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WITH AN EYE ON . . . : An ensemble sitcom's best friend--that's what Matthew Perry's become

March 12, 1995|N.F. MENDOZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Matthew Perry's family life might not be as checkered as his "Friends" character, but his quips and wry arrows are slung just as fast as Chandler Bing's.

Perry, 25, came from his native Canada to Los Angeles in 1986 to play tennis. One day in a restaurant the then-17-year-old was passed a note on a napkin from a director.

"He wanted me to be in his movie," Perry says drolly from his Los Angeles home. "I thought it would be in the back of his van."

The movie turned out to be the ill-fated but critically well-received "A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon." Directed by William Richert, it starred River Phoenix, whom Perry remembers as "a complete health nut, frowning on me when I ate French fries and reminding me they were fried in animal fat. He'd be sitting there drinking alfalfa juice."

Even though the movie languished in post-production--it was two years before it was released in 1988--it proved a huge career boost for Perry. "You can imagine what it was like to be that young and in Chicago (where the movie was shot). We had a lot of fun, but I was so young and naive. I thought, 'This is where the big stardom starts.' " He now laughs about it. "It would be a great Lana Turner story if the movie had been remotely successful."

The movie confirmed he liked acting better than tennis. "I was ranked nationally in Canada, but by the time I got here, I got my butt kicked by everybody. There was one match where I didn't even score a point."

Encouragement to act came from his parents--his father, actor John Bennett Perry, who was "the Old Spice man" and a "Falcon Crest" regular, and his mother, Suzanne Perry. His mother now "is married to Keith Morrison, the Bryant Gumble of Canada," Perry says. (Morrison, a former KNBC anchor, hosts "Canada A.M.")

Perry persisted and got on his first TV series, 1987's "Second Chance" on Fox, which was later renamed "Boys Will Be Boys."

"Unfortunately," he says, "it ranked 93 out of 93 every week. It was a "kind of 'Happy Days' for the '90s, except 'Happy Days' lasted 11 years. We lasted 11 days."

The day the show was canceled, his car was stolen. "I then decided adult life was not easy."

In 1990, he was cast in Valerie Bertinelli's CBS show "Sydney," starting off "as a cop who was always hitting on her, and when that didn't work they made me her brother. I was basically the same character, but I didn't hit on her anymore."

After that show's demise, Perry "spent two years in development hell (with ABC). It was very frustrating."

In 1992, he starred in yet another ill-fated show, "Home Free." "I've had two shows canceled because of Robert Stack," says Perry, with a laugh, explaining that the shows were up against "Unsolved Mysteries," hosted by Stack and "which does really well."

By this time, Perry was exhausted and took a year off to write with a buddy. "We just sat in a room and basically cracked each other up."

When his show turned up "dead," "something else that was further along and better in the long run" came along: "Friends," an ensemble sitcom nestled in NBC's hit Thursday night lineup.

By the time Perry joined in the development of the show, the character of Chandler, the last to be cast, still was not fully formed. "In the pilot he sat around and threw out sarcastic comments," he says.

Perry first heard about Chandler from other actors. "They kept saying, 'This guy is totally you .' " And Perry agreed with them, though he says Chandler "is a slightly exaggerated version of myself. Yeah, he's very much like me. I thought that if I didn't get the role, there wouldn't be anything right in the universe."

This time around, the universe was in alignment. Chandler, Perry points out, dresses better than he does, and his clothes can be hipper. "When I told wardrobe, they said, 'Like you'd know? You wear Snoopy T-shirts!' "

Chandler's problems with women have helped produced a bit of the opposite effect for Perry. Women, he says, "often approach me saying they love the show and relate to Chandler's sense of humor. Of course, I love this, but am too nervous to ask for their phone numbers."

Life on the "Friends" set is easy. "The best joke always wins," he says of ad-libs and actors' suggestions.

He may joke about his future--"a spinoff!"--but he's "really content with what they've been doing. It's really unique and interesting and I just have to say I hope whatever it is, they keep doing it!"

"Friends" airs Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. on NBC.

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