How the tragedy of Matthew Perry overshadowed the Friends reunion

Seeing the gang back together for Friends: The Reunion, which airs on HBO Max next week, underlines just how much time has passed
Seeing the gang back together for Friends: The Reunion, which airs on HBO Max next week, underlines just how much time has passed

This article was first published in May 2021

In theory, it promised to be “The One That Gets Us All Overwhelmed With Nostalgia and Excitement”. But when the trailer for the long-awaited Friends: The Reunion arrived on the internet on Thursday, it ended up ‘The One That Left Us All Just a Little Bit Concerned.’

Any of the millions who watched the advert had questions. Tedious ones, like: “What, they’ve just left the set there since 2004?”; matters of global importance, like: “Can truly nothing be done to stop the James Corden variant?”; and, above all: “Is everything OK with Chandler? Because it doesn’t look as if it’s been his day, his week, his month, or even his year.”

More than 17 years have passed since we said farewell to David Schwimmer’s Ross, Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel, Courteney Cox’s Monica, Matthew Perry’s Chandler, Lisa Kudrow’s Phoebe and Matt LeBlanc’s Joey. That two-part finale, after 10 series, became the most-watched television episode of the decade and while it wasn’t exactly definitive – the highest-stakes life change was Monica and Chandler moving to... suburbia – the cast always made it abundantly clear that they had no intention of restarting. They were not on a break; they wanted to get on with their careers.

Seeing them all back together for Friends: The Reunion, which airs on HBO Max next week, underlines just how much time has passed. There were the gang of wise-cracking, hapless and fairly implausible (someone like Phoebe would not tolerate someone like Ross) pals back in the same apartment, but there too were six actors who have all led very different lives since we last saw them together.

In Perry’s case, his ups and downs appear to weigh heavy. Now 51, the youngest of the group, he is granted just one blink-and-you-might-miss-it moment of speech in the trailer – to announce that he is about to cry. An accompanying video interview for People showed Perry seated next to LeBlanc and Schwimmer. While the latter laughed and joked comfortably, the man who played the wittiest of the friends seemed mumbly and distant.

Fans on social media – as well as prying tabloid headlines – came up with theories, but Perry has always had a difficult relationship with the character that made him a star.

“People come up to me every day and say: ‘Hey, Chandler!’ I don’t respond to it,” he said in an interview in 2014. “If somebody says, ‘Hi Matthew, I love your work’, that’s one thing. But if somebody goes ‘Yo, Chandler’, I don’t like that. I’m tired of it. I’m not Chandler.”

Born in Massachusetts but raised in Ottawa after his parents divorced when he was a baby, Perry’s Canadian mother was a former press aide to the then Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau. The young Perry initially wanted to become a professional tennis player, practising for some 10 hours a day, before switching to acting after moving to live with his father in Los Angeles when he was 15.

Roles on TV and in films came quickly, and in 1994, at 24, he was cast in a New York-set NBC sitcom created by David Crane and Marta Kauffman, which had gone from being called Insomnia Cafe to Six of One and Friends Like Us, before eventually becoming just Friends.

“It’s about sex, love, relationships, careers, a time in your life when everything’s possible. And it’s about friendship, because when you’re single and in the city, your friends are your family,” the original pitch to NBC read.

All the cast were to have equal billing; all of them featured in all 235 episodes; and all of them turned into not only stars, but very rich stars. At its peak, they earned $1m per episode. Stardom was precisely what Perry wanted, but precisely what he didn’t need.

“There was steam coming out of my ears, I wanted to be famous so badly,” he told The New York Times in 2002. “You want the attention, you want the bucks, and you want the best seat in the restaurant. I didn’t think what the repercussions would be.”

Matthew Perry's appearance in the trailer has sparked concern from fans
Matthew Perry's appearance in the trailer has sparked concern from fans - HBO Max / BACKGRID UK

The trappings of celebrity did not suit a personality like his. A perfectionist, he’d practise his delivery and timing for hours. He was desperate for renown, but also deeply private – a contradiction further muddied by dating the likes of Julia Roberts and Yasmine Bleeth. The former cameoed in Friends; the latter was written in as Chandler’s dream woman.

Perry, who has said he first drank at 13, used alcohol to distract and relax from the intensity. In 1997, a jet-ski accident gave him a prolonged addiction to the painkiller Vicodin (a drug he later said he took “mostly just to not drink as much as I was”), for which he completed a 28-day rehab programme.

His weight visibly fluctuated, and in 2000 he was hospitalised with pancreatitis. The following year, he entered rehab for addiction to Vicodin, alcohol, methadone and amphetamines. When he looks back on some episodes of Friends, he said: “I honestly recoil. It’s scary to look at that. I was a sick guy.” He even claimed there are three whole series of Friends he can’t remember: “I was a little out of it at the time.”

In the years since, Perry has enjoyed a wobbly career – which isn’t unlike his castmates. There was Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a number of memorable guest roles in the likes of The West Wing and The Good Wife, and several unmemorable comedy films, but never anything that’s made the most of his clear gifts. Not for nothing was he seen by critics as the most talented of the group.

What he has succeeded in is becoming an open and outspoken voice on addiction struggles. He quit drinking in 2001, but was back in rehab in 2011 to prevent relapse (“Please enjoy making fun of me on the world wide web,” he remarked), and is remarkably honest about how for somebody in his position, those struggles are ongoing. “You can’t have a drug problem for 30 years and then expect to have it solved in 28 days,” he said on his 46th birthday.

Consistent stability – either in his personal or professional life – still seems to elude him. He embarrassed himself last year by getting caught flirting with a 19-year-old on the exclusive dating app Raya (“Six feet tall. Looking for miss right or to have some fun along the way,” his alleged bio read), but he is now engaged to 29-year-old talent manager Molly Hurwitz, “the greatest woman on the face of the planet”. He also has a role in Adam McKay’s upcoming Netflix film Don’t Look Up, alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett and Jennifer Lawrence.

And he still has his castmates. We all watched, and loved, Friends because they were vaguely like any group of young twentysomethings: the bossy one, the absent-minded one, the sarky one, the lughead one, the will-they-won’t-they ones. Kauffman was attracted to the idea that, at that age, “the future [is] more of a question mark”.

Like many of us, the gang have now grown up, their question marks answered. But just as everyone knows a twentysomething Chandler, everyone also knows a fiftysomething Perry: the one who never quite seems to get it together. And he’s just as valued as the rest of them.

What became of the other Friends
What became of the other Friends