As much as Matthew Perry wanted to be a successful actor, he also craved the fame that came along with it. “There was steam coming out of my ears, I wanted to be famous so badly,” the actor admitted to the New York Times in 2002. “You want the attention, you want the bucks, and you want the best seat in the restaurant.”
That desire came true when Perry landed the role of the witty and sarcastic Chandler Bing on Friends in 1994. “The part of Chandler leapt off the page, shook my hand and said, ‘This is you, man!’” he told Entertainment Weekly in 1997.
The ensemble sitcom — starring Perry alongside Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc and David Schwimmer — couldn’t have come at a better time for the Ottawa-raised actor who had previously starred on a string of failed comedies.
“I desperately — desperately — needed the money,” he once said. And once he landed Friends, his financial problems were solved. During the first season, the six cast members made $22,500 an episode, which grew to $75,000 by season three — and eventually $1 million per episode in seasons nine and 10.
Along that with that came the popularity he dreamed of. “I was on Friends from age 24 to 34. I was in the white-hot flame of fame,” he said. “The six of us were just everywhere all the time.”
Despite being the source of so much laughter for audiences — 34 million viewers for its 2002 season premiere — Perry’s private life was no laughing matter. Underneath, he was harboring a dark secret. “From an outsider's perspective, it would seem like I had it all,” he continued. “It was actually a very lonely time for me because I was suffering from alcoholism.”
“I don't remember three years of it,” Perry admitted of Friends in a BBC interview. “I was a little out of it at the time — somewhere between seasons three and six.”
After a jet ski accident, Perry became addicted to pills
The instant success of the show felt like all Perry had ever wanted. “When it happens, it's kind of like Disneyland for a while,” Perry told the New York Times. “For me, it lasted about eight months, this feeling of ‘I've made it, I'm thrilled, there's no problem in the world.’ And then you realize that it doesn't accomplish anything, it’s certainly not filling any holes in your life.”
But a dependence on alcohol did become a part of his life. And then after a jet ski accident in 1997, when he was prescribed Vicodin, drugs also entered the picture. “It wasn’t my intention to have a problem with it,” he said 2002. “But from the start, I liked how it made me feel and I wanted to get more.”
By day, he was cracking jokes as his alter ego Chandler, but outside of work, things started spiraling — and eventually started showing physically when he lost about 20 pounds.
“I was out of control and very unhealthy,” the actor told People.
He first went to rehab in 1997, spending 28 days at a Hazelden Betty Ford facility in Minnesota. But he didn’t stay sober for long. In May 2000, he was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas from alcohol abuse — a condition that can be potentially deadly.
Perry was in so deep that even that scare didn’t serve as a wake-up call. “Unfortunately, that still wasn’t enough to get me to quit drinking,” he explained. As a sign of what a low point he reached, he crashed his Porsche into a house the day he was released from the hospital. Fortunately, the home was unoccupied. Though alcohol or drugs weren’t in his system that day, it was further proof of how out of control his life was.
His ‘Friends’ costars tried to help
All the while, Friends' ratings were going up and his paycheck was getting bigger as movie projects, like 1997’s Fools Rush In and 2000’s The Whole Nine Yards, came along. But nothing seemed to be enough.
“I tried to talk to him,” Friends costar LeBlanc, who played Joey Tribbiani, told People. “There wasn’t a response. It’s such a personal struggle; they need to bottom out on their own.”
So as difficult as it was, his co-stars simply stood aside, ready to support him. After all, it was all they could do.
“Hard doesn't even begin to describe it,” Kudrow, who played Phoebe Buffay, told the New York Times of the 2000-2001 season. “When Matthew was sick, it was not fun. We were just hopelessly standing on the sidelines. We were hurting a lot. Matthew is one of the funniest people I've ever met in my life. He's charming and hilarious. Most of our hard laughs came from Matthew.''
Friends co-creator and executive producer Marta Kauffman told People, “It was terrifying… watching someone you care about in so much pain.”
Though Perry knew they all cared, the efforts were lost on him. “I wasn’t ready to hear it,” he admitted. “You can’t tell anyone to get sober. It has to come from you.”
Perry eventually got sober because he was worried he 'was going to die the next day'
He did have control of one thing: “I had this odd rule that I would never drink on a set,” Perry told the New York Times. But the effects of his addictions still showed. “I went to work in extreme cases of hangovers. It's so horrible to feel that way and have to work and be funny on top of that.”
“I don't remember three years of it,” Perry admitted about filming Friends during his addiction battle. “I was a little out of it at the time — somewhere between seasons three and six.”
Somehow he managed to channel even more energy into work when he did double duty in February 2001, filming both Friends in Los Angeles and the film Serving Sara in Dallas — commuting between the two cities.
Around this time, he was drinking vodka by the quart.“I was sleepy and shaking at work,” he said.
But on February 23, 2001, something shifted. “I can’t describe it, because bigger things were taking place that I can’t put into words,” he said. That day, he was in his Dallas hotel room and decided to call his parents for help.
“I didn't get sober because I felt like it,” he told the New York Times. “I got sober because I was worried I was going to die the next day.”
After entering rehab, he learned how to have a 'happy life without alcohol or drugs'
Even though Friends was still in production and there were 13 days of shooting left on the movie, Perry took control.
He flew back to L.A. and his parents took him to another rehab center. “It was scary. I didn’t want to die,” he said. “But I’m grateful for how bad it got. It only made me more adamant about trying to get better.”
After two and a half months, he re-emerged and refocused. While the movie production had been halted, he went back and finished it. He also returned to his second home on the set of Friends. “I learned that a happy life is possible without alcohol or drugs,” he said of his new outlook.
“I remember going up to him the first episode of the last season and saying, ‘I’m so happy you're back,’” Kauffman said of his return. “I hadn't realized how much he hadn't been there.”
Perry is using his experience to help others who are struggling
Being on Friends from 1994 to 2004 amplified the challenges of going through such a difficult addiction. “I'm a pretty private person, but I was on a TV show that 30 million people were watching, so people knew. It was so public what was happening to me,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “You can't have a drug problem for 30 years and expect to solve it in 28 days.”
In 2011, he went back into rehab as part of his continuing recovery. “I’m making plans to go away for a month to focus on my sobriety and to continue my life in recovery,” he said in a statement. But his trademark humor also came out: “Please enjoy making fun of me on the World Wide Web.”
Not long after that, he decided to pay it forward by opening up the 5,500-square-foot Perry House in Malibu as a sober-living facility for men in 2013. While he sold it in 2015, he’s continued being committed to helping others struggling with addiction.
He even channeled his experiences into writing a stage play called The End of Longing, which debuted in London in 2016. “It’s personal, but it’s an exaggerated form of me. Jack, the character I play, is a much different drunk than I was,” he told Variety. “It flew out of me, this play. I finished it in about 10 days. I guess I had something to say.”
While health problems still affect him (in August 2018, he was bedridden for three months from gastrointestinal perforation) and he still gets targeted for disheveled appearances, overall, Perry has come a long way since the darkest days during Friends. “You don’t recover from what I went through overnight,” he told People. “It’s a day-to-day process.”
“I've had a lot of ups and downs in my life. I learned a lot from my failures,” Perry, who won the 2015 Phoenix Rising Award for helping others struggling with addiction, has said. “But the best thing about me is that if an alcoholic comes up to me and says, ‘Will you help me stop drinking?’ I will say, ‘Yes, I know how to do that.’”
And that’s the legacy he hopes to leave. “When I die, I’d like Friends to be listed behind helping people," he said in 2013.