Playing Drunk Character Could Spark Relapse for Charlie Sheen

Charlie Sheen and his "Two and a Half Men" co-stars.

Charlie Sheen and his "Two and a Half Men" co-stars.  (CBS)

Now that Charlie Sheen has committed to rehab and presumably a future of sobriety, critics, fans and addiction experts are wondering whether Sheen can still play the role of an out-of-control, womanizing, alcoholic.

“If [Sheen] has to go back to playing an active alcoholic, that could be a trigger for relapse,” Dr. Harris Stratyner, a vice president at Caron Treatment Centers told FOX411.

“Research shows that people, places and things reminiscent of an individual’s addiction can cause strong cravings, Startyner said. "Anything from holding a bottle of beer to acting drunk to spending time in a place where you used to get high – could all be dangerous triggers for a relapse.”

Stratyner added that factoring rehab into the show’s story line could go a long way towards his recovery.

“It’s gotten to the point where it would be nice if the writers started to incorporate Charlie Harper’s recovery as part of the story line,” Stratyner says. “It’s a chance to show that he has a disease and is really working on his life.”

One “Two and a Half Men” writer told FOX411 that the idea of Harper going into rehab on the show has been bandied about a few times in seasons past, but the idea never stuck. But if the show’s writers opt to write recovery into the script, the way sitcoms often do with a major life change of a protagonist like a death or a pregnancy, ratings might suffer.

“If they make the character go to rehab the show might be in trouble,” says Ronnie Karam, Senior Editor at TVGasm.com. “Wishing Sheen the best and hoping he doesn't hurt himself or someone else is different than wanting to see Charlie Harper knitting an afghan and playing Scrabble. It is one thing to clean up an addicted Peter Pan actor, but another to try to clean up the Peter Pan character.”

It is rare in television history that an actor’s real life persona been so attached to his character. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David are two examples, but scandal never influenced their plot lines or helped to drive their ratings.

“Every time one of these incidents happen—the rehab, the hookers—ratings for ‘Two and a Half Men’ go up,” says Hollywood Reporter news editor Matthew Belloni. 

Sheen’s bad behavior has always dovetailed with his character Charlie Harper’s onscreen antics. Since the show began eight years ago Harper and Sheen have been a symbiotic pair of Dr. Jekylls. But what will happen once Sheen completes rehab and becomes Mr. Hyde? Will America be so enamored with a sober actor playing a drunk? Or a sober actor playing a reformed drunk?

“Part of the allure of ‘Two and a Half Men’ is that when Charlie Harper is out drinking and womanizing, waking up with a hangover and two women in his bed, audiences feel like they are getting a voyeuristic look at how Sheen is in real life...on a Tuesday,” says pop culture expert and author of "Cult of Celebrity," Cooper Lawrence. “Sheen is likable and believable onscreen, as well as a ratings magnet, because he lives the character in real life. When that ends, ratings could slip.”

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If Sheen, 45, commits to three months in rehab (his rep won’t confirm the length of his treatment) he will miss out on shooting eight shows still left for this season. CBS said in a statement released over the weekend that it was committed to Sheen’s health and will begin tackling scheduling issues for the show this week. Eight episodes leaves a wide gap in the CBS schedule and lots of potentially unsatisfied viewers. 

Despite being one of the longest running sitcoms currently on television, “Two and a Half Men” remains the most watched comedy and averages a viewership around 14.7 million a week.

Sheen recently signed a two-year contract with the show, worth a reported $1.25 million per episode and a recent Harris poll has him ranked as the sixth most popular actor on television.