By Katie Distler, TODAY booking producer
I get to work on lots of exciting stories as a TODAY booking producer. Being at the center of the Charlie Sheen saga with NBC’s Jeff Rossen has been one of the craziest -- and also one of the best. Love or hate the coverage, the entire nation has been captivated by Sheen.
When Jeff and I boarded a plane from New York to Los Angeles last Saturday, we had low expectations, high hopes and several small bags of airplane pretzels (nervous eating). We had no idea if we’d get Charlie on camera ... or if he’d even show up to our planned off-the-record meeting.
Jeff was introduced to Charlie back in November on the set of “Two and a Half Men” shortly after the incident at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. He and Charlie hit it off right away - as you can probably tell from their interviews there’s a mutual respect, which I truly think is what made Jeff’s interviews stand apart from the others. At that initial meeting, Charlie told Jeff he'd like to do an interview with him, but didn't know when. Would his manager allow it? His publicist? And even if everyone was on board, would CBS allow their star to appear on NBC? We had no idea.
Fast forward about three months and Charlie is acting erratically. It was clear that his handlers had lost control as he phoned into different radio shows and flew last minute on a private plane to the Bahamas. No longer in the control of his handlers, everyone trying to get the first sit-down interview was left to his or her own means. In need of a new plan, Jeff and I were speaking about a hundred times a day, fighting over strategy – and just about everything else. As the days went on, things were getting intense and increasingly competitive with other networks.
At this point, Charlie was tough to reach. He and Jeff were texting a bit, but his responses were vague and we couldn’t lock him in. He was noncommittal. We decided that, perhaps, I should try calling Charlie. Sure – he had never met me. Sure, he wouldn’t recognize my number. Sure, he probably wouldn’t pick up the phone – but at this point, what did we have to lose?
So, at dinner with a friend, I called -- and someone picked up!
Not Charlie, but rather "David," one of Charlie's friends, who confirmed this was Charlie’s phone and that he would run my request up the “flagpole” and call me back. An hour and a half later, still no call from David or Charlie. Again, thinking, nothing to lose, I sent a text message to David on Charlie’s phone telling him how disappointed I was that he didn’t call me back.
My phone rings not even 10 minutes later – and it’s not David, but Charlie. And he’s not happy. He said he found my text offensive and used a few choice words to tell me how offended he was.
I put him on speaker and wondered how to respond to the man the world has been watching self-destruct over the past few weeks. There were two options – apologize and hang up or give it right back to him. I chose the latter.
I had the man on the phone, I was not about to back down without getting what I wanted. I apologized softly and then decided I needed to play tough. For some reason, it worked. In what I would learn throughout the course of this week is true Charlie-style, Charlie did a complete 180 and apologized for yelling at me saying how wrong it was to yell at a woman. I accepted his apology but only in exchange for information -- and a meeting.
First off I needed to know – was he in fact doing an interview with our competition? And, in the answer that no TODAY booker ever wants to hear, Charlie confirmed that another network would be at his home the next day to shoot with him.
He said how much he liked Jeff, but this wasn’t personal. Charlie said this was business - all part of his “master plan" to “hijack the Oscars.” In order to do that, he said, he had to appear on the network that HAD the Oscars: ABC.
Jeff and I had our work cut out for us – not only convincing Charlie to sit down for an interview, but also to alter Charlie’s “master plan.” Oy.
Before hanging up, Charlie agreed to an “off-the-record” secret meeting with Jeff and me at his home on Sunday morning. As I wrote down the address to where we would meet him at 10:00 a.m., I wondered if this was all really happening. “How do I know you won’t stand me up?” I asked Charlie. “Because I’m a man of my word,” he responded. And with that, Jeff and I were off to la-la land to shatter our competition’s exclusive and grab the big interview.
I won’t bore you with the details of what went down in that meeting. But, as our bosses in New York e-mailed us for updates, after five hours of talking and negotiating, Jeff was face to face with Charlie and cameras were rolling.
A lot of people ask how Jeff stayed so composed as Charlie went on about things like “winning” and “tiger blood,” which have now taken on a life of their own. The truth is – no one was laughing. There was so much tension in the room – as I sat with Charlie’s manager (who was trying to shut down the interview), neither one of us realized the platinum responses that Jeff had gotten out of Charlie.
Since that tense first day, Charlie definitely has taken a liking to us, even inviting Jeff back for a second (and then a third!) interview. And, in the many hours we spent with him, he came to trust us both enough to invite us to his home to hang out and eat lunch. He even invited Jeff to be his guest on his Internet webcast.
Jeff of course declined to appear on the webcast per journalistic standards.
Some of the most surreal moments of the week occurred when Jeff and I were with Charlie without cameras rolling – just us, the goddesses, his assistant Rick and a few of Sheen's closest friends. As we sat around the table, Charlie smoking and texting and the rest of us eating and laughing, a rerun of one of Charlie’s interviews was playing in the background. Watching Charlie laugh at himself, I realized this is truly a man with a plan – as crazy as he may come off during these interviews – he knows exactly what he’s doing.
Charlie always does what Charlie wants. He will listen to the people surrounding him – his inner circle and his management team – but at the end of the day – he will do whatever he wants.
Another thing about Charlie, he has never missed a meeting he told us he would attend – and has always delivered on any promises he’s made. And he appreciates the same in return. Calling Jeff a “rock star” during various interviews, it’s clear that he understands we have to ask him the tough questions – and Jeff has mastered that while at the same time being fair.
At the end of the day, fan of Charlie’s or not, there is a lot at stake: children, a career and his own personal health. Hopefully, when it’s all over, everyone will “win.”
So, in what we thought would be a quick weekend trip, turned into something much bigger. We’ll be back with some unbelievable stories, a few additional clothing purchases and wondering if it was, in Charlie’s words, “all just a dream."