On Saturday afternoon, multiple news outlets confirmed that the 54-year-old actor had died from an apparent drowning in a hot tube at his home in Las Angeles. Young Matthew Perry rose to fame as Chandler Bing on the beloved sitcom Friends, which aired from 1994 to 2004, alongside Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc and David Schwimmer.
“We are devastated by the passing of our dear friend Matthew Perry,” Warner Bros. Television Group, which produced Friends, said in a statement to The Los Angeles Times. “Matthew was an incredibly gifted actor and an indelible part of the Warner Bros. Television Group family. The impact of his comedic genius was felt around the world, and his legacy will live on in the hearts of so many. This is a heartbreaking day, and we send our love to his family, his loved ones, and all of his devoted fans.”
In honor of his passing, we wanted to take a look back at his vibrant and tumultuous life using rare photos and his addiction memoir, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing: A Memoir, which Perry wrote without the aid of a ghostwriter and published to glowing reviews in November 2022, as our guide.
Matthew Perry’s boyhood
Born in Williamstown, Massachusetts on August 19, 1969, to an actor father and a journalist mother, Perry had his first shock when his father abruptly left his mother alone with 9-month-old Matthew to follow his dream of being an actor. Perry writes, “My dad, who later in life became a wonderful father, was leaving his baby alone with a 21-year-old woman who he knew was way to young to parent a child on her own.”
As his father sped away to California, he and his mother headed to Canada. “Mom and I were both abandoned, in fact, before we’d even gotten the chance to know each other.”
Perry describes his mother, Suzanne Perry (nee Langford) who served as the press secretary for Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau throughout much of Perry’s boyhood, as “basically Allison Janney from The West Wing — a spinmeister.” His mother’s job meant that she was away much of the time and when she was home, she was stressed. “I learned to be funny (pratfalls, quick one-liners, you know the drill) because I had to be — my mother was stressed by her stressful job, and already highly emotional (and abandoned), and me being funny tended to calm her down enough that she would cook some food, sit down at the dinner table with me, and hear me out, after I heard her out, of course.”
Meanwhile, Perry’s father, John Bennett Perry was off in California pursuing a career as an actor. “He was working pretty steadily and would eventually become the Old Spice guy,” Perry writes. “I saw his face more often on TV or in magazines than I did in reality.” The elder Perry would call his son once a week on Sundays, and bring Matthew out for a visit on occasion.
In 1981, when Matthew was 12, Suzanne met and married broadcast journalist Keith Morrison (who would go on to work for NBC Dateline) and gave birth to a baby girl, Caitlin. Perry writes of this time, “even though I was now a big brother, I was also the bad kid. One year I went through all the closets before Christmas to see what my presents were; I was also stealing money, smoking more and more and getting worse and worse grades.”
During this time, Perry’s grandfather started coaching him on tennis and he dreamed of facing off against John McEnroe. Perry played for the Rockcliffe Lawn Tennis Club in Ottawa and, by age 14, was nationally ranked in Canada. But, as Perry writes, “that’s also the year that something else started.”
Matthew Perry’s teen years
As a teen, Perry spent a lot of time with his two pals, Chris and Brian Murray. “One night, the three of us were hanging around in my backyard. No one was home; up above the moon shown through the clouds, none of us knowing that something extremely significant was about to happen…We decided to drink,” Perry writes. “Within 15 minutes, all the alcohol was gone. The Murrays were puking around me, and I just lay in the grass, and something happened to me. That thing that makes me bodily and mentally different from my fellows occurred. I was lying back in the grass and the mud, looking at the moon, surrounded by fresh Murray puke, and I realized for the first time in my life, nothing bothered me…I had no problems for those three hours. I wasn’t abandoned; I wasn’t fighting with my mom; I wasn’t doing lousy at school…It took away everything.”
In Perry’s telling, things got worse and worse at home as Suzanne and Keith welcomed three more half-siblings: “Mom and I were fighting all the time; tennis was the only place I was happy, and even then, I was angry, or sobbing, even when I won.” Despite the protests of his mother and grandparents, Perry decided to head to LA to live with his father at age 15.
Matthew Perry takes up acting
Despite the speed of the move, Perry “loved LA instantly” and in his sophomore year at his new school secured the role of George Gibbs in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. “I think my dad had sensed this was going to happen. After I was cast in Our Town, I raced home to share the big news and found a book lying on my bed called Acting with Style. The inscription inside read: Another generation shot to hell. Love, Dad.”
By 1986, Perry had been auditioning steadily and scored a role in the first season of the TV show Charles in Charge. During the day, Perry would work and entertain a bevy of young beauties at a local coffee shop.
In the evenings, he’d watch as his father downed vodka tonic after vodka tonic. Perry got his big break when director William Richert reached out to him and asked him to be in a movie he was making called A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon. “The list of geniuses who were ahead of their time is too long to detail here,” writes Perry. “Suffice it to say, near the top of any such list should be my costar…River Phoenix.”
Perry goes on: “the movie we made would eventually tank at the box office, but it didn’t matter. We’d been somewhere beautiful and magical, even if it was just North Rush Street in freezing Chicago. And it was the best experience of my life — I knew it too.” Perry describes sobbing on his bed in his hotel room in Chicago after the filming was over because of how painful it was for this wonderful time to be over.
From there, Perry picked up a guest appearance in Beverly Hills 90210 and a role on the TV show Second Chance. He scored a role on a series called Sydney, which starred Valerie Bertinelli (and which was cancelled after half a season). He writes of his experience: “Valerie Bertinelli — those seven syllables once stirred every part of my soul and other parts…not only was she stunning and vivacious, but she also had this great, booming, adorable laugh.”
