BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — When I pictured Matthew Perry, the actor frequently known as Chandler Bing, I saw him on the tangerine couch at Central Perk or seated on one of the twin recliners in the apartment he shared with Joey Tribbiani.
In September, after arriving at his 6,300-square-foot rental house and being ushered through a driveway gate by his sober companion, I sat across from Perry, who perched on a white couch in a white living room, a world away from “Friends,” the NBC sitcom that aired for 10 seasons and catapulted all six of its stars into fame, fortune and infinite memes. Instead of the foosball table where Chandler, Joey, Monica, Phoebe, Rachel and Ross gathered, nudging each other through the first chapters of adulthood, Perry, 53, had a red felt pool table that looked untouched. There was plenty of light in the house, but not a lot of warmth.
I have watched every episode of “Friends” three times — in prime time, on VHS and on Netflix — but I’m not sure I would have recognized Perry if I’d seen him on the street. If he was an ebullient terrier in those 1990s-era Must See TV days — as memorable for his full-body comedy as he was for the inflection that made “Can you BE any more [insert adjective]” the new “Gag me with a spoon” — he now seemed more like an apprehensive bulldog, with the forehead furrows to match.
As his former co-star Lisa Kudrow confesses in the foreword to his memoir, “Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing,” the first question people ask about “Friends” is often “How’s Matthew Perry doing?”
Perry answers that question in the book, which Flatiron will publish on Nov. 1, by starkly chronicling his decades-long cage match with drinking and drug use. His addiction led to a medical odyssey in 2018 that included pneumonia, an exploded colon, a brief stint on life support, two weeks in a coma, nine months with a colostomy bag, more than a dozen stomach surgeries, and the realization that, by the time he was 49, he had spent more than half of his life in treatment centers or sober living facilities.
Most of this is covered in the prologue. At one point, he writes in a parenthetical, “Please note: for the next few paragraphs, this book will be a biography rather than a memoir because I was no longer there.”
The book is full of painful revelations, including one about short-lived, alcohol-induced erectile dysfunction, and another in which Perry describes carrying his top teeth to the dentist in a baggie in his jeans pocket. (He bit into a slice of peanut butter toast and they fell out, he writes: “Yes, all of them.”)
Quietly and then, as he relaxed, at a volume that allowed me to stop worrying about my recording device, Perry settled into the conversation about his substance abuse. It started with Budweiser and Andrès Baby Duck wine when he was 14, then ballooned to include vodka by the quart, Vicodin, Xanax and OxyContin. He drew the line at heroin, a choice he credits with saving his life.
“I would fake back injuries. I would fake migraine headaches. I had eight doctors going at the same time,” Perry said. “I would wake up and have to get 55 Vicodin that day, and figure out how to do it. When you’re a drug addict, it’s all math. I go to this place, and I need to take three. And then I go to this place, and I’m going to take five because I’m going to be there longer. It’s exhausting but you have to do it or you get very, very sick. I wasn’t doing it to feel high or to feel good. I certainly wasn’t a partyer; I just wanted to sit on my couch, take five Vicodin and watch a movie. That was heaven for me. It no longer is.”
Perry said he had been clean for 18 months, which means that he was newly drug- and alcohol-free when the “Friends” reunion aired in May 2021.
“I’ve probably spent $9 million or something trying to get sober,” he estimated.
Most addicts don’t have Perry’s resources. But they have what he called “the gift of anonymity,” while his bleakest moments have been photographed, chronicled and occasionally mocked. For the record, Perry isn’t a huge fan of secrecy as it pertains to Alcoholics Anonymous, where he sponsors three members. He explained: “It suggests that there’s a stigma and that we have to hide. This is not a popular opinion, by the way.”
Perry’s demeanor brightened when we talked about pickleball, his latest obsession. He built a court at the house he’s moving into in the Palisades. He plays with friends and hired pros. He said, “I thought it would be a good idea, to pump myself up, to play pickleball before this interview, but basically I’m about to fall asleep in your lap.”
So what inspired him to write a book?
After his extended stay in a Los Angeles hospital, Perry started tapping out his life story on the Notes app on his phone. When he hit 110 pages, he showed them to his manager, who told him to keep going. He worked at his dining room table for about two hours a day, no more: “It was hard to face all this stuff.”
Perry has written for television (“The Odd Couple,” “Mr. Sunshine”) before but, “writing a book I had not really thought of before,” he said. “Whenever I bumped into something that I didn’t really want to share, I would think of the people that I would be helping, and it would keep me going.”
Over the course of the next hour, Perry returned to the idea of helping fellow addicts 15 times. The dedication at the front of the book reads: “For all of the sufferers out there. You know who you are.”
He said: “It’s still a day-to-day process of getting better. Every day. It doesn’t end because I did this.”
The memoir came together without a ghostwriter, which is rare for household-name authors. Megan Lynch, the senior vice president and publisher at Flatiron, said of the proposal she read last year: “There was a real voice to it. It was clear that he was going to share intimate details not just about his time on the show but about his entire life, and that felt revelatory. I’m not working on an assembly line of books by celebrities and it’s something as an editor I want to be very choosy about. For me, this really rose to a level that I do not ordinarily see.”
Lynch, who watched “Friends” when she was 14 and credits it with providing a vision for a future life in New York City, added, “Unlike any celebrity that I think anyone has ever worked with, Matthew turned in his manuscript ahead of the deadline.”
Although Perry hopes that “Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing” will eventually be shelved in the self-help section of bookstores, “Friends” fans will find poignant nuggets in its pages. Perry writes gratefully and glowingly of the 10 seasons he and his co-stars worked together, earning $1 million per episode at their peak.
He recalls the time Jennifer Aniston came to his trailer and said, “in a kind of weird but loving way,” that the group knew he was drinking again. “‘We can smell it,’” she said — and, he writes, “the plural ‘we’ hits me like a sledgehammer.” Another time, the cast confronted him in his dressing room.
Perry also drops a sad bombshell about his onscreen wedding: “I married Monica and got driven back to the treatment center — at the height of my highest point in ‘Friends,’ the highest point in my career, the iconic moment on the iconic show — in a pickup truck helmed by a sober technician.”
In a phone interview, Kudrow said: “It’s a hideous disease, and he has a tough version of it. What’s not changing is his will to keep going, keep fighting and keep living.”
She added: “I love Matthew a lot. We’re part of a family. I’m basically ending this with ‘I’ll be there for you’ [the ‘Friends’ theme song], but it’s true. I’ll always be there for him.”
Perry’s childhood friends Christopher and Brian Murray echoed this sentiment. “He’s gone through more than any human being I know and he’s come out on the good side of it,” said Brian, the older of the two brothers who have known Perry since first grade. Riding bikes around their rural corner of Ottawa, the trio would belt out the theme song from “The Rockford Files” and rib one another in the cadence that Perry later immortalized on “Friends.”
“A lot of it was tough to understand,” Christopher said. “You wouldn’t wish that on anybody. Fundamentally, his personality and his heart are absolutely in the same place they were when he was a kid.”
Failed relationships were among the hardest things to write about, Perry said (“I’m lonely, but there’s a couple of people on the payroll to keep me safe”), though he hopes to marry and have children in the future. “I think I’d be a great father,” he said.
Eighteen years after “Friends” aired its last episode, Perry is tickled by its staying power, and its popularity among the children of its original viewers. “There are 15-year-old people wandering around, seeing me and wondering why I look so old,” he said.
When I mentioned I’d seen a young woman in my hotel gym wearing a “Friends” sweatshirt — you rarely see merch from, say, “E.R.,” which capped off NBC’s Thursday night lineup in the ’90s — he laughed. “You should set me up with that girl,” he said. “Just say, I know this guy, he’s as single as they come.”
Perry’s candid, darkly funny book now earns him an honorary folding chair — and shelf space — beside David Carr, Caroline Knapp, Leslie Jamison, Nic Sheff, Sarah Hepola and other authors who have explored the minute-to-minute, tooth-and-nail skirmish of recovery.
“There is a hell,” Perry writes. “Don’t let anyone tell you different. I’ve been there; it exists; end of discussion.”
He said, “Now I feel better because it’s out. It’s out on a piece of paper. The ‘why’ I’m still alive is definitely in the area of helping people.”