Brian Lowry

Charlie Sheen

Having engaged in a 2008 stunt in which they swapped duties with the producers of "CSI," the "Two and a Half Men" team might again face the thorny question of how best to dispose of a body.

Charlie Sheen's firing from the Warner Bros. show has sent journalists scurrying to TV history books, dredging up names of discarded stars like Valerie Harper, Mackenzie Phillips and Isaiah Washington, among others. Dramas have an unfair advantage, since people can more easily die -- or simply change jobs -- in workplace settings. Unlike "The Office" engineering Steve Carell's exit, family sitcoms raise different hurdles short of a magical solution, like dropping a house on the wacky warlock of the West.

Since relatively few people have experience in such matters, it seemed prudent to solicit advice from two TV legends who do: Producer Norman Lear, who lost his leading man on "Good Times," wrote Phillips off "One Day at a Time" and (reluctantly) saw CBS turn "All in the Family" into "Archie Bunker's Place;" and the well-traveled exec and producer Fred Silverman. While avoiding the specifics of the intramural scrum involving Sheen, Lear shared general thoughts on cast changes.

Killing a sitcom character -- one with whom the audience has spent years -- might sound like a bummer, but Lear thinks viewers are relatively forgiving in such situations. "It happens every day," he said of people suddenly dying. "They would have the right to have him die in a plane wreck. ... If they have any other characters that the audience is interested in, and the writing is up to it, it'll sustain." It would be possible to create a new character, Lear said, to deliver the news Sheen's alter ego, Charlie Harper, won't be back. "It's interesting to contemplate," he said. Because "everybody knows the reason you're doing it," all the publicity would likely get the amended version sampled.

That said, Lear isn't a fan of laboring to keep shows on past their expiration dates. Indeed, during the peak of his storied producing run, he wrote a piece suggesting, as he recalls, "It would be reasonable to say after eight years or so, every show is finished." Not only would that keep television fresher for the public, he suggested, but it would open doors to new blood within the creative community. For his part, Silverman sees no reason to kill the character; just ship him away somewhere, and bring in another ne'er-do-well as a boarder to help Charlie's cash-strapped brother Alan (ably played by Jon Cryer) pay the bills. "It's worth a shot," Silverman said, adding that he would "keep as much intact as I could" and "cast the hell out of it."

He'd also try, aggressively, to quickly assemble a few episodes that could air this spring -- before the network sets its fall lineup -- to gauge how the public responds. So no off-screen demise? "You'd be sitting shiva for four weeks," Silverman quipped, adding that keeping Sheen's character alive -- somewhere -- offered additional comedic possibilities and potential benefits down the road. With enough time (and necessity), fractured showbiz marriages have improbably kissed and made up before.

Down the road, he said, "He could do a guest shot and you'd get a 50 share." Although the prevailing wisdom counsels not to mess with success, sometimes subtle shifts can reinvigorate a show. From my perspective, if Alan inherited his sibling's beach house and money, he might uncomfortably find himself on the opposite end of a dysfunctional "odd couple" relationship, dealing with his own freeloading friend and mooching relatives.

Lear's right, of course, about the unfortunate tendency to milk shows too long, for reasons having nothing to do with artistic merit; still, the business is what it is, and if "Men" could attract 70 percent to 80 percent of this season's ratings -- minus Sheen's inflated salary -- that would bolster CBS' Monday roster, allow the parties to declare victory and provide a measure of vindication to the producers, whose contributions the star brusquely dismissed.

Assuming the past is prologue, then, don't be surprised if CBS and Warner Bros. seek to wring a few good years out of "Men." Because as they say, no guts, no "winning."






TV - Past Offers Paths For Remodeling 'Two and a Half Men'