Perry goes on to explain: “My crush was crushing; not only was she way out of my league, but she was also married to one of the most famous rock stars on the planet, Eddie Van Halen.” He had figured it was hopeless but then one night “I was over at Valerie’s and Eddie’s house, just hanging out and gazing at Valerie, trying to make her laugh…as the night progressed, it was clear that Eddie had enjoyed the fruits of the vine a little too hard…and eventually he just passed out…Valerie and I had a long, elaborate make-out session.” But the next day on set, it was clear that Bertinelli was not interested in pursuing it and Perry was devastated.
Matthew Perry and early ‘Friends’
In 1994, Perry had been signed up for a show called L.A.X. 2194 about baggage handlers, when “disaster struck” — a script for a show called Friends Like Us got passed to him. “When I read the script for Friends Like Us, it was as if someone had followed me around for a year, stealing my jokes, copying my mannerisms, photocopying my world-weary yet witty view of life,” Perry wrote. “One character in particular stood out to me: it wasn’t that I thought I could play ‘Chander,’ I was Chandler.” Perry, of course, managed to get himself cast — the last actor cast for the pilot season — and the rest is television history.
Perry recalls reaching out to cast mate Jennifer Aniston (who he had met three years previously) on the phone once he learned he was cast: “Bad idea — I could feel the ice forming through the phone. Looking back it was clear that this made her think I liked her too much, or in the wrong kind of way … and I only compounded the error by asking her out.”
Later, Perry had more luck with America’s sweetheart Julia Roberts, who he met as Friends was rising in the rankings throughout 1995 and he and his cast mates were becoming super stars.
He remembers the beginning of their relationship: “At the time, I was walking on air. I was the center of it all and nothing could touch me,” he writes. “Season one of Friends had been a smash hit … I’d done Letterman; I was slated to do Leno … now the movie offers were coming in.” From this on-top-of-the-world place, Perry decided to send flowers to Julia Roberts, who was slated to do a stint on an episode of Friends in season two.
For three months, Perry and Roberts interacted only by exchanging faxes; by the time Roberts appeared on set for her stint, they were a couple. “She was wonderful on the show and our chemistry seemed to seep off televisions all across America.”
Perry moves on to big budget movies — and painkillers
Once the filming of season 2 of Friends had wrapped in April of 1996, Perry headed off to Vegas to shoot his first major movie, Fools Rush In, with Salma Hayek. He remembered: “Salma always had a very elaborate and lengthy idea about how to do a scene, but her long-winded ideas weren’t always helpful. There’s one scene in which I’m professing my love for her. She suggested that we don’t look at each other — rather we should look at our future together. After listening to this nonsense for about twenty minutes, I finally said, ‘Listen, Salma … I’m telling you I love you in this scene. You look wherever you want, but I’m going to be looking at you.”
During the shooting for Fools Rush In, Perry was given the opportunity to hop on a jet ski and scoot around Lake Mead. “Everything in my life was perfect,” he remembered. “I had the most beautiful, famous woman in the world as my girlfriend; I was on the number one TV show in America; I was making a lot of money shooting a movie that could only be a number one box-office smash. I revved that Jet Ski hard, feeling the loose-soft connection to the water … and then I turned the Jet Ski hard right, but my body went straight on. I was airborne, and then I was not airborne.”
It turned out, Perry had hurt his neck, and a doctor who was called to the scene handed him a single pill in a plastic package. “I stashed that pill in my pocket, and I swear to God I think if I’d never taken it, none of the next three decades would have gone the way they did,” he wrote.
Beset by the fear that Julia Roberts was going to eventually break up with him, Perry broke up with her in late April 1996. “Dating Julia Roberts had been too much for me,” he wrote. “I had been constantly certain that she was going to break up with me—why would she not? I was not enough; I could never be enough; I was broken, bent and unlovable.”
Perry’s addiction kicks into high gear
Perry recounts that one can track his addiction by looking at his weight: When he was drinking, he put on weight (up to a high of 225 pounds); when he was thin, it was because of the painkillers. By the end of the filming of season three of Friends in April 1997, Perry says he was taking 55 Vicodin every day and had dropped to 128 pounds. “If you watch season three of Friends, I hope you’ll be horrified at how thin I am at the end of the season.”
At the end of filming for season three, Perry spent three weeks Hazelden rehab center in Minnesota, where he went through what’s known as a “rapid detox,” going from 55 Vicodin a day to none.
He describes that detox as “the purest form of hell” but he got through it and was able to return to California free of drugs. He stayed sober for 68 days before hitting the drink. Perry describes limping along, getting through life one day at a time but still managing to show up where needed to show up.
He recalls Jennifer Aniston and Courtney Cox helping him to get back into the game when he would become foggy on set. In late 1999, he filmed The Whole Nine Yards with Bruce Willis, and when it was released in early 2000, he was on the number one TV show and the number one movie at theaters.
During a hiatus between filming movies and Friends, Perry, then 30 years old, had a dramatic bout of pancreatitis. “Out of nowhere, I felt a knife slide into my stomach,” he remembered. He ended up spending 30 days in the hospital and, to ease the pain, they hooked up him up to a machine that dispensed an opioid called Dilaudid.
Perry remembers loving the feeling he got from the drug: “I was high and happy.” On his way home from the hospital, he swerved to miss a courier van and ended up driving his car up onto the stairs leading up to a house. “It wasn’t too long until I picked up Vicodin again, and then started drinking again and liking it again,” he remembers, writing that he would show up for the sixth season of Friends “high as a kite.” He says of this period: “To quote my therapist, ‘Reality is an acquired taste,’ and I had failed to acquire it.'”
We will miss Matthew Perry’s smile and the way he brought laughter into our lives, and we hope he’s in a far better place much more to his taste.
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