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The Friends actor hoped to be remembered for his off-screen life. We should try to remember not what tortured Perry’s life but what gave it – and sometimes ours – meaning

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Matthew Perry poses at the premiere of the television series "The Kennedys After Camelot" at The Paley Center for media in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., on March 15, 2017.Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

“Last night, I spoke in an auditorium filled with thousands, but it’s gratifying, too, to get one person to ask me if I can help them stop drinking, and I say yes, and follow it up. That’s more important than any run on Friends. That’s what I hope, when I die, is what people talk about.”

Those were the parting words of Matthew Perry during a Globe and Mail interview just more than a year ago, when the Canadian actor spoke over the phone in anticipation of his harrowing new memoir, Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing. Like many junket-style interviews in the entertainment world, the conversation felt semi-rehearsed and efficient. But there was also a distinct lack of promotional fluffing to Perry’s answers, his words coming from a place of generous, messy sincerity rather than marketing department-approved nothingness. There was no playing it safe with Perry that morning – he was unfiltered, pure, and singular in his ability to oscillate between twitchy sardonicism and open-hearted pain.

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Actor Matthew Perry (L) and studio executive Peter Roth attend Game One of the NBA Finals.Sam Mircovich/Reuters

Which is as best a description of Perry’s on-screen talents that can be offered right now, as fans process the news of the 54-year-old actor’s death after what reports describe as an apparent drowning in his home. The actor had that rare knack for holding a storm of contradictions inside himself, revealing whatever side was necessary in the moment to achieve a laugh, a shake of the head, a fitful sob. To paraphrase his own greatest creation Chandler Bing, could Matthew Perry be any more enigmatic?

Here is the part in any normal appreciation where it might have to be explained just what it was that made Friends – and by virtue Perry – such a phenomenon back in the time-capsule days of zeitgeist-ruling network television. Yet thanks to the streaming age, this is unnecessary – Friends and its sarcastic-slicked MVP Perry are as well known to contemporary audiences as anything produced or TikTok’d today. Still ranked as one of the most-watched series around – sparking bidding wars for its streaming rights, with HBO Max, a whole dang streaming service, practically erected just to show its reunion special – Friends proves that good ideas and great performances never truly die. They just go into reruns.

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The cast of "Friends" appears in the photo room at the 54th annual Emmy Awards in Los Angeles Sept. 22, 2002. From the left are, David Schwimmer, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Courteney Cox Arquette, Jennifer Aniston and Matt LeBlanc.Mike Blake/Reuters

As the anxious, unlucky-in-love Chandler, Perry brought a tricky but necessarily sour touch to an ensemble made up of beautifully neurotic New York quippers. One of the most challenging roles to cast – there is a universe, much more depressing than our own, in which Jon Cryer played everyone’s favourite Weekly Estimated Net Usage Statistics professional – Perry not only owned the character but gave the sitcom’s comedy something to orient itself around. Here was a performance so committed and fierce in its determination to leap off the screen that it demanded the best from everyone else: the writers who had to deliver the best material, the co-stars who had to level up their own game, even the audience, who could find something small and new in every of Perry’s line readings or eye twitches.

Outside of Friends, Perry had as much trouble as any of his castmates in figuring out just how his skills could be properly deployed on the big screen. His films contain slivers of moments to savour – his wise-acre chemistry with Chris Farley in Almost Heroes, his knowingly silly spin on the straight-man shtick in The Whole Nine Yards – but even the most hardened contrarian would be hard-pressed to make a revisionist case for most of them.

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Matthew Perry poses in his hotel in New York, Aug. 7, 2002.Gino Domenico/The Canadian Press

In the medium’s capacity to develop character over time and give its actors a fighting chance to develop a relationship with an audience, it was television where Perry truly found his place. Not only on Friends – nor on his preceding sitcoms like Growing Pains, where he made his true breakthrough – but also The West Wing, The Good Wife and The Good Fight, serialized dramas that always had at least one toe dipped into the riffing heart of a sitcom. Perry even almost saved Aaron Sorkin’s otherwise dreadful Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, although really not even the combined might of all six Friends could’ve pulled that mess through.

Perry’s death will no doubt be used as something of a crass zeitgeist marker in the weeks or months to come – the first Friends star to die, meaning the first star of the last big network-television sitcom to die, meaning another tick on the cultural clock of a generation as it approaches midnight. And there will be many who parse the pages of Perry’s 2022 memoir for meaning and perhaps prescient clues, which won’t be all that hard to find. The warts-and-more-warts book can be a brutal read, riding the waves of promise and recovery as much as it threatens to crash into the rocks of relapse at any moment.

But in this immediate moment, when the shock is new and the grief is palpable, we should try to remember not what tortured Perry’s life but what gave it – and sometimes ours – meaning. Even though addiction threatened to steal the man at any moment, he constantly fought his way back to a live studio audience more times than anyone could have, or possibly should have.

Matthew Perry wrung his pain until it bled riotous humour. As he said a year ago, Perry hoped to be remembered for his off-screen life. But it is impossible to separate that from the work he delivered on screen. May he have the last laugh, syndicated for generations to come.

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