Matthew Perry Made It Look Easy

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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.

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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.

It seems to have been hard for Perry. “I wanted to be famous so badly,” he told The New York Times in 2002. “You want the attention, you want the bucks, and you want the best seat in the restaurant. I didn’t think what the repercussions would be.” Those repercussions included the enabling of his addictions and the loss of any anonymity. (It had the occasional upside, too. In his memoir, he wrote that after a reaction to an anesthetic stopped his heart, a worker in the hospital in Switzerland performed CPR for five full minutes to restore rhythm. “If I hadn’t been on ‘Friends,’ would he have stopped at three minutes?” he wondered, darkly.)

His struggles were an open secret, then they weren’t even a secret. (He was speaking openly, if optimistically, as early as 2002.) And it’s a miracle, really, that he could perform as he did, in and out of rehab, even as various cast members confronted him about his alcohol use. He seems to have fictionalized some aspects of this in “The End of Longing,” a play he wrote and starred in. While the Times critic was cool on the drama, he wrote that Perry was “genuinely scary as a jalopy of a man running on ethanol.”

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Speaking to The Times last year, Perry treated his hard-won sobriety as serious and tenuous. “It’s still a day-to-day process of getting better,” he said. “Every day.” Onscreen he could disguise that struggle. This was the genius of “Friends” and the genius of Perry, to make it all look easy. “Friends” was always a fantasy, a whitewashed vision of urban life, in which the characters had apartments with the approximate footprint of palazzos and infinite leisure time. (What was Chandler’s job anyway? Why did he so rarely go there?) But to watch it, as I did late Saturday night, for hours, was to relax into the confidence of its comedy, of Perry’s excitable charm. Onscreen, in that fountain, in some horrible, short-sleeved cardigan, he is there for us, still.

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