In Friends, James Michael Tyler gave us the most moving depiction of unrequited love

‘Tyler portrayed a character who loved Rachel wholeheartedly for exactly who she was, flaws and all’  (YouTube/TBS)
‘Tyler portrayed a character who loved Rachel wholeheartedly for exactly who she was, flaws and all’ (YouTube/TBS)

This morning, it was announced to the world that the actor James Michael Tyler had died from cancer, age 59. Tyler is, of course, best known for his enduringly popular role as Gunther on Friends.

His character was beloved for many reasons, not least Tyler’s natural charisma and talent (his comic timing, for example), plus the unique quality he brought to one of the most famous sitcoms in history; but I’ve always felt that his depiction of unrequited love was one of the most moving I’ve ever seen played out on screen.

Anyone who has ever watched Friends knows that Gunther was enduringly, unswervingly in love with Rachel (played by Jennifer Aniston), from the earlier seasons right up until the sitcom’s end. Whether training her as a waitress while they both worked at coffee shop Central Perk, or serving her coffee long after she’d moved on into the fashion industry: he loved her for years, and famously didn’t tell her until the last episode.

Tyler’s portrayal of unrequited love was often humorous — his stricken face, for example, when Mark asks Rachel out just after Gunther’s been rehearsing those very same lines in his head; or his slapstick comedy when tripping and falling across the coffee shop after Rachel deplores that “there’s nobody to hug”, when she triumphantly finishes a crossword puzzle — but it was also unobtrusive, non-presumptuous and lacking any sense of entitlement.

Tyler portrayed a character who loved Rachel wholeheartedly for exactly who she was, flaws and all; and Gunther was mostly just happy to be in her orbit and to share her company.

It’s a testament to Tyler’s portrayal of the character that I (and, I’m sure, many others) found his experience so relatable. I’ve been in unrequited love before, and I’ve experienced first-hand the longing to simply share the same space as the person I love. I know how it feels to rehearse lines in my head; to fiercely daydream about alternate realities in which the other person says, “I love you, too”.

I’ve been at parties where I’ve experienced the jolt in the stomach that comes from finding myself alone in the company of the person I love; a moment heightened for its brevity, because I know it’s only a matter of minutes before the person in question “goes to get a drink”, or until a mutual friend appears to join the conversation: not knowing that they’re puncturing a happy bubble I’ve conjured around us from the sheer force of my feelings.

In recent years, I’ve thought of these moments every time I’ve watched Gunther interact with Rachel on Friends. Tyler captured, for me, what it feels like to share even two minutes with the person you’re in love with; all the while knowing that the moment could be shattered at any time by the appearance of an unsuspecting third party, and thus appreciating those two minutes all the more for their precariousness.

But what Tyler also brought to life with a searing poignancy during his time on Friends is what it’s like to perpetually orbit a particular friendship group. Throughout the sitcom, Gunther is a pivotal character and enduringly lovable; but he’s never truly part of the ongoing group dynamic.

He points out that he wasn’t invited to Monica and Chandler’s wedding, for example, and earlier in the series he calls Chandler out for not even knowing his last name — but he does get last minute invites to spur-of-the-moment parties when the central characters need to fill a room (such as the party Rachel spontaneously throws when hoping to woo Joshua).

Tyler brought a uniquely touching quality to a character that recurred on screen, but who couldn’t ever quite gain access to the group for which the show is famous: an attribute that made his character all the more meaningful within the show as a whole, and that injected it with a deeply moving quality.

I’ve always identified with this, too. At school, I was perpetually hovering on the fringes of friendship groups that I wanted to be a part of but didn’t know how to join. I’d get party invites; but I knew I’d only been invited because a parent had insisted that their child invite the whole class. I ultimately found a solid friendship group who are still among my closest friends today; but I’ve always related to Gunther’s sense of hovering on the periphery.

But while unrequited feelings were an integral part of Tyler’s story arc on Friends, there doesn’t seem to be anything unrequited about his real life interactions.

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The Friends cast have shared moving tributes to the actor on social media — Jennifer Aniston wrote, “Thank you for the laughter you brought to the show and to all of our lives. You will be so missed”, while Courtney Cox movingly detailed that, “The size of gratitude you brought into the room and showed every day on set is the size of the gratitude I hold for having known you.”

Tyler’s family shared in a statement that, “If you met him once you made a friend for life”; and that “his loved ones knew him as an actor, musician, cancer-awareness advocate, and loving friend”, while his wife, Jennifer Carno, was “the love of his life”.

It’s evident that Tyler’s real life relationships — familial, platonic, professional and romantic — were very much requited; that he had a deep, meaningful impact on those who knew him; and, most of all, that he will be greatly missed.

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