"I would like to be remembered as somebody who lived well, loved well, was a seeker," Matthew Perry told interviewer Tom Power in November of 2022. "His paramount thing is that he wants to help people."
Perry, who battled for most of his life with addiction, was proudest of his efforts to help others in this regard. “The best thing about me is that if an alcoholic or drug addict comes up to me and says ‘Will you help me?’ I will always say ‘Yes, I know how to do that. I will do that for you, even if I can’t always do it for myself.’”
In the days since Perry's passing on October 28, we've seen testimonials like this one about how Perry changed the lives of those around him by helping them to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and building the Perry House, which is a sober-living facility for men in Malibu.
In that interview, Perry said one more important thing about his legacy: "I've said this for a long time: when I die, I don't want Friends to be the first thing that's mentioned—I want [helping people] to be the first thing that's mentioned. And I'm going to live the rest of my life proving that."
Perry has always been more than the sarcastic king of one-liners that fans saw on NBC for a decade. His memoir, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, laid bare his struggle with addiction and his path toward sobriety. He spent much of his life helping others do the same.
Kelsey Miller's I'll Be There For You details the making of the hit TV show, and the excerpt below helps contextualize who Perry was before he won the role of Chandler Bing. We'll continue to celebrate Friends and Perry's casting, because it introduced the world to all of the good he would do in his life.
Matthew Perry was broke. While [David] Schwimmer was being wooed via telephone, hemming and hawing over the role that had been tailor-made for him, Matthew Perry was frantically calling his agents, begging them to get him a gig. Didn’t matter what kind of gig as long as it was shooting now. His business manager had just called to inform him that he had no money. No, he wasn’t running low on money—he was out. He needed a job, ideally today.
At twenty-three, Perry had been a working actor for almost ten years. Though born in Williamstown, Massachusetts, he was raised in Ottawa, Ontario, primarily by his mother, Suzanne Langford, a journalist and one-time press secretary to Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Perry attended the same grade school as the PM’s son, and future Canadian leader/beloved political dreamboat, Justin Trudeau. (In 2017, Perry famously confessed on a late-night talk show that in fifth grade, he and his friend Chris Murray beat up Trudeau because they were jealous of his athletic ability.) His mother later married journalist Keith Morrison (best known to Americans as a longtime correspondent on Dateline NBC). As for his father, Perry said, he mostly saw him on TV.
While Perry spent most of his youth in a community far removed from show business, his father was one of the most recognizable faces on television at the time. John Bennett Perry was the iconic “Old Spice Man,” appearing in ads throughout the 1970s and ’80s. He notched small roles in numerous films and television episodes of the era, as well, but to this day he remains famous as the dashing but rugged symbol of commercial masculinity. At fifteen, Perry went to live with his father, and was none too thrilled to find himself the son of a sex symbol. “I would never bring a girl home, because all the girls would just go, ‘Who’s that guy?’ ‘That’s my dad. I know. When you guys are done, I’ll be in therapy.’”
Perry had moved to the States to further his tennis career. In Canada, he’d become a nationally ranked player among boys under fourteen. When he got to LA, however, he discovered that being one of the best tennis players in Ottawa was about as impressive as being one of the top-ranked ice hockey players in Southern California. He was a natural athlete, but simply couldn’t compete, so he shifted his focus on his second favorite extracurricular activity: acting. It was a natural move for an LA teenager, especially one with built-in connections. And as he himself would readily acknowledge, Perry was always a performer, a competitive or even desperate seeker of the spotlight. “I was a guy who wanted to become famous,” he told the New York Times in 2002. “There was steam coming out of my ears, I wanted to be famous so badly.”
With his father’s agent representing him, Perry booked one-off roles here and there, on shows like Charles in Charge and Silver Spoons. In 1987, he landed the lead in a long-forgotten Second Chance, a Fox comedy about a man who dies in a hovercraft accident in 2011, meets Saint Peter, is deemed not bad enough for hell but not good enough for heaven, and so instead is sent back to earth in the 1980s in order to help his teenage self make better decisions. How’s that for a log line? The show was briefly pulled off the air after poor ratings (astonishing, I know!), retooled slightly, and brought back under the title Boys Will Be Boys. The new version still didn’t work, and today, the show is best known simply for featuring one of Matthew Perry’s first lead roles.
After that, Perry continued to bounce between guest spots, appearing once or twice on dozens of the most popular series of the 1980s and ’90s, including one episode of Dream On, where he met Kauffman, Bright, and Crane. He wasn’t famous but he was visible and busy and making a decent living. At least he thought he was, until his phone rang one day and he found out he was broke.
