A confession: When I received a news alert that the actor Matthew Perry had died, my mind adopted the particular cadence that Perry perfected as Chandler Bing, the character he played for 10 seasons on the NBC sitcom “Friends.” Here is what I thought, “Could this be any sadder?”
Perry, 54, died nearly a year after the publication of “Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing,” an unusually candid memoir of addiction and recovery. As he detailed in that book, he spent many of the best years of his career oblivious, avoidant, numb — conditions that don’t typically encourage great acting. But he was great. And it had seemed reasonable, if rose-colored, to hope that sobriety might make him better, returning him to the nervy, instinctive brilliance of his peak years. That hope is now foreclosed.
A professional actor since his teens, Perry had appeared in more than a dozen sitcoms before landing “Friends” in 1994. I first remember seeing him years earlier, on an episode of “Growing Pains” screened by my school during a special assembly meant to advertise the dangers of drunken driving. Mostly it advertised Perry and his anxious, reckless charm.
To say that he never did anything quite as good as “Friends,” before or after, is not to diminish his achievement. Even among the irrepressible talents of his co-stars, Perry stood out, for a rubbery, heedless way with physical comedy and a split-second timing that most stopwatches would envy. If you have seen more than a few episodes of the show — and many, many millions have, including fans born years after its initial airing — you will have absorbed Chandler’s rhythms, his catchphrases, the way Perry’s handsome, moony face would stretch like spandex, the better to sell a reaction. He had both an absolute commitment to what a line required and a way of gently ironizing that line. His character was the butt of jokes. Perry was in on those same jokes. There was a boyishness to him that seemed to excuse his characters’ worst behavior, on “Friends” and in subsequent roles.
Those roles never served him as well and the shows he attached himself to rarely survived to a second season. His co-stars found other movies and series to showcase their talents. Perry’s latter projects, despite fine work on “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and “The Good Wife,” were largely grim, forgettable. It can be hard for boys to grow up.
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