• Thu. May 30th, 2024

Remembering Matthew Perry, 1969-2023

BySam Stevens

Nov 9, 2023
Matthew Perry smiling

Amongst a talented ensemble, Friends’ youngest star — the actor and activist Matthew Perry, who has died at his Los Angeles home, aged 54 — was the first among equals. In the 1990s, Perry played Chandler Bing, New York City’s wisecracker-in-chief. It was his role that made Friends work; the role, one could argue, that people really watched Friends for.

Yet it was not his proudest work. A lifelong battle with drug addiction derailed his career and his personal life. But Perry was philosophical about it. Writing in his recent memoir, the actor declared his best quality to be that “I can help a desperate man get sober.” In 2013, he turned his Malibu home into a sober-living facility for men. Until his death, he continued to advocate for public awareness and sympathy towards the reality of drug addiction.

Perry, born in Massachusetts in 1969, was a talented and dedicated junior tennis player. At 14 he discovered alcohol; at 15, he moved from Ottawa to Los Angeles, where the sporting competition was tougher, but Perry pursued acting instead. Bit-parts in Growing Pains and Beverley Hills, 90210 — as well as a film role alongside River Phoenix — paved the path to Friends.

Friends remains the live-action sitcom juggernaut, catapulting its charismatic ensemble into television royalty. Chandler’s lines were regularly the best, and Perry wrote a lot of them himself, regularly pitching lines for the rest of the cast also. Then there was his mesmeric penchant for physical comedy: the open-mouthed silent scream and frenzied hand gestures, coupled with a rich understanding of how to share the screen. His ‘bromance’ with the dim-witted Joey, played by Matt LeBlanc, remains one of television’s great buddy-dynamics.

But it was Chandler’s evolving relationship with Courteney Cox’s Monica that became the show’s central storyline. As well as with comedy — Friends’ strongest string of episodes involved their efforts to conceal their romance — Cox and Perry shone in more tender moments, their characters’ connection the closest thing Friends had to an aspirational relationship: sweet, supportive, and sharing commitment that transcended the obstacles they faced.

Perry’s performance brought plaudits, among them a 1995 SAG award shared with his co-stars — but also ushered in difficulties. The strain of performing caused anxiety which he self-medicated with alcohol and, alternately, opioids. He took his first after a jet-ski accident, and later recalled driving a red Mustang across desert Nevada, feeling “complete and utter euphoria”. His situation soon deteriorated. Perry was living in rehab when Chandler married Monica.

Perry’s subsequent career was beset with personals setbacks— including fourteen different surgeries — but remained eclectic. In his 2015 revival of The Odd Couple, Perry cast himself as the Walter Matthau figure, yet his manic, screwball energy as Chandler hewed closer to Jack Lemmon. Like Lemmon he excelled as shady-types: as attorney Joe Quincy on The West Wing, he garnered two Emmy nominations. Perry also won plaudits as the odious lawyer Mike Kresteva on The Good Wife.

And there were all-too-few silver screen roles, but 1997’s Fools Rush In – co-starring Salma Hayek – cast Perry in the kind of rom-com leading-man role that could have been his staple fare. Then he personified comic freneticism playing off Bruce Willis in The Whole Nine Yards. Perry’s struggles may have deprived our screens of a fine character actor, but his screen legacy can hardly be said to be lacking.

2019 brought a perforated bowel and a two-week coma. It should have killed him, but there was a miracle, said Perry: “That’s called a Hail Mary. No one survives that.” The reprieve gave him a chance to complete and release his candid memoir: Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing. There was also the Friends reunion special in 2021, which brought another Emmy nomination. It was difficult, Perry revealed, revisiting a programme where he had secretly gone through so much. But his feelings seemed to be shifting.

“I think I’m gonna start to watch it again,” he told CBC in November 2022, “because it really has been an incredible think to watch it touch the hearts of different generations.”

The actor Matthew Perry has died aged 54. He is survived by both his parents.

Matthew Perry at Smarter Justice: Lessons from the American problem-solving court movement | 16.12.2013” by Policy Exchange is licensed under CC BY 2.0.