But at least he was broke during pilot season. Shortly after calling his agents, Perry got an offer to do the pilot of yet another Fox sitcom with a premise that sounds more like an ill-advised audience prompt at an improv comedy show. LAX 2194 was about airport baggage handlers working at Los Angeles International Airport, in the year 2194. “I was the head baggage handler,” Perry recalled. “And my job, in the show, was to sort out aliens’ luggage.” Ryan Stiles and Kelly Hu costarred as futuristic US customs agents, and for reasons I cannot begin to imagine, the producers decided to cast little people as the aliens.
Despite the bright red flags, Perry said yes to the role. He had to. Sure, it might complicate things in the long term; if the pilot turned into a series, then Perry would be locked into playing a twenty-second-century baggage handler. But that seemed extremely improbable to everyone except, presumably, the network executives who’d greenlit the pilot. LAX 2194 would keep Perry out of the running for other roles, but only for one pilot season. What he didn’t know was that, over on the Warner Bros. lot, his name was on a list of actors to be brought in for another show. And it was close to the top.
Perry did know about the pilot itself, though—everyone did. “It was the script that everybody was talking about,” he recalled. He knew, too, that he was perfect for it. All his friends were being brought in to read for it, and Perry kept getting calls from them saying, “There’s this guy on this show that is you.” The role of Chandler Bing wasn’t written for Perry, the way Ross had been for Schwimmer, but it might as well have been, so close was the resemblance. Chandler was a mix of silliness and bone-dry sarcasm, a mask over his insecurity, which slipped just often enough to let you see the genuine, sweet guy beneath (in desperate need of therapy). Yeah, Perry thought, that sounded familiar.
Kauffman, Crane, and Bright felt the same way about Perry. Too bad he was already on that alien airport show, or whatever it was. Perry would have been perfect, but they didn’t want to bring on any cast members in second position. “Second position” casting is a common but extremely awkward scenario in the television business: an actor who’s already working on one pilot or series gets cast in another pilot—with the assumption that the show they’re already working on will get canned, freeing them up for the new gig. On the other hand, if the actor’s first-position show isn’t canceled, then they’re stuck with it, and their second-position show has to be recast and reshot. It’s a necessary evil in an industry where projects fail far more often than succeed, but still, no one wants to cast their pilot with someone they have second dibs on.
Anyway, Kauffman and Crane thought, Chandler would be one of the easiest roles to cast. So much of the character’s humor was already built in; he had jokes, and lots of dialogue an actor could work with. But after three weeks and countless auditions, they still hadn’t found him. Perry himself had coached several candidates, many of whom were his friends. He even tried to teach them some of those specific mannerisms and speech patterns that became so iconic to the role. Could it be any more obvious?
Also obvious, to Perry at least, was the fact that LAX 2194 was not a winner. Particularly not during this pilot season, which was packed with an unprecedented number of hits-to-be—ER, Party of Five, Chicago Hope, Touched by an Angel—and future beloved cult hits like My So-Called Life and The Critic. He called his agents constantly, begging them to book him a Friends audition. Yes, he’d be in second position, but surely he was a safe second.
Meanwhile, the Friends creators were on their third week of Chandler readings. While no one fit the bill exactly, actor Craig Bierko came the closest. He was a good friend of Perry’s, and had been well-coached by him. Bierko had also been on The Powers That Be (the disastrous show Kauffman and Crane had created for Norman Lear), and they knew him to be a great actor and a good guy. He wasn’t a perfect fit, and some at the network thought he was downright wrong, but after nearly a month of auditioning every other available actor, it was time to move on. They offered Bierko the part and sent him the script. He declined.
Bierko has since gone on to have a successful career of his own, and while he will always be known as The One Who Turned Down Friends, he readily acknowledges that he only got the offer by doing a very good Matthew Perry impression. He had the chance to take the starring role in another pilot, which simply seemed like a better opportunity than being one of six in an ensemble. With the second-best Chandler out of the picture, Perry was finally able to nag his way into the room. His agents called to tell him he had an audition, and when Perry hung up the phone, a feeling came over him. “I instantly knew my whole life was going to change—which has never happened before or since then. I knew I was going to get it. I knew it was going to be huge. I just knew.”
Perry read for Kauffman on Wednesday, then Warner Bros. on Thursday, and once more, for NBC, on Friday. But as Kauffman remembered, it was a done deal from the first line: “He came in, and that was it.” Second position or not, he was worth the gamble. On Monday morning, Matthew Perry came to work. He was Chandler Bing.