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Could Matthew Perry’s Legacy BE Any Sweeter?

Though tragically short, his career had a lasting impact


spinner image Actor Matthew Perry smiling for a portrait.
Mitchell Haaseth/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

Matthew Perry called himself “a perpetual patient” who spent about $9 million trying to get healthy. In 2019, drugs made his heart literally stop for five minutes, nearly killing him. Despite a long period of sobriety, he died on Oct. 28 at age 54.

Yet even when he was dancing on the edge of disaster, he managed to create one of the most indelible, influential comic personas in TV history, Chandler on Friends, watched by 25 to 50 million people a week in its 1994-2004 run, then rediscovered by a whole new generation on Netflix.

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Like Stephen King, who thanks to his former addictions has no memory of writing Cujo — the book’s monster is a symbol for his habit — Perry could scarcely recall filming Friends Seasons 3 through 6, when he was sickest. He earned, by his estimate, about $90,900 an hour for acting on Friends, then went home, got plastered and erased the tape of his own memories.

He was capable of shooting the unforgettable scene of Chandler’s wedding with Monica (Courteney Cox)— he told The New York Times it was “the height of my highest point in Friends, the highest point in my career, the iconic moment on the iconic show” — and then catching a ride back to the rehab center. He spent half his life in treatment or rehab centers.

spinner image Matt LeBlanc as Joey Tribbiani, Matthew Perry as Chandler Bing, Courteney Cox as Monica Geller, Jennifer Aniston as Rachel Green, Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe Buffay on "Friends."
(Left to right) Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, Courteney Cox, Jennifer Aniston and Lisa Kudrow on "Friends."
Gary Null/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

He was the funniest Friend

Of the six Friends, his was arguably the one that scored the most laugh lines, punctuating countless scenes with witty, deadpan zingers that usually poked fun without really drawing blood. “He was always the funniest person in the room,” the show’s creators said in a statement after his death. “More than that, he was the sweetest, with a giving and selfless heart.”

Perry spoofed Chandler in a Saturday Night Live skit, playing a teacher of Sarcasm 101, but that character was incredibly mean. Chandler was the opposite, more like Perry’s actual nature.

When Chandler’s sarcasm was actually lacerating, it was generally to himself

“I’m Chandler, I make jokes when I’m uncomfortable,” Perry’s character explains. His quips were often like Mad magazine’s Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions. When Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) says, “Guys! Guess what, guess what, guess what!” Chandler retorts, “The fifth dentist caved, and now they’re all recommending Trident?” When he’s on the phone and tells Joey (Matt LeBlanc) he got a woman’s machine and Joey asks, “Her answering machine?” he says, “No, interestingly enough, her leaf blower picked up.”

But they weren’t just jokes, they expressed character, not just by dialogue but through Perry’s sarcastically elastic face, flexible forehead and physical comedy worthy of Buster Keaton — impulsive lunges and expert pratfalls (some unintended but so funny directors left them in). Chandler sometimes resembled a puppet whose strings were jerked by his own neurosis.

A cynic who yearns to be proven wrong about humanity, he’s sympathetic to his friends — but not to the point of emotional risk. When Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) is upset because Joey’s in love with her, she can’t reciprocate and she doesn’t know what to do, Chandler says, “I’m not great at the advice. Can I interest you in a sarcastic comment?” He tells a baby, “I’m your uncle Chandler. Funny is all I have.” “What’s wrong with me?” Chandler once asked. “Ooh, don’t open that door!”

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spinner image Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe Buffay, Jennifer Aniston as Rachel Green, Courteney Cox as Monica Geller, Matt LeBlanc as Joey Tribbiani, Matthew Perry as Chandler Bing on "Friends."
(Left to right) Lisa Kudrow, Jennifer Aniston, David Schwimmer, Courteney Cox, Matt LeBlanc and Matthew Perry.
Alice S. Hall/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

There was plenty of Matthew Perry in Chandler Bing

“This was the only guy to play him,” Friends cocreator Marta Kauffman said in the 2021 reunion special. AARP contributor Dana Kennedy, who interviewed Perry in 2002, wrote, “In person, Mr. Perry is often disarmingly like Chandler Bing, the sarcastic yet sweet-natured guy he plays on Friends.” Perry told her, “It’s no accident that Chandler is a guy who is trying to deter his own human emotional feelings with laughter. That’s what I did for years.”

Today, Kennedy says, “I expected to really like Perry, since he was so likable on the show. Instead I found him tense and awkward. He was perfectly cordial to me, but I sensed an anger and a self-loathing. Truly a mystery to me why he was quite so unhappy for so long.”

Self-sabotaged romance was one reason for Chandler’s unhappiness — and Perry’s

All the Friends had tumultuous love troubles, but Chandler’s were in a class of their own. Chandler says, “Until I was 25, I thought that the only response to ‘I love you’ was ‘Oh, crap!’ ” He has a hilariously long off-and-on relationship with his pre-Monica girlfriend Janice (Maggie Wheeler, who wrote of Perry, “The joy you brought to so many in your too short lifetime will live on. I feel so very blessed by every creative moment we shared.”).

Chandler decides to make a “preemptive strike” on their relationship, but instead of breaking up with her like a man, he pretends he’s being transferred to Yemen. On another occasion, when he gets panicky and suggests that they live together, she panics and flees, and he blurts, “I’ve said too much. I’m hopeless and awkward and desperate for love!”

Chandler is terrified he’ll wind up dying spouseless like his late, elderly neighbor, living in “Bittertown! Aloneville! Hermit Junction! What if I never find somebody? Or worse, what if I already found her but I dumped her because she pronounces it ‘Supposably?’ ”

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spinner image Matthew Perry and actress Julia Roberts hug each other on the set of "Friends."
Matthew Perry and Julia Roberts hugging each other on the set of "Friends."
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Perry had similar problems

Though he smooched brilliant beauties (Cameron Diaz, Selma Blair, Valerie Bertinelli, Gwyneth Paltrow, Gabrielle Allan, Jamie Tarses, Lizzy Caplan, Natasha Wagner, Carrie Fisher’s half-sister Tricia), he did not make those relationships work. When he landed the biggest star of all, Julia Roberts, he preemptively broke up with her before she could do it to him.

More than most Hollywood lotharios, Perry was processing childhood trauma

As he explained in his startling 2022 memoir Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing, his parents’ divorce haunted him, and he wrote, “It doesn’t take a psychology degree to figure out that this had something to do with my relationship with my mother. … I am constantly filled with a lurking loneliness, a yearning, clinging to the notion that something outside of me will fix it.”

spinner image Matthew Perry poses for a portrait in promotion of his role in the upcoming CBS network comedy series "The Odd Couple" in New York.
Brian Ach/Invision/AP

He poured his pain into laughter and healing for us all

Though he died unmarried, without the children he yearned to have, alone in a hot tub, he sent the whole world a message of love. Richard Schiff, his costar on The West Wing, where Perry earned one of his five Emmy nominations, said of his less-lovable-than-Chandler character on that show, “It is Matthew Perry after all, so you’re going to like him no matter what.”

On Friends, Perry helped create a fable of warm, fond, alternative-family formation that America urgently needs in an era when loneliness is epidemic. In real life, too, he was often sweet and kind, especially to those who shared his addiction illness.

“I know people will talk about Friends, Friends, Friends,” he said. “But when I die, as far as my so-called accomplishments go, it would be nice if Friends were listed far behind the things I did to try to help other people. I know it won’t happen, but it would be nice.”

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