Matthew Perry might have been one of the most famous television stars thanks to his role on Friends. But the actor wanted to be remembered as someone who “lived well” and was an advocate for people suffering from drug and alcohol addiction.
Perry, who died last weekend at age 54, was asked last year what he wanted his legacy to be when he appeared on the Q With Tom Power podcast to promote his memoir, Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing.
“I would like to be remembered as somebody who lived well, loved well, was a seeker,” Perry replied during an onstage conversation at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto last November. “And his paramount thing is that he wants to help people. That’s what I want.”
In his 2022 memoir, Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing, Perry wrote about his time on the show — at the height of which he and his co-stars earned $1 million per episode — and said the role was one he was born to play.
“It was as if someone had followed me around for a year, stealing my jokes, copying my mannerisms, photocopying my world-weary yet witty view of life. One character in particular stood out to me: it wasn’t that I thought I could ‘play’ Chandler. I ‘was’ Chandler,” he wrote in his memoir.
But behind the scenes, Perry struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, a battle that began when he was just a teenager. He told the BBC radio 2 in 2016 that he didn’t remember filming seasons 3 through 6 of Friends. At one point he was consuming 55 Vicodin pills a day and washing it down with a quarter bottle of vodka.
“You can track the trajectory of my addiction if you gauge my weight from season to season — when I’m carrying weight, it’s alcohol; when I’m skinny, it’s pills. When I have a goatee, it’s lots of pills,” he wrote.
At one point his co-star Jennifer Aniston confronted him about his drinking in the midst of filming episodes.
“I should have been the toast of the town, but I was in a dark room meeting with nothing but drug dealers and completely alone,” Perry said in an October 2022 interview with Diane Sawyer.
He said his castmates were supportive of him during his addiction struggles, with Aniston continuing to check in on him years after the show’s series finale aired in 2004.
“(They) were understanding, and they were patient,” he recalled in an interview last year with PEOPLE. “It’s like penguins. Penguins, in nature, when one is sick, or when one is very injured, the other penguins surround it and prop it up. They walk around it until that penguin can walk on its own. That’s kind of what the cast did for me.”
Still, the cycle of abuse continued long after the show ended and resulted in Perry’s colon exploding in 2018.
“The doctors told my family that I had a 2% chance to live,” he recalled in an interview with PEOPLE. “I was put on a thing called an ECMO machine, which does all the breathing for your heart and your lungs. And that’s called a Hail Mary. No one survives that.”
After emerging from a coma, Perry — who also starred for three seasons on a reboot of The Odd Couple and several other short-lived series after Friends ended — had to wear a colostomy bag for nearly a year afterwards.
“My therapist said, ‘The next time you think about taking OxyContin, just think about having a colostomy bag for the rest of your life,’” Perry told PEOPLE. “And a little window opened, and I crawled through it, and I no longer want OxyContin.”
In 2020, Page Six reported that Perry skirted death again when the actor’s heart stopped for five minutes after doctors administered propofol that interacted badly with the hydrocodone in his system.
“I’ve probably spent $9 million or something trying to get sober,” he told the New York Times of his struggle to get clean.
But with the release of his book last fall, Perry had turned the page. Following his death last weekend, friends spoke about how he was in “good spirits” and he had reportedly booked a new role in an upcoming drama.
“The best thing about me, bar none, is that if somebody comes to me and says, ‘I can’t stop drinking, can you help me?’ I can say ‘Yes’ and follow up and do it,” Perry told Power last year. “When I die, I don’t want Friends to be the first thing that’s mentioned. I want that to be the first thing that’s mentioned. And I’m gonna live the rest of my life proving that.”
It was a sentiment he echoed in one of his final conversations with PEOPLE when he told the magazine that some of his best traits are “caring about others, for never giving up. Helping people as much as I do.”
“That’s probably my favorite thing about myself,” he said. “Being creative, seeing, learning that if you’re uncomfortable or feeling anxiety, one of the ways to get out of that situation is to be creative.”
Perry said he hoped his memoir could be of help to others struggling with addiction issues in their own lives.
“I had to wait until I was pretty safely sober — and away from the active disease of alcoholism and addiction — to write it all down. I was pretty certain that it would help people if I did.”
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