LOS ANGELES — When Charlie Sheen appeared on the “Today” show last month to disclose that he was HIV-positive, his demeanor was uncharacteristically, if understandably, sober. His interviewer, the normally unflappable Matt Lauer, showed his own signs of discomfort as he asked questions about Sheen’s sex life.
The two were joined on the set, though, by a man who seemed positively at ease. With blondish hair and a lean frame that belied his 63 years, Dr. Robert Huizenga resembled an aging surfer. In fact, he was not only Sheen’s physician, but one well-known to television audiences through his appearances on programs including “The Biggest Loser,” “Extreme Makeover,” and “Dance Your Ass Off.”
That Huizenga had flown to New York to explain Sheen’s health condition made a certain sense: It was a Hollywood story, and Huizenga is Hollywood’s doctor.
For years, the term “Hollywood doctor” has come to connote something not only cartoonish but possibly pitiful — medical professionals who have traded on their access to celebrities at the price of their integrity. Some have overprescribed amphetamines, sleeping pills, antidepressants, and stimulants to keep their patients happy. Plastic surgeons have a particularly bad rap.
They “see each other’s dissatisfied patients, have strong opinions about each other, and would sell their mother to appear on TV,” one prominent plastic surgeon here said.
Huizenga knows the stereotype, but insists that’s not him.
“My primary job is taking care of my patients,” he said in an interview at his offices near Beverly Hills. “But once I put my patients to bed, and they’re taken care of, I turn to my hobby. I’ve always been fascinated by the media. That’s what I have fun doing.”
VIDEO: Dr. Huizenga on Treating Celebrities
For his hobby, Huizenga, known to millions of television viewers as “Dr. H,” has been rewarded, handsomely. Besides living in a home in the Hollywood Hills, he recently bought a $5.5 million, 9,750-square-foot Malibu estate, with seven bedrooms and seven bathrooms, on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He has opened a retreat in a separate area of the estate where clients cook their own healthy meals and exercise rigorously to lose body fat.
The Hollywood spotlight has not always shined favorably on Huizenga. He served as a defense witness in O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, providing testimony about Simpson’s physical capability to carry out the crime that was later undermined by the prosecution. His appearances on “The Biggest Loser,” for 14 seasons now, have drawn catcalls from critics who believe his prescription of strenuous physical exercise is not only unrealistic but perhaps even dangerous for most severely obese Americans.
“I’m not sure what world Doctor Huizenga comes from, but in the one where I live, people, even if they want to, don’t have four hours a day to exercise,” said Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, author of “The Diet Fix,” and an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa.
Huizenga said he has no patience for the criticism. If his clients include movie stars and athletes — he declined to name any besides Sheen — so what? And if, by appearing on television, he has raised awareness of issues including HIV, obesity, and diabetes, all the better.
Not many other doctors can claim to have affected so many lives at once.
“I love being a doctor,” he said. “You’re making a change, one person at a time. But … you can say something on ‘Biggest Loser,’ which deals with weight loss, and have literally millions of people listening to you. I really am drawn to that.”
‘Entranced with the Hollywood elite’
There are thousands of top medical professionals working in the LA area, and it has some of the finest medical institutions in the country. And yet Hollywood has long been rife with examples of doctors who have learned about the perils of celebrity the hard way.
There’s Dr. Conrad Murray, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 2011 for causing Michael Jackson’s death of a massive overdose of the general anesthetic propofol. Prosecutors argued that the pop star regularly pleaded with Murray to provide powerful sedatives to help him sleep and that Murray complied.
There’s Dr. Arnie Klein, the so-called Father of Botox, whose long line of patients included Elizabeth Taylor, Dolly Parton, Cher, and Sharon Stone, and whose lavish lifestyle rivaled those of his super-rich clients. Klein, who was also known as the “King of the Lips” for his expertise with collagen fillers, declared bankruptcy after being investigated by state and federal officials for overprescribing the painkiller Demerol to Jackson. He died broke, at the age of 70, in October in Palm Springs.
And then there’s Dr. Mark Saginor, Hugh Hefner’s longtime personal physician and friend, who showed up at the Playboy Mansion and prescribed drugs to visitors and Playmates as well as Hefner. According to his daughter, Jennifer Saginor, in her blunt biography “Playground: A Childhood Lost Inside the Playboy Mansion,” he was on call virtually every night to attend to the mansion’s guests.
Saginor was suspended from practicing medicine in 2005 after being declared “a danger to his patients” by the California state medical board.
Several years ago, Saginor returned to private practice. He acknowledged he went through a dark period in his life.
“I had a problem with alcohol,” he said over the phone. “My friends and family and AA pulled me out of the morass.”
Nearly 80, Saginor said he doesn’t practice much medicine anymore. But he’s seen enough to know what Hollywood can do to other doctors.
“From my perspective, some doctors here are so entranced with the Hollywood elite that they forget about the principles of medical practice,” he said. “Slowly and surely they get sucked into thinking they have to do something not quite ethical to keep their patients.”
VIDEO: Dr. Huizenga on O.J. Simpson
Huizenga said he does have his limits. In the 1980s, he, too, was offered the chance work with Michael Jackson. It was a lucrative opportunity to travel on one of the performer’s tours in the 1980s, but he rejected it.
“I had nothing then,” Huizenga recalled. “Tons of money was offered. But then I found out what was expected of me, and I couldn’t take the job. It was depressing.”
He also was a team physician in the 1980s for the Los Angeles Raiders, a job from which he was fired after refusing to succumb to pressure to allow injured players to go back onto the field. (Huizenga later wrote a scathing book about his years with the Raiders, “You’re Okay. It’s Just a Bruise,” which was one of the sources for the 1999 Oliver Stone film “Any Given Sunday,” starring Matthew Modine as a character based on Huizenga.)
Charlie Sheen was another matter.
When Sheen first came to Huizenga with a litany of symptoms about four years ago, the doctor had him tested for a variety of conditions, including HIV. That test came back negative, Huizenga said.
At the time, the actor had infections, a sore throat, night sweats, stomach pains. After the first HIV test, Sheen continued to deteriorate, developing meningitis symptoms and severe headaches.
“We re-ran the battery of tests,” Huizenga said.
The HIV test came back positive. A few days later, the test was run once more and came back positive again. At that point, Huizenga said, there was no doubt that Sheen had HIV. (Huizenga said it was not uncommon for HIV tests to initially prove negative “because the virus takes time to react to blood tests.”)
Sheen has been taking daily anti-retroviral medication since then, and the virus has been reduced to an “undetectable” level, according to Huizenga. He said the actor could continue his life, and his sex life, as usual.
In the tabloid uproar that followed Sheen’s disclosure on the “Today” show, he was accused of exposing partners to HIV even after being diagnosed. Huizenga insisted that, given the reduced level of Sheen’s virus, the chances that he has infected his partners are almost — but not entirely — negligible.
“The chances of giving it are probably eight instances out of 10,000 after one contact,” Huizenga said.
Even if Sheen isn’t wearing protection? “No protection, no nothing,” replied Huizenga. “If you take the individual and give them full treatment and reduce their HIV count to undetectable levels, the feeling among top experts is they’re non-contagious.”
Huizenga said it was Sheen’s decision alone to publicly announce his HIV status. The actor has said he did so because previous sexual partners and others had blackmailed him into providing large sums of money in exchange for staying quiet.
“I’m out of the equation when people decide to reveal their HIV status,” Huizenga said. “If you come to me and you have HIV, you, and you alone, have to decide when to tell your parents, your partner, your wife. I can make a recommendation, but that’s it. I can do nothing by law in disclosing anything.”
An oasis and an object of scorn
Looking back, Huizenga said his introduction to Los Angeles medicine was something of a culture shock.
He had grown up in Rochester, N.Y., and studied immunology at Harvard Medical School. His father, John Robert Huizenga, a prominent nuclear physicist who died in 2014, was part of the team to work on the first atomic bomb.
Huizenga decided to move to the West Coast largely for one reason: the allure of the weather.
“I admit I have an exercise addiction,” he said. “I’m a workout fanatic. I would jog to Harvard in the early morning to the chagrin of my professors who thought it was a waste of time. I got so tired of putting on spikes in the morning to run in that snow in Boston.”
Huizenga said he was scorned by colleagues for wanting to move to Los Angeles. “In Boston, they regarded LA as like the island where the bad boys from ‘Pinocchio’ went. It’s where the people from the highest levels of medicine went in exile.”
Indeed, LA was like a different planet. Some hospital patients demanded four-star service as if they were in hotels.
“People were demanding things that I didn’t expect,” Huizenga said. “At Harvard you don’t learn what to do when you’re taking care of a Saudi prince’s family who take three extra rooms just for flowers.”
He recalled one prominent patient who was having chest pains on a flight from Washington. He was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “We were going to save the guy’s life, and he said, ‘Get the hell out of here. I’m doing an interview with The New Yorker.’”
Huizenga was working with patients who adopted assumed names. He covered for a doctor with an affluent practice who had half a dozen patients who were so famous they went by only one name.
Once, he was rushed to a rock concert where the star musician was throwing up because he was so intoxicated. “And you think, ‘Oh, my God. What can I give him so he can perform?’” recalled Huizenga. “They didn’t teach you that at Harvard Medical School.”
A strategy invites controversy
Huizenga is passionate about preaching the importance of staying healthy and maintaining a balanced diet. He insists that dieting to reduce body fat (as opposed to weight loss), as well as intense daily exercise, can play a powerful role in diminishing illnesses.
But his perspective has not come without controversy, particularly when it comes to the recommended treatment for patients who are as severely obese as the patients on “The Biggest Loser.” Critics say the show’s emphasis on intensely strenuous physical exercise can be dangerous and that dropping weight quickly is unlikely to work in the long run for most people.
Huizenga said the idea behind his recommended regimen came to him while he was a team physician for the Raiders from 1983 to 1990. One of his earliest jobs with the team was to keep up the weight of the linemen, who would consume huge amounts of food. The linemen, though, would keep losing weight. They were exercising at least four hours a day.
“I thought what if we get morbidly obese people to work out like athletes, and give them good healthy food,” Huizenga said. “It was shocking to me that no one had ever done it before.”
Four hours of exercise a day might be unrealistic for most people. But 90 minutes? Or maybe two hours?
Huizenga, who exercises 90 minutes daily, starting at 4:30 a.m., believes the show has changed lives for the better. But he sees television as a medium to encourage healthy living not just for reality show contestants but for mass audiences.
It’s the sort of impact he hoped he might have by appearing on national television alongside Sheen to talk about HIV.
“Right now, as we sit here today, of the 1.2 million people with HIV in this country, only 25 percent have their viral loads completely suppressed like Mr. Sheen,” he said. “A whole slew of people with HIV are living in silence and are not being fully treated. If only they were, they could make themselves relatively, if not totally non-contagious to other people.”
“Hopefully,” he said, “Mr. Sheen will have an impact.”