For an entire generation, Matthew Perry was the personification of sublime wit and effortless ease with one-liners, thanks to his role as the hapless Chandler Bing on “Friends.”
Among the show’s male stars, Ross (David Schwimmer) was the goofy one and Joey (Matt LeBlanc) was the charming one. But Chandler, he was the witty one. And while ably aided by the NBC hit comedy’s writing, it was Perry’s masterful technique wringing as many laughs as possible out of a punchline that helped elevate the character into TV’s pantheon of all-time greats.
With his sudden death Saturday at age 54 following what appeared to be an accidental drowning, the world mourns the loss of a troubled actor who gave it so much joy and genuine laughter. In many ways, his passing also signals the unquestionable end of an era. The cast of “Friends” is no longer whole. And while this tragedy is deeply personal for the famously tight-knit ensemble, the loss feels just as profound to those of us who never met Perry, but nonetheless welcomed him into our homes for three decades.
While “Friends” occupies the most real estate in his filmography, Perry had a sterling career stretching back to his childhood and teen years, racking up appearances on such ’80s mainstays as “Silver Spoons” and “Growing Pains” (wherein his character, a boyfriend of Tracey Gold’s Carol Seaver, was killed off in one of those “very special episodes” that littered the sitcom landscape at the time).
By the time the Central Perk came calling in 1994, Perry, age 24, had accrued more than enough experience under his belt to recognize a good thing when it happened. As the actor told Diane Sawyer last year, “I loved the show and I also knew, ‘Remember this, because it’s going to be the best time of your life.’”
Indeed, “Friends” was the kind of pop culture lightning bolt few actors get to experience. An instant smash with viewers, it elevated its core six cast members to a cultural ubiquity that, remarkably, has never ceased even 19 years after it wrapped its remarkable 10-season run. Thanks to omnipresent reruns on cable and in syndication, not to mention ready availability via streaming, “Friends” has retained a shelf life that’s exceedingly rare for a television series.
But while Chandler’s goofy, everyman persona made him a fan favorite, the actor playing him struggled under the spotlight, grappling with substance abuse issues — both alcohol and painkillers — throughout the run. Beginning in the third season in 1997, he began a series of stints in rehab. The actor said in the past that he barely remembered his work during the next three seasons.
Despite his ongoing health troubles, Perry was able to momentarily translate his sitcom success into big screen stardom, including roles in films like 1997’s rom-com “Fools Rush In” and 2000’s “The Whole Nine Yards.” While these films were largely forgettable products of the era, the latter gave him the rare distinction of having both the No. 1 movie in theaters and the No. 1 show on television. (It also spawned a less-successful 2004 sequel.)
Perry branched out into dramatic roles, as well, including a three-episode stint on NBC’s “The West Wing,” created by Aaron Sorkin, while “Friends” was still airing. Following the sitcom’s conclusion, he took on a starring role as head writer of a “Saturday Night Live”-style sketch comedy on Sorkin’s short-lived “Studio 60 on the Sunset Trip,” also on NBC, during the 2006-’07 season.
While Studio 60 didn’t last long enough to make much of a mark at the time (largely outshone by NBC’s similarly-themed sitcom “30 Rock,” which premiered the same year), its 22 episodes nonetheless stand out as worthy of rediscovery 16 years later. They serve as a showcase for Perry’s dramatic chops, as well as his consummate skill leveraging his established screen presence in service of writer Sorkin’s famously flowery prose.
Following his final starring turn on the big screen in 2009’s “17 Again,” Perry again tried his hand at small-screen comedy, first with two short-lived single camera offerings –– 2011’s “Mr. Sunshine” on ABC and 2012’s “Go On” for NBC –– and later with a return to a live audience, multi-camera sitcom in 2015’s reboot of “The Odd Couple.”
Airing on CBS, the series was a passion project for the star, who was executive producer in addition to playing slovenly Oscar opposite Thomas Lennon as persnickety Felix. Lasting for 38 episodes over three seasons, “The Odd Couple” also proved short-lived (the final episode aired in January 2017), but there was no reason to think Perry wouldn’t be back on our screens before long.
Unfortunately, such was not to be. The same addiction bedeviling him during “Friends” sidelined him from acting (though he did join his castmates for a streaming reunion special in 2021). But after spending years trying to seek and maintain his sobriety, Perry seemed in good health and spirits as recently as last fall, making the media rounds to promote his memoir, “Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing.”
“I should be dead,” begins the book’s prologue, recounting the personal struggles he navigated on the way to finally telling his tale, advising readers they can consider his tome “a message from the beyond.” Those words were no doubt written by Perry in trademark self-deprecating fashion, but less than a year after seeing print, they’ve taken on an added, unintended context.
“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in my life,” he wrote, “but the best thing about me is that if an alcoholic or drug addict comes up to me and says, ‘Will you help me?’ I will always say, ‘Yes, I know how to do that. I will do that for you, even if I can’t always do it for myself.’”
To that end, the actor converted his Malibu mansion into a sober-living facility called Perry House in 2011, and even while acknowledging the omnipresence of “Friends” in his personal biography, he hoped his efforts to aid others would be the contribution for which he was most remembered.
Thanks to “Friends” reruns that will continue to air and stream long, long into the future, Matthew Perry will forever remain a piece of the global culture landscape. Unfortunately, those reruns must now be experienced with the knowledge that we’re watching a fire that burned brightly, but far too short.