By now you’ve all heard that celebrated actor Matthew Perry has passed away at age 54 after an apparent drowning in his jacuzzi in Los Angeles. Most known for his ten-year run as “Chandler” on the wildly popular NBC sitcom FRIENDS, Perry’s work has touched generations of fans and his passing has left a massive hole in the hearts of so many. Personally, I was, and am, a massive fan, following his career from FRIENDS onward, tuning in every time his name graced a marquee. I received his memoir last year for Christmas and read it in one sitting - ironically while drinking. I might’ve missed the message on that one. Regardless, I’ve loved his work and will continue to love his work, so I wanted to take this time to celebrate the performer, his roles, and maybe shed some light on some of his lesser known performances for those who want more Matthew Perry in their life now that he’s no longer in our world.
Ms. Chanandler Bong had, undoubtedly, the most dynamic character arc on the TV show FRIENDS. While Monica started and ended the show as a control freak, Ross a neurotic mess, Phoebe a free spirit, Joey a dimwitted hornhound, and Rachel a selfish and spoiled beauty, Chandler was given the opportunity to grow, mature, and change throughout. Stretching past his initial sarcastic loner routine, Perry was tasked with hammering the cynic out of Chandler and finding the emotional core within. What viewers saw over the ten year stint was a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, with love and kindness and tenderness. This act shaped a generation, as many identified with Bing most fervently in the show’s earlier seasons, as his character had the staunch cynicism that defined the back half of the nineties. Whereas Joey was an established actor, Ross was a tenured professor, and Monica, Phoebe, and Rachel generally coasted on their looks, Chandler was adrift in a faceless role at a nondescript workplace and left to navigate his late 20s on wit, alone. Having this character soften as the dawn of a new millennium gave way to a new sense of wonder allowed the viewers at home to drop their armor, as well, and find the nugget of vulnerability and truth within themselves.
Similarly, he began the sitcom with a great deal of physical humor to complement his sass, which tapered off as the show progressed. Whether it was his personal health struggles, a maturity of the writing staff, or just the logical progression, it was clear as the show went on that Perry was looked to for his solid delivery over his wacky flailing and spit takes. It was likely due to a maturation of the medium at the time, as it was after the new millennium that slapstick fell by the wayside or waded in younger waters.
Perry excelled not only at dropping sarcastic lines with devastating deadpan delivery but also at making the cynical engine that drives Chandler somewhat relatable. He wasn’t a joke factory - he was a human being. Certainly his incessant nature veered often into parody but he was able to add a charm to his reaction scenes that made the performance believable. We didn’t think of Chandler as some insufferable facetious blowhard that our other five friends had to endure; he was a friend. As the character settled into his relationship with Monica in the back half of the show, he often took on the role of North Star for the latter’s neurosis, talking her off frequent ledges and admitting to his own shortcomings in the arena of adult relationships. It was Thursday night shenanigans live before a studio audience but the camaraderie of the main cast seemed to percolate through the small screen, shaping a generation. While all the FRIENDS found success in their own right, Matthew Perry was OUR friend.
To be fair, FRIENDS most certainly wasn’t Perry’s first role on television. He had guest appearances on several television stalwarts prior to landing the role of Chandler, most notably GROWING PAINS, BEVERLY HILLS 90210, and a lead role in the short-lived sitcom HOME FREE, wherein his boss was literally Skeletor. While I haven’t distinct memories of all of these performances, his role on BEVERLY HILLS 90210 is a standout, playing an entitled rich kid who plays with guns. It was startlingly unfunny, and introduced me quickly to his range. Perry had a danger about him - a quick wit and a warm smile but piercing eyes, eyes that burned with a rage that set somewhere in the middle of everything. A glint of his eyes could make a joke funny or cutting; he could make you laugh or cry with his deft delivery. That danger was rarely explored in his comedic work but came to light more quickly in some of his more dramatic roles later in his career.
Films concurrent with FRIENDS
Once he proved a breakout star, Hollywood came calling, and Perry hit the big screen. The first couple of forays were largely forgettable: FOOLS RUSH IN, a romantic comedy of mismatched lovers co-starring Salma Hayek, and ALMOST HEROES, a period western comedy with Chris Farley. Then in 1999, Perry starred alongside Dylan McDermott and Neve Campbell in THREE TO TANGO, a romantic comedy that has aged horribly but is still a movie I watch at least once a year due to his stellar performance. I love everything about this movie, aside from the rampant homophobia and pervasive masculine manipulation. Those sins aside, the film boasts a stellar supporting cast led by Oliver Platt, with John C. McGinley, Bob Balaban, and David Ramsey. Everything about Perry’s performance is comic gold throughout the film, and he uses his youth and physicality to his benefit in this film to better effect than either of the films mentioned so far. His Oscar Novak is easy to fall in love with, and working opposite Neve Campbell makes the film superbly relatable. In the dark night of the soul leading into the third act we’re treated to a stellar Duncan Sheik song, so the film is something of a time capsule of that setting nineties sun that feels like a warm hug. It’s always been a comfort film of mine and I beseech those who haven’t seen it to revel in its, and Perry’s, charms.
The next year would see Perry at the zenith of his career, releasing the most notable film role of his career as Nicholas “Oz” Oseransky in Jonathan Lynn’s THE WHOLE NINE YARDS. Starring alongside Bruce Willis at the height of his own resurgence, this frenetically paced comedy of errors is relentlessly rewatchable, with Perry stealing every scene he is in alongside massive stars. With Natasha Henstridge, Amanda Peet, Michael Clarke Duncan, Kevin Pollack, Rosanna Arquette, and Harland Williams co-starring, this film has tremendous talent. Perry is delightful, sincere, a bundle of neurosis, a bleeding heart, and surefire comic excellence. The film is so fast and funny and delightful that I would go on record as saying please, for the love of God, don’t watch the sequel. I can’t even in good conscience say that THE WHOLE TEN YARDS is bad because it’s so utterly forgettable that I don’t recall if it’s actually bad. I even have it on DVD and I still have no desire to watch it again. Perhaps, if I’m ever lucky enough to retire, I’ll do a double feature of the two on a day when my feet are particularly achey, but the likelihood seems slim.
Perry followed up the success of THE WHOLE NINE YARDS with another crime caper, this one called SERVING SARA, alongside Elizabeth Hurley. Despite help from Bruce Campell, Cedric the Entertainer, and Mike Judge, this film was a dud from every angle. A critical and commercial failure, it was released at the same time that FRIENDS was airing its eighth and most successful season. Two years later, the sitcom would come to an end, and Perry would release the regrettable sequel to THE WHOLE NINE YARDS.
Post - FRIENDS
With the world spread before him (while also battling a relentless monkey on his back), Matthew Perry could ideally do anything. After a few guest-starring roles in neighboring sitcoms, he took the work of a television drama film playing an idealistic teacher in THE RON CLARK STORY, which garnered Golden Globe, Emmy, and SAG award nominations for Perry. Then he landed a coveted co-lead in Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived television show about a television show, STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP. “Studio 60” was a perfect vehicle for this more reserved version of Matthew Perry post-FRIENDS. His character Matt Albie is a veteran television writer who has seen every evil trick a network can conjure, resulting in a wary, pragmatic character that still believes in the power of words. Having the words he uses be those of one of the greatest dialogue writers of the 21st century achieved the odd effect of the man who made sitcom contrivances seem real now giving real-time commentary on sitcom contrivances. Working alongside Bradley Whitford, Amanda Peet, Nate Corddry, Steven Weber, D.L. Hughley, and Sarah Paulson, the show was a lean and stellar single-season masterpiece. Perry handles Sorkin’s dialogue with ease, pocketing his physical comedy for a more cerebral take on the mercurial nature of television and lending the audience his experiences and eyes each Monday night for 22 episodes. If you didn't know where to turn after WEST WING ended, it's here.
As the sun set on Sorkin’s dramatic take on sketch comedy shows, Perry returned to film on a smaller scale, starring in back-to-back independent dramedies: NUMB, with Mary Steenburgen, and BIRDS OF AMERICA, with Lauren Graham. Both these films were quiet character studies which focused less on Perry’s bug-eyed reactions and more on his subtle observational skills and morose relatability. Both characters have a resignation about them, a sense of accepting the world around them and their diminishing role within it. While NUMB finds him, well, numb, BIRDS OF AMERICA finds him playing straight man to two wild younger siblings. Now the clown is thrust into a parenting role, much as he was decades earlier in HOME SAFE, but this time he’s more Pagliacci than Pierrot.
After starring the next year as an aged-up Zac Efron alongside Thomas Lennon in 17 AGAIN, Perry put the silver screen behind him and returned to his wheelhouse: television. Creating, co-writing, and co-producing, Matthew Perry graced our televisions again on Wednesday nights along with Allison Janney in MR. SUNSHINE. I particularly enjoyed this show as it took place in San Diego, where I lived at the time, with Perry playing the beleaguered manager of a low-rent arena in America’s Finest City. Allison Janney lent star-power to the proceedings and Nate Torrence added a bit of simple charm, but it’s Perry’s flat-faced put-upon performance as Ben Donovan that anchors the show. Once again it is a metacommentary on sitcom contrivances - the silly little situational comedies that people on TV get themselves into - that Perry deadpans his way through almost spitefully. It’s a winking awareness that everything will likely get worked out in 22 minutes and if it doesn’t, who cares? Come back next week and something better or worse might happen. Perry is again playing the part of the audience, watching it all happen around him with a disbelief that courts resignation rather than incredulity.
MR. SUNSHINE only lasted one season, but Perry, like his Matt Albie character, refused to give up on television. Returning only a year later with another show that he co-produced, Perry once more chose a central character that has squirreled himself into a quiet life from which others feel compelled to force him. This time, he plays a sportscaster, Ryan King, walking through the fog of losing his wife in GO ON, on NBC. This series, also, was a treat to me as it had a much more mature feel than FRIENDS and an even darker premise than MR. SUNSHINE. I like comedy to sometimes come from a place of pain - to laugh at our sadness and take the teeth out of a grief that threatens to tear us apart. GO ON was the perfect vehicle for Perry at this time, who had eschewed entirely his penchant for big reactions or neurotic characters and settled on a quiet resignation and a defensive wit. Perry is very much Joel McHale’s character from COMMUNITY - the member of the group who doesn’t feel he needs the group while also unable to feel deserving of their support. The arc of the season is spent pulling King’s confessions from him, peeling away his calluses to find his vulnerability, and breaking him down so that he may be reborn. It’s heady stuff for a Thursday night sitcom, but once again, this was all the rage at the time. Sadly, this series also lasted only one season, though I don’t know what we would’ve done, collectively, with six seasons and a movie of GO ON.
After repeated misfires, Perry took a break from creating and producing and instead guested on a couple of shows with his FRIENDS co-stars. However, he took one last stab at television immortality by rebooting the classic ODD COUPLE, with himself as Oscar and old friend Thomas Lennon as Felix. While this show managed to run three seasons and garner Perry two Peoples’ Choice Awards nominations, I sadly could not count myself as a fan. I set my DVR to record the show when I first heard it was airing in 2015, as a massive fan of both Perry and Lennon. When I tuned in, however, I found Perry yelling all of his lines and the roaring canned laughter to be thoroughly off-putting. If you think you might find something to love in this show, by all means, please enjoy it.
FRIENDS, LOVERS, & THE BIG TERRIBLE THING
Perry’s memoir tells the tale of a boy who wanted to entertain and be loved, as well as a man haunted by an empty hole inside of him that nothing could fill. It’s a hard read, oscillating between incredulous self-praise and damning hatred for the thing that he’d become in the grip of addiction. He talks of his work in entertainment only sporadically, deferring rather to his work as an empathetic healer. Having dealt with addiction most of his adult life, Perry wanted more than anything to be a light for others in the darkness. His memoir is meant to be a cautionary tale, a Dickensian nightmare to show others the darkness that could befall them if they don’t change their ways. His work in rehabilitating himself seemed less dire to him than the ideal that he could help others. As he stared down mortality several times throughout his life, he had this to say of his inevitable passing:
When I die, I know people will talk about Friends, Friends, Friends. And I’m glad of that, happy I’ve done some solid work as an actor, as well as given people multiple chances to make fun of my struggles on the world wide web…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.
Matthew Perry died at age 54, and in the days since we’ve seen an outpouring of love for the man and his legacy. I, for one, will continue to revisit the work he has done that has brought me so much joy in the last thirty years, and I count myself lucky to have access to such a storied and brilliant career. We’re all destined to leave here one day, and there’s nothing to be done about that. The best we can hope is to be remembered fondly by those who hear our stories told by those that loved us. Matthew Perry was loved by everyone he worked with, and almost all of them have used words like “genius,” “genuine,” and “beloved” to describe his role in their lives. That we get some glimpse into that is a magic in itself. While he is no longer here to create new memories, we are blessed with the ones we carry with us to our own end. From the bottom of my heart, you will be missed, Miss Chanandler Bong.
Thanks for the laughs,
McEric, aka Eric McClanahan