By Michael E. Miller
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"Thank you," Sheen says, bringing his hands to his face. "I have this burn on my nose. Are we taking photos?"
"Really?" Sheen exclaims in semi-mock frustration. "I've been up there fucking trying to put this healing creme on it..."
If you'd read my texts, Solters says, you'd know — no photos.
"I know, I know," Sheen says quickly. "But my phone, uh, died, last night."
Solters says, sarcastically, "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that."
"No, I got pissed and just... tossed it."
Sheen suggests we do the interview upstairs, which provides an excuse to give us a tour of the wing of the house that's under construction. Downstairs, the living room is being turned into a bowling alley. Upstairs, a slide-away bookcase reveals what will soon be a "1930s martini bar." The remodel is scheduled to be finished in two weeks, although, Sheen says, "They said that four weeks ago."
The house is not the only thing under construction. Sheen has recently made a host of charitable contributions, pledging to give $1 million to the USO, funding the funeral of a paparazzo who died chasing Justin Bieber, and giving Lindsay Lohan $100,000 to pay her taxes. Perhaps more telling of a turnaround: He went public with salacious tales of a boozy night in Mexico with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — and then quickly apologized.
The five of us — Sheen, Coppola, the two publicists, and me — settle into a room that's finished, a lounge. They sit side by side on a couch, the newly minted Oscar nominee and the sitcom drudge on the upswing from, shall we say, a tumultuous year. ("I would call it embattled," Sheen says. "Erstwhile. I would call it 'roid rage.") How did they get here?
"We met in the Philippines," Sheen says, turning to Roman. "1976? '75?
" '76, '77," Coppola corrects.
What do you remember about that?
Sheen grimaces broadly. "All things traumatizing."
Francis Ford Coppola compared the Apocalypse shoot to the war depicted in the movie: "There were too many of us; we had access to too much equipment, too much money; and little by little, we went insane." Roman Coppola's dad went into production with a script he wasn't satisfied with and had no idea what his Vietnam epic was really about. Martin Sheen was brought in to replace Harvey Keitel in the lead role after the first week of shooting. Sheen, a three-pack-a-day smoker, suffered a heart attack on the set, further delaying production. They were shooting amid a civil war, and torrential rains forced the shoot to shut down for two months. Cast and crew members habitually dropped acid and took speed. Oh — and the Coppola family had to put up its own assets to fund the film. Through all of this, Roman's mom, Eleanor, kept detailed diaries, shot behind-the-scenes footage, and made clandestine audio recordings, all revealed in the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. The film contains copious footage of Francis Ford Coppola, shirtless and manic, looking nuttier than any footage of Charlie Sheen that I've ever seen.
The on-set chaos fed their friendship. "I'd seen half the world before I was 12," Sheen recalls. When they met, Coppola was 11 and Sheen was 10, and though Sheen would bond with other kids on movie sets, "Ours was a little more special than the norm." Coppola would finagle leftover scar prosthetics from the makeup tent to play with, and borrow prop cameras. They'd run around, playing, taking pictures that would become burned in their memories. As they reminisce, they finish each other's sentences.
"The Kurtz compound was a real, working village," Coppola says. "My dad brought in real Ifugao to populate it — "
Sheen interrupts: "— and play the Montagnard army, yeah."
" — so we were in this world as kids. We would just hang out, amidst all this very far-out imagery. Heads, dead bodies. It's a whole swirl of memories now, 30 years later — "
" — which don't seem real."
"Yeah," Coppola agrees. "But they were very matter-of-fact at the time."
After the shoot, the boys became pen pals. "Over the years, we would see each other," Coppola says. "Sometimes not so frequently, but years would go by and we would always have that bond."
That bond would sustain ups and downs in each man's fortunes. In 1986, Sheen broke out with a lead role in Oliver Stone's Platoon. That same year, Coppola's older brother, Gio, 22, died in a boating accident while working for their father as second-unit director on the film Gardens of Stone. After Gio's death, Roman, then a 21-year-old NYU student, stepped into his brother's job.
"I could see his misery," Eleanor Coppola wrote. "He lost the person he was perhaps closest to in all the world and he couldn't escape; each day he will be surrounded by reminders of Gio and will witness his parents' and sister's pain." Roman Coppola has shot second unit on almost every Francis Ford Coppola film, and every Sofia Coppola film, since.
And then, Coppola says, "There was sort of an epic period."
Sheen cackles: "The year of '90!" Sheen appeared in six films that year, including The Rookie (costarring and directed by Clint Eastwood) and Men at Work (costarring and directed by his brother, Emilio Estevez). That year, an article about the "Coppola brats" described Roman as having "the ectomorphic look of someone surviving solely on caffeine, cigarettes, and sleep deprivation." He had started producing independent films, most notably a '70s spoof called Spirit of '76, which he also cowrote. Coppola was toiling to make a name for himself; Sheen was the hugest of young stars.