Brett Butler with Martin Sheen, left, and Charlie Sheen in “Anger Management.”
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 — over and over again.
“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. Ms. 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, a character who appears only occasionally, 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. Ms. 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. Ms. 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. Ms. 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.”
And now, 15 years later, Ms. Butler is slowly making her return to television. “She’s awesome,” said Mr. Sheen, who shares a manager, Mark Burg, with Ms. Butler. “Seriously, I think she’s forgotten what a comedic genius she is.” Sobriety, finally achieved after some attempts at rehab and what Ms. 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.’ ”
She spent the first few years after “Grace Under Fire” in what she calls a self-imposed exile, rarely leaving her house, rejecting the few offers of work that came her way.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 3, 2013
An article last Sunday about the actress Brett Butler, who appears on “Anger Management,” which stars Charlie Sheen, referred incorrectly to the firing of Mr. Sheen from the television show “Two and a Half Men.” He was dismissed by Warner Brothers Television — not by Chuck Lorre, who is a co-creator of the show and its executive producer.
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