Once upon a time, there were six sitcom actors who seemingly eclipsed the size of their limited TV screen boundaries, transcending into the rooms of houses around the world as Ross, Rachel, Monica, Joey, Phoebe and Chandler to become a worldwide phenomenon with Friends. This may sound like a romantic recollection of a mere television programme, but the gravity of America’s most popular sitcom of all time cannot be overstated.
Friends represented the true peak of each of the six actors to this date, with many going on to attempt to recapture their glory only to fall drastically short. Jennifer Aniston and Matt LeBlanc came the closest with a strong stint in the film industry and a spin-off sitcom respectively, though many of the others fell by the wayside, most notably Matthew Perry
Ottawa-bred Matthew Perry dreamt of being an actor when he was 15 and pursued the thespian craft. He yearned desperately to become successful and taste fame. “There was steam coming out of my ears, I wanted to be famous so badly”. Perry wanted “the attention”, “the bucks” and “the best seat in the restaurant”. So intense was his desire to be famous and well-recognised he gave himself to it completely.
Perry starred in various small roles before miraculously landing the audition for Friends as one of the lead cast. Perry’s role would be the sarcastic goofball, Chandler Bing, with his patented trademark: “I’m not great at advice. May I interest you in a sarcastic comment?” winning hearts all over the world. He made the audience swoon with his witty remarks and jokes, going on to become a sensation.
The immense and unbridled success that emanated from the show took care of his financial constraints. From making a mere $22,500 per episode in the first season, their salaries shot up to $75,000 by the third and given the meteoric rise of popularity and show ratings, by the last two seasons, the six cast members made a million dollars each, per episode.
The six of them ruled the world, appearing everywhere, across media platforms, newspapers, magazines, and more. Perry tasted the popularity he always dreamed of, basking in the “white-hot flame of fame” for nearly ten years. He made the audience laugh and cry; he garnered immense praise for his quick-wittedness and made friends that would be by his side for the rest of his life.
While his life seemed quite ideal and rosy, it was far from being perfect. Beneath the happy-go-lucky facade of comedy and sarcasm, Perry hid demons that ate away at him slowly and gradually. He admitted that although his life was the definition of perfection from “an outsider’s perspective”, he was suffering from severe bouts of loneliness due to his struggle with alcoholism. So intense were his hangovers and withdrawals that he barely remembers the three years of shooting seasons three to six on Friends as it all had been a blur.
Perry was addicted to Vicodin. His initial brush with the drug came from a 1997 jet ski accident when he needed the same as prescribed pain medication. Besides his dependence on alcohol, he soon began to increase his Vicodin intake despite that never being his “intention”. He said, “I liked how it made me feel, and I wanted to get more”. Perry soon began to spiral. He started losing weight, being “out of control” and leading a “very unhealthy” life.
While Perry was busy being the perfect boyfriend to Monica Geller and a perfect friend to the remaining four, his personal life was in shambles. He was diagnosed with pancreatitis that was considered potentially deadly. However, that was not enough to shake him out of his daze, and he continued along his path, refusing to quit drinking. While his paycheck kept increasing due to the show’s growing popularity, Perry began to lose himself. He started scoring bigger film roles, but the void in him constantly needed to be plugged with drugs and alcohol. His Friends co-stars and friends were deeply worried about him and hated just standing on the sidelines, watching the funny and amicable side of Perry dissipate into nothingness, anger and frustration.
Matt LeBlanc spoke up about how he tried to communicate with Perry despite being aware that it was a “personal struggle” that Perry needed to deal with on his own. Kudrow found it quite difficult, too, to watch him spiral out of control and change completely under the influence of substances, while Kauffman admitted that it was “terrifying” to see Perry be in “so much pain”.
Perry was, however, in no mood for the good wishes. He later suggested that his sobriety could not be pushed for; it is an impulse that must originate from within oneself. Although he had an “odd rule” of never drinking on the sets, he would often find himself reeling under a bad hangover or headache. He found it increasingly difficult to stay in character and be funny while recuperating from his previous night’s rendezvous. He often felt sleepy, miserable and was constantly “shaking at work”.
However, the day he crashed his Porsche into a house, albeit uninhabited, Perry realised how far gone he actually was and wanted to get a grip over himself despite not being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Sobriety often hits one like a freight train and so does realisation. That is what happened to Perry in 2001 in a Dallas hotel room when he decided that he needed serious help and reached out to his parents. He was overwhelmed by the scary thoughts of dying while being at the pinnacle of his career. He no longer wanted to live like his world would end the next day. While the show and the other projects he was working on were in production, Perry flew to Los Angeles and visited a rehab centre. He found himself the zeal and motivation to fare better in his life despite the insurmountable difficulties that adorned his path in the form of withdrawal and temptation.
He was back after nearly a whopping two-and-a-half months, feeling rejuvenated and refreshed. His rehab visits were pretty publicised as opposed to his extremely guarded private life, which was problematic for him. Yet, he coped, all the same, hoping to change and get better. He announced in 2011 that he would go back to rehab to continue his self-healing journey of sobriety and soon opened up his sprawling mansion to turn it into a sober-living facility for men. Knowing the struggles of addiction and substance abuse, Perry wanted to make positive changes; he even started advocating on behalf of drug courts.
Besides acting on-screen, he carved out a career for himself in drama as well. Although post-Friends Perry was not seen in anything consequential and worth really remembering, he slowly healed and found himself at peace with his own thoughts. Despite illuminating our days with his quintessential jokes in Friends, Perry had sailed through the darkest and toughest times. He was also awarded the Phoenix Rising Award in 2015 for his contribution to society to help people with addiction.
Perry turns 52 today, and we cannot help but admire him for facing his demons bravely and managing to get better. While we have missed him dearly, it makes sense why he has kept off the public radar for the longest time to heal. Last year, he joined Instagram and took the world by storm. The Friends reunion in 2021 was indeed surprising, and we were glad to see the six of them sit on the classic orange couch in Central perk, laughing their hearts out. It took us back to 1994, when the six clueless friends were going on to create a legacy of a lifetime.
On his birthday, as we reminisce about Perry’s wonderful and cathartic journey from addiction to sobriety and healing, we resort to classic Perry humour as he says: “I would like you all to give me a round of applause as I have not crashed my car in over 15 months.”