He's a terror on the court. And grabby with the remote. Otherwise, Matthew Perry of Friends is fairly perfect - and available. Takers, anyone?
A moment later, though, Newman swings and misses - and that match is lost. "Uh-oh," says Newman, glancing over at a glum Perry. "Now he'lls be the Most Serious Man Alive." And for a good 30 seconds, Perry is. Then, with a good-natured grumble, the 26-year-old actor hands over the $5 he wagered and is back cracking wise again. It is, in fact, very hard for Perry to stay miserable right now. After all, in the 18 months since he auditioned for the NBC sitcom Friends, just about everything in Perry's life has been golden. The quirky show about twentysomethings who puzzle out life over bottomless cups of gourmet coffee was last year's breakout sitcom, the top-ranked show for most of the summer and the most unabashedly imitated comedy of the current season. Perry and his five fellow Friends stars are now living every actor's dream of unbridled success.
"I've seen women lie down on the street and get naked in from of him," teases Newman, who has been a close friend of Perry's since they met at a poker game four years ago. Okay, not naked. But sometimes female fans do plop down at his restaurant table as it they were old pals.What does Perry do in the face of such attention? Often blushes, runs for cover and, the next day, turns the experience into a self-effacing line he can use on the show as his alter ego, Chandler. Friends co-executive producer Marta Kauffman says Perry often makes sharp script additions: "We've discovered his incredible depth. He's not just a funny guy."
"People assume he's just a funny guy," ventures costar Jennifer Aniston, who has been pals with Perry since they met at a party five years ago. "But he's also very sensitive. He's just a good guy, not a guy guy."
Consider how Perry spent his summer vacation - his first break since becoming one of the hottest properties on network TV. Did he hang out in the fashionable Hamptons? Hardly. Belly up to the bar at the Viper Room? No. Instead, he took two extended trips to see both sets of his grandparents, one in Ottawa, the other in Williamstown, Mass. "He genuinely cares about how we are all doing," says his father, John. Perry's Friends costars could - and do - say the same thing. "He is," says Matt LeBlanc, "a sweetheart." And this would be - what? - a compliment? Whatever he is (and fear not, we will return to this guy-guy business), Perry is an actor whose years in the industry - including a stint as Tracey Gold's boyfriend on Growing Pains and a string of sitcom flops - have taught hime to be grateful. "I'd say 88 percent of it is great," he says of his newfound fame, "and 12 percent is a little scary." And even the scary part - say, this sudden public interest in his life - is not, he says, all that bad. "The attention is gratifying," says Perry, "and part of what we're in this business for. The good thing is - and I know it sounds trite - I get to get up at 9 a.m. and drive to an unbelievably wonderful place to work."
It doesn't hurt that he gets to do his driving in a brand-new black Porsche 911. Or that he gets to play tennis with John McEnroe and street hockey with Wayne Gretzky at celebrity charity events. Back in June, Perry got an even more precious perk: the chance to hit a ball into the stands of the Toronto SkyDome when he was in town visiting his mother. Okay, the Blue Jays weren't in town that day, so the place was deserted - and yes, he fudged things a bit by standing at second base to take his cuts, but hey, a dinger's a dinger. Perry watched in absolute ecstasy as the ball flew over the fence, then told his mother, whom he'd brought along as a witness the feat, "You can just kill me now."
In fact, Perry is living life to the hilt in his fashion. In June he bought a three-bedroom Hollywood Hills spread complete with 40-inch-screen TV in the living room and a Foosball table in the center of the dining room. One of his few pieces of furniture is a magazine rack, which currently holds a biography of Mickey Mantle and a Big Bird coloring book. The refrigerator is stocked with Gatorade and raspberry yogurt, the garbage can filled with fast-food wrappers. Says Aniston of her pal's never-left-the-dorm decor: "He's a child in a man's body."
Perry swears that he hasn't changed much in any way. "A few years ago my friends and I were so uncomfortable going up to women in bars," he says, "that we came up with this idea where we'd pay each other $20 to go up to someone and say anything." Perry's icebreaker: "Hi, I'm completely filled with fruit and cheese." No, it didn't work. Today, when he can sit back and let the women do the approaching, he remains something less than a smooth operator. "Nine times out of 10," he says, "I'll mess it up anyway."
Certainly, he has the genes to be a true charmer. Perry is the only child of Suzanne and John Perry, who were divorced when he was less than a year old. Perry got his rugged good looks from his father, a Los Angeles actor best known for Old Spice commercials. As for his glibness, Matthew got that from his mother, a former Canadian TV anchor and onetime press secretary for Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. "He was always quick and funny," says John of his son. And used the talent to good advantage. "I didn't get very good grades," says Perry, "but the teachers let me pass because they thought I was funny." Says Suzanne of Matthew's antics: "He was preparing his shtick."
He was also working on his backhand. After his parents divorced, Perry moved with his mother from Williamstown, where his father's family lived, to Ottawa, his mother's hometown. Encouraged by his grandfather, Perry took up tennis, At 4, he began hitting balls at the local country club - and never stopped. Says Perry: "I spent my summers playing tennis with 60-year-old men."
There were young women around too. "When he was 13 he developed quite a crush on a girl," says Suzanne. "They had a very intense relationship." Perry and his girlfriend talked endlessly on the phone and spent hours together. Then, one afternoon, Perry left his girlfriend in one room, found his mother in another and blurted out a confession: "One minute I looked over at her and I liked her. The next minute I looked over at her and I didn't." What could a mother say? "Matthew," Suzanne offered, "this is the beginning of a long career."
Wisely, perhaps, Perry concentrated on other interests: tennis and acting. The No. 2-ranked junior player in Ottawa at 13, the otherwise gentle-tempered Perry was, he says, intensely competitive and rarely accepted defeat gracefully. "I was a moron," says Perry, "throwing my racket and getting angry." In the theatre, luckily, the explosions were only make-believe. In seventh grad he played a gunslinger named Arriba Arriba Geneva in his Ashbury College production of a play called The Life and Death of Sneaky Fitch - and was hooked. "When I got my first laugh onstage," says Perry, "I said, 'Whoa! I really like this.' "
His mother married Canadian anchorman Keith Morrison when Perry was 10 and proceeded to have four more children: Caitlin, now 14, Emily, 10, Willy, 8, and
Madeline, 6. Though Perry was close to them, at 15 he decided to head to L.A. to test his skills both on court and onstage - and to get to know his father better. "I
didn't get much of a chance to see him as a kid," says Perry. "He'd call up and say, 'I'm getting killed on Mannix this Thursday. Look for me.' " Perry moved in
with his father, John's second wife, Debbie, and their daughter Marie, now 13, and prepared for his first big U.S. tennis match.
"My family came out to watch me, and I got killed," recalls Perry. "After that there was no question of a tennis career. I knew I wasn't good enough."
And so he settle on acting. His father remembers watching Matthew's 1985 Buckley School debut as George Gibbsin Our Town with mixed emotions. "I though, 'We've got a problem here,' " says John. " 'He's good. There's another generation shot to hell!'"
A waitress in San Fernando Valley restaurant gave her 16-year-old customer his first big break - in the form of a napkin with a note written on it by a director who
had spotted Perry while dining. "He thought I'd be perfect for his next movie," says Perry. "I though 'Yeah, it'll be shot in the back of his van and called On Golden
Perry auditioned anyway and won a small role in the 1988 River Phoenix film A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon. Other bit parts came his way, including one in 1988's Dance Till Dawn, in which he played Christina Applegate's dud prom date. Frustrated by the lack of good parts, Perry and his friend Newman decided to write their own sitcom in 1993. The result, which they called Maxwell's House, revolved around the travails of twentysomething friends. It was good enough to interest NBC> "Suddenly I was wearing a suit and going to meetings," says Perry. "It was fun." Less fun was the discovery that NBC already had a similar sitcom in the works. In the end, says Perry, NBC canned Maxwell's House for Friends. If you can't beat 'em, he concluded, audition. "My God!" thought Perry, who got a chance to see the script through auditioning friends. "Their writers did a better job than I did."
Perry read for the show's producers on a Wednesday in 1994, for the production company on Thursday, for the network on Friday. And on Monday morning he was on the set working.
The friends he has made on the job, says Perry, are keepers; they hang out together and give each other counsel. "He really helped me when I was going through a relationship problem a year ago," says Aniston. "He's a great listener." Adds Lisa Kudrow: "He's just somebody you want to be around." His family agrees. "His little brothers and sisters worship him," says his mother. And he them. "He always comes to Marie's track meets and basketball games," says John.
As he embarks on the beginning of the show's second season, Perry has high hopes for the future - and he's not talking ratings. "I've said jokingly that the romantic
area of my life is pathetic," he says. "But it's really not. I just haven't put that much effort into dating." His mother is all for his plan to step up the effor - though a
match may not come easy. "He's got a serious side when it comes to women," she says. His pals disagree. Matt? Serioius? No way. "But he is a very good
kisser," jokes Newman. "I would put Good Kisser right after Pays for Everything on the list of reasons we like him." Friends producer Kauffman has a reason of
her own. "He is," she says, "the Cutest Man Alive."