— When Charlie Sheen does an interview these days, it’s usually about a topic unrelated to the craft of acting. He has made headlines because of his public spat with the producers of “Two and a Half Men,” and also because of other issues involving his behavior, his relationships, his children and his goddesses.
But that wasn’t always the case. There was a time when the name “Charlie Sheen” didn’t prompt the shaking of heads, the rolling of eyes, mass bewilderment or train-wreck curiosity. Earlier in his career, Sheen was considered a rising star in Hollywood, someone who did quality work in feature films and collaborated with top-notch filmmakers.
Although his performances on the CBS sitcom have been lauded, his antics off the set have almost made audiences forget what got him to this point in the business. The son of Martin Sheen and brother of Emilio Estevez was an actor before he became a tabloid fixture.
Here is a look at 10 of the best Charlie Sheen performances in feature films. Not all of them are Academy Award material, but each has merit in its own way. And they all were released well before the bulk of Sheen’s dirty laundry was aired out in public.
Oliver Stone’s 1986 masterpiece, a fictionalized account of the director's own experiences in the Vietnam War, won four Academy Awards, including best picture. Sheen plays Chris Taylor, the piece’s protagonist, who dropped out of college to enlist. While Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe had the showier roles as opposite forces in a morality tale, Sheen provided the bedrock for this sometimes grueling, always captivating experience. Vincent Canby of The New York Times said Chris Taylor was “beautifully played by Charlie Sheen.”
Stone followed up on his “Platoon” success with another coming-of-age story starring Sheen, who here plays Bud Fox, a young stockbroker from a working-class family who is shown the way to wealth by tycoon Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas, in an Oscar-winning role). Sheen was at his dramatic peak as a character blinded by ambition, but naïve and unprepared for the consequences of power. Said the Hollywood Reporter: “Charlie Sheen is commendably convincing, appropriately driven and rough around the edges.”
A story about bringing baseball success back to Cleveland not only had better be a comedy, but a broad one. And a good one. Writer-director David S. Ward knocked it out of the park. And he was helped mightily by the nutty comedic power of Sheen as pitcher Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn, whom announcer Bob Uecker introduces as “Vaughn, a juvenile delinquent in the off-season.” Made for $11 million, it became a hit, grossing almost $50 million in the U.S., which by 1989 numbers was hefty. It did well enough to spawn a 1994 sequel, “Major League II,” which was less well-received by both critics and audiences. But it also helped to establish Sheen as a rising comedic star.
'Eight Men Out'
Just as most baseball fans today probably don’t remember the 1919 Black Sox scandal, movie fans don’t recall when Charlie Sheen was a team player in an ensemble cast involving a titan of independent filmmaking. This 1988 chronicle of the infamously fixed World Series from writer-director John Sayles featured Sheen as Oscar “Hap” Felsch in an all-star cast that included John Cusack, D.B. Sweeney, Christopher Lloyd, John Mahoney and Michael Lerner. Janet Maslin of The New York Times said, “Charlie Sheen is also good as the team's most suggestible player, the good-natured fellow who isn't sure whether it's worse to be corrupt or be a fool.”
From the vapors of “Major League” came Sheen’s headlining performance in this 1991 parody of “Top Gun” from writer-director Jim Abrahams, who helped to give the world a series of gut-busters that included “Airplane!” and “The Naked Gun.” Here Sheen plays Topper Harley, an unbalanced fighter pilot given a perilous mission that is beyond his skill set. Although it’s the type of film that tosses a thousand gags against the wall in the hope that a small percentage will hit the target, Sheen expanded upon the comedic chops he exhibited in “Major League” and firmed his status as a younger Leslie Nielsen. Said Jeffrey M. Anderson of the San Francisco Examiner: “Sheen is very good at the deadpan humor that makes these films fly.”
'Being John Malkovich'
In this wildly inventive Spike Jonze fantasy from 1999, Sheen appears twice as himself in cameos. In one particularly memorable scene, Charlie is trying to calm his friend Malkovich — who has just had a mind-blowing experience — by explaining to him that he was stoned when it happened. Sheen plays with a Rubik’s Cube while Malkovich frantically closes all the drapes in his apartment as paranoia closes in. Sheen as the source of sober reason, even in a fictional story, provides a stark contrast with events of today.
The pitch for this 1988 ensemble project was probably something like this: “Think ‘St. Elmo’s Fire,’ only with horses.” Sheen teamed with brother Emilio Estevez and ascending thespians Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, Dermot Mulroney and Casey Siemaszko in a revisionist Brat Packy take on the Billy the Kid saga. This isn’t a great film, and maybe not even a good one. It’s really just a slick showcase for the hot young stars of the time to show off, with Estevez flamboyantly seizing most of the camera time. But Sheen stands out as solid and authentic in his role as Dick Brewer, and the picture was a hit, grossing $45 million domestically in 1988 dollars.
'Hot Shots! Part Deux'
If the original “Hot Shots!” was hit or miss, this 1993 sequel was hit or many misses. But let’s face it, fans go to these movies in the hopes that they’ll laugh more than they’ll roll their eyes. This time Sheen reprises his role as Topper Harley, only now he’s a Rambo clone in a mission in which he has to go after Saddam and Hillary Rodham Hussein. Said Rita Kempley of the Washington Post: “Sheen, who has the sex appeal of a meatloaf here, brings a Stallonesque lunkishness to the scenes, which, like the movie itself, are Sly in name only. God help me, I laughed and slapped my thighs."
“The Russians are coming! Quick, call out the Midwestern teenagers!” That was roughly the premise of this 1984 action adventure from uber-hawkish writer-director John Milius. At the start of World War III, a bunch of teens rise up to help deter an invasion by the Soviets — and Sheen’s character Matt Eckert is one of them. The film stars Patrick Swayze as Sheen’s older brother, as well as Lea Thompson, C. Thomas Howell, Powers Boothe and Jennifer Grey. This was Sheen’s first role in a feature film. He holds his own in a stellar cast, and it’s fun to see the promise in a 19-year-old who was only two years away from his breakthrough in “Platoon.”
When it comes to co-stars, there may not be a better one in Hollywood than Clint Eastwood. Sheen will always be much better known for his work with Michael Douglas in the original “Wall Street,” but in this watchable 1990 cop drama he plays the title role as a young officer who is paired up with Eastwood’s crusty older lawman as they hunt down a German criminal. The film met with generally tepid reviews and is not considered in the upper half of Eastwood’s directorial efforts. But it does have a few bright spots, as Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly pointed out: “Charlie Sheen plays Eastwood's younger partner, a poor little rich boy who risks his life on the police force because he feels guilty (or something). When Sheen slips over the edge and trashes a bar full of hooligan bikers, his performance suddenly comes to life; he should go psycho more often.”