Imagine you’re an actor offered a recurring role in a new sitcom. But there’s a catch: The star is Charlie Sheen.
Yes, Charlie Sheen, who seemingly blew up his career with personal excess, an ugly public departure from the hit Two and a Half Men, a bizarre stage tour (which included a stop in Cleveland) and frequent employment of catch-phrases that soon enough became reason for mockery.
Well, Sheen is back, on FX, with the new series Anger Management premiering at 9 p.m. Thursday. Inspired by the movie of the same name, the series will have an initial run of 10 episodes; if enough viewers show up for those, FX will order 90 more. The first two episodes find Sheen in relatively good form playing a good-hearted therapist with an array of (relatively mild) problems. Still, I can’t help but think, this is Charlie Sheen.
But James Black is enthusiastic about working with the actor.
A 1985 graduate of the University of Akron, the football-player-turned-actor has a recurring role on Anger Management as a prison inmate getting group therapy from Sheen’s character, Charlie Goodson. When asked his first thought upon hearing he was working with Sheen, Black said, “Oh, my God, this is fantastic.”
“He is, to me, a comedy genius,” Black said during a recent telephone interview. “It was proven the first time we sat down and just started rehearsing. It was like, this guy is like a technician. He really knows what he’s doing. He shows up to work on time. He looks over the scripts and … it doesn’t even look like he’s trying, and he’s hysterical. It’s amazing to watch.”
A frequent TV guest star (and performer in commercials), Black compared working with Sheen to working with Kyra Sedgwick on The Closer. “They would change her lines page by page and page and she would read it, go through it one time, and the next time it was perfect. I was like, ‘How do you do that?’ And Charlie Sheen’s like that. … He knows his punch lines, and when something’s not working, he’ll work on it and say to the writers, ‘How about if I say it like this?’ ”
Told that Sheen appears to be in the form he was when still good on Two and a Half Men, Black said, “I didn’t watch a lot of Men.” But he did take a look at Sheen’s successor, Ashton Kutcher, on the show, and thought “this isn’t funny to me.”
“So I went back and started looking at reruns, and thought, oh, my God, Charlie’s got it going on,” Black said. “… It’s like, this is who he is, these lines were written by him in the moment.”
Black said he got on Anger Management, where he is in three of the first 10 episodes, by way of Columbus. Working in radio in that city about 20 years ago, he heard about an improv company there and joined it. Another participant was Michael Loftus, a comedian from Columbus who has gone on to write and produce TV shows, including Outsourced, George Lopez — and Anger Management. Loftus mentioned Black to Bruce Helford, an executive producer on Anger Management and a veteran of The Drew Carey Show, George Lopez and other sitcoms. Black got an audition to play Cleo, the flamboyant inmate and romantic partner of another prisoner, Donovan (Darius McCrary).
“I went in and laid it out,” Black said. “I was Cleo the moment I ran into the room. Not walked. Ran, and said my hellos in ‘Cleo,’ and I had them in the palm of my hand. … Bruce afterwards stood up, walked over to me and said, ‘I am so glad Michael Loftus told me about you.’ Because they didn’t know who I was. … Basically, I booked the part right there.”
That hadn’t happened to Black since 1996, when he got his first regular TV role on the drama The Burning Zone for the old UPN network.
The presence of Helford, Sheen and a supporting cast that includes the likes of Brett Butler, Shawnee Smith, Michael Boatman and Barry Corbin may indicate that Anger Management is closer to a traditional sitcom than other FX laughers like Louie and Wilfred. And the early episodes confirm that impression. This is a show that will feel very comfortable to fans of Sheen’s work on Men and Spin City. But how will that sit with the devotees of Louie and Wilfred, which return on Thursday night, or of Russell Brand, who will debut a live show, Brand X, on FX that evening?
“Just like when you eat a meal, you don’t eat just pizza,” Black said. “You throw some salad in there. You get some carrots. … (Anger Management) is part of a meal that you’re going to have that night, with comedy on FX. … You can’t watch the same thing over and over again. In a given night, you have a variety of stuff, and one will lead into the other. … If you like funny, you’re going to like Louie [and] you’re going to like Anger Management.”
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and in the HeldenFiles Online blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles.