Subscriber OnlyBooks

Vicodin, impotence and sexy faxes with Julia Roberts: What we’ve learned from Matthew Perry’s memoir

From beating up a young Justin Trudeau to 6,000 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, the Friends star’s memoir is a bombshell read. Here are the highlights

According to his new memoir, one thing Matthew Perry thinks people might be surprised to learn about him is that he has mostly been sober since 2001. “Save for about 60 or 70 mishaps.”

Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing is an unflinching and often harrowing must-read for fans of 1990s pop culture, in which the Friends actor and recovering addict estimates that he has been to twice-weekly therapy for 30 years, checked into rehab 15 times, and attended more than 6,000 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

“In the dictionary under the word ‘addict’, there should be a picture of me looking around, very confused,” Perry writes. Here is his story, abridged.

The one where Justin Trudeau gets his head kicked in

When Perry is nine months old his father abandons his young family to go to California and chase his dreams of becoming an actor. As Perry puts it: “What the f**k is an actor? And where the f**k is my dad?”


His mother starts working as a press aide to the Canadian prime minister, Pierre Trudeau (Justin’s dad), remarries and moves briefly to Toronto, when 10-year-old Perry starts acting up, smoking, getting bad grades and even beating up young Justin Trudeau. (“I decided to end my argument with him when he was put in charge of an entire army.”)

Could he be any better at tennis?

As a teenager Perry discovers that he has three talents: acting, tennis (he is nationally ranked in Canada by the age of 14) and drinking.

He and two friends have developed their own distinct cadence, like “Could we be more in detention?” (“Chandler Bing changed the way that America spoke,” Perry suggests. “Only I got rich off it, though.”)

On another fateful night Perry has his first drink: a bottle of Andrès Baby Duck, described today as a “sweet, purple, sparkling wine”.

As his friends throw up around him, Perry finds himself at peace for the first time. “I was lying back in the grass and the mud, looking at the moon, surrounded by fresh puke, and ... nothing bothered me.”

Goodbye tennis, hello acting

Age 15, already a “broken human being”, Perry moves to Hollywood, hoping to reconnect with his father. This causes a great rift with his mother, and when the California heat proves too great a shock for a Canadian tennis prodigy, Perry switches his career goal to acting. Even at his lowest he has always thrilled to be the class clown, the lead in the school play: “Why wouldn’t I want to pretend to be another person?”

Perry likewise follows his father further into alcoholism, drinking six vodka tonics every night and declaring them the “best part of his day”. The difference is that Perry snr is high functioning (and eventually gets sober by taking a long walk, his son notes resentfully).

Keanu Reeves is no River Phoenix

At 15 Perry has no trouble performing for a crowd. California women love his Canadian accent and the quick patter, sarcastic humour and double-takes for which he will eventually become famous.

One day a man spots him in a diner, “charming a bunch of young women”, and drops him a note asking him to be in his next movie.

The man transpires to be William Richert, and the film is A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, starring River Phoenix. They become firm friends, and seven years later he is mourning Phoenix’s death at the Viper Room.

“It always seems to be the really talented guys who go down,” muses Perry. “Why is it that the original thinkers like River Phoenix and Heath Ledger die, but Keanu Reeves still walks among us?” (Perry has since apologised, and said he picked a name at random.)

Princess Leah’s rhyming half-sister

At 18 Perry starts dating Tricia Fisher, Carrie’s half-sister. “The rhyming poetry of her name alone should have made her irresistible,” but Perry is concealing something from her: impotence related (although he doesn’t realise this yet) to drinking. He disguises it, “like a great ugly secret”.

The charming Fisher manages to whisper an erection out of him for just long enough for him to lose his virginity. How does Perry repay her? “Why, good reader ... by sleeping with almost every woman in southern California.”

Chandler Bing – via Boston Legal

By 24 Perry has had a few roles and is desperate to be famous. He’s drinking not just with his similarly striving buddies – including The Simpsons’ Hank Azaria and Craig Bierko, later of Boston Legal – but alone, too.

When the script for a buzzed-about new show called Friends Like Us comes his way, Perry is instantly struck by the “world-weary yet witty view of life” of one character in particular. “It wasn’t that I thought I could play ‘Chandler’, I was Chandler.”

The problem is, Perry is already committed to another show: a “sci-fi comedy” about baggage handlers at LAX in the year 2194. It was even worse than it sounds, says Perry.

Bierko gets offered the part of Chandler, and – though crushed – Perry nonetheless advises him to take it. Bierko turns it down.

Then, on another fateful night, an NBC producer, chatting in bed with her husband, a Fox TV producer, learns that the “awful” baggage-handler show has been canned and Perry is available. Within a week he is cast as Chandler.

Jennifer Aniston is definitely not interested

From the very first table read for Friends, Perry recalls electricity in the air – and money, and fame.

All six stars are not only young and attractive but genuinely funny. Perry is pitching 10 jokes a day, not just for Chandler but for every character, and every day two get used. Courteney Cox is the only established name in the cast, having starred in Ace Ventura and Family Ties, but she stresses: it is going to be an ensemble show.

Perry’s historic crush on Jennifer Aniston – whom he had asked out and been rebuffed by three years prior – disappears in “the hot glow of the show ... and her deafening lack of interest”.

Sexy faxes with Julia Roberts

As Friends quickly becomes huge, Perry finds that the success he prayed for is not without pressure.

He has appeared on Letterman and in Rolling Stone; he is receiving million-dollar movie offers; Julia Roberts, the biggest star in the universe, has agreed to appear in Friends on the condition that she appear in Perry’s storyline.

“But how to woo her?” Perry wonders.

He sends Roberts three dozen red roses with a card: “The only thing more exciting than the prospect of you doing the show is that I finally have an excuse to send you flowers.”

For some reason Roberts replies challenging him to explain quantum physics to her. Perry writes her a “paper about wave-particle duality and the uncertainty principle and entanglement”. Roberts responds by sending Perry “lots and lots of bagels”.

Their courtship progresses to daily faxes. It is not unusual for Perry to leave a party early to race home to his fax machine, and to read each “captivating” missive four or even five times. This continues for three months (and about two feet of paper). Eventually, “Julia’s fax veered romantic”.

They date for a while before Perry, racked with anxiety about getting dumped, breaks up with Roberts first. “I can’t begin to describe the look of confusion on her face.”

Jet skis: never a good idea

While shooting Fools Rush In with Salma Hayek (who “always had a very elaborate and lengthy idea about how to do a scene”), Perry has a jet-ski accident and is given a Vicodin pill for the pain.

He takes it while driving his red Mustang convertible home to Las Vegas: “I shook hands with God that morning.”

Having survived the drive, he gets 40 more pills delivered to his house. Within 18 months he is taking 55 a day. It is a “full-time job” just to secure them, and Perry is shooting the third season of Friends plus the Christopher Guest movie Almost Heroes.

He is not eating, and he is drinking and vomiting “constantly – behind trees, behind rