Sheen’s replacement, should it get to that.

Meanwhile, as if CBS and Warner Bros. didn’t have enough drama to manage on “Men,” there are rumblings that reps for Jones, (aka the “Half”), are demanding a significant boost to his paycheck for the coming seasons. The thesp, who has come of age on the show during the past seven years, is believed to earn far less than the estimated $325,000 per seg commanded by co-star Cryer.

Of the three series stars, it’s understood that only Cryer is officially locked up for next season. Cryer’s deal was sealed some time ago, insiders said.

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