SUN VALLEY, Calif. — She walked back and forth across a parking lot behind a converted-warehouse soundstage here on the industrial fringes of the San Fernando Valley. Brett Butler was smoking a cigar, her hair in curlers, practicing her lines – of which there were not many.
“You may not know this because you’re” an idiot, she said, in character as she paced. “But women who base their self-esteem on their looks are usually pretty insecure.”
She only had one scene that late-December day. That’s all she ever has. Butler, whose role on the sitcom “Grace Under Fire” made her one of America’s biggest television stars in the 1990s, is not a cast regular on “Anger Management,” the Charlie Sheen comedy that just began its second season on FX, but is a recurring guest star. She plays a bartender, usually to deliver a few plot-advancing lines, most of them laced with punch lines written by somebody else.
“Actually I’m writing a book,” her character would say in that day’s scene, when asked why someone so smart was working at a bar. “It’s called ‘Conversations With Idiots.’ ”
She delivered the line with just enough lilt to make it seem more amused than venomous, a put-down softened by her Georgia accent and dimpled but world-weary smile. It’s the same barbed-magnolia delivery that got her noticed as a stand-up comic in the early ’90s and became her trademark on “Grace Under Fire,” in which she played a sharp-tongued, blue-collar, single mom.
That show, which ran on ABC from 1993 to 1998, was a Top 10 hit its first two seasons. Butler was nominated twice for Golden Globes and seemed destined to be the next Roseanne Barr. Then it all came crashing down, an ugly cascade of behind-the-scenes fights for creative control that spilled into on-set tantrums and threats. Crockery was thrown. Obscenities were shouted, sometimes with audiences in attendance. Butler, a recovering alcoholic who had been sober seven years when she got the show, descended into a Vicodin addiction that, by her own admission, made her unreliable, irrational and, at the end, unable to function.
The show, by then slipping badly in the ratings, was canceled five weeks into production in 1998. Butler, her reputation and career ruined, retreated to her home in the Hollywood Hills and proceeded to fall apart. She was, at the time, 40 years old. She had survived a traumatic childhood, an abusive first marriage to an alcoholic husband and years of working as a waitress in run-down bars. But she couldn’t survive success.
“I lost my husband, my job, the respect of people I admire greatly, everything,” she said during a lengthy interview at a coffee shop two nights before that week’s “Anger Management” filming. “But I still didn’t sober up for another six months. The closeness that I came to dying was really remarkable.”
Returning after 15 years
And now, 15 years later, Butler is slowly making her return to television. “She’s awesome,” said Sheen, who shares a manager, Mark Burg, with Butler. “Seriously, I think she’s forgotten what a comedic genius she is.” Sobriety, finally achieved after some attempts at rehab and what Butler regards as divine intervention, wasn’t the hardest part, she says now. It was coming to terms with the damage she’d caused, to others certainly, but mostly to herself.
“I don’t recommend journeys of forced enlightenment,” she said. “I spent a long time trying to dig my way out of being unforgiven for how bad I’d been in Hollywood. I would meet people I’d never met before, and they’d say, ‘I hear you’re a monster.’ ”
Online quiz on depression
Depression, she finally realized, was at the root of much of her self-destruction. It ran in her family (“We drive at high speeds,” she said, “next to the wall”) and explained a lot of her behavior. “I tend to think of alcoholism and depression as an illness in someone else and a moral failing in myself,” she said. “I didn’t realize until about two years into it how depressed I was. I took a quiz online and basically, when I finished it, it said, ‘Go to the hospital.’ ”
She took antidepressants for a few years, and in 2007, convinced she needed to get away from Hollywood, Butler moved back to Georgia, buying a farm 70 miles northwest of Atlanta, starting what she hoped would be a less stressful life. It didn’t work out that way.
Because of circumstances she’d rather not discuss, other than to say “It was totally my fault,” Butler lost what was left of her once-substantial resources last year. The farm went into foreclosure, and she was, for a time, homeless. She was broke.
But not, she says, despondent. Life on the farm had improved her physical and mental health. She also felt herself getting in touch with what she calls a psychic gift, the ability to connect with departed souls.
“No one rolls their eyes at this more than I do at this,” she said. “But it’s real. It’s what they call claircognizance, where I can be around people and information just sort of appears. I’m not sure what to do with it, but there’s going to be something. My dream would be to do some sort of traveling tent revival, but funny. And with no hellfire.”
In the meantime, there were bills to be paid, which is why last March, Butler, now 55, returned to Los Angeles. She jumped at the chance when Sheen asked her to be on “Anger Management,” in spite of the very small role.
Sheen doesn’t deny that he saw something of himself in Butler’s story, a sitcom star self-destructing in public and being fired from her own show, which was created and originally produced by Chuck Lorre, who, as it happens, fired Sheen from “Two and a Half Men” after his own meltdown in 2011.
Words of encouragement
“Somebody we have in common tried to extinguish that flame,” Sheen said of Butler. (Lorre declined to comment for this article.) “And it didn’t work. That kind of talent never goes away, you know?” I always tell her: ‘Don’t forget who you are. Don’t forget how good you are.’ ”
So every few weeks Butler shows up and does a scene behind the bar, grateful for the chance to start over in Hollywood and hoping it might lead to something more.
“I’m just trying to show up and be a good worker,” she said, asked if was difficult to be on a set of someone else’s sitcom, to know she’s no longer the star. “It does feel a little bit like being on probation, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m grateful just for the shot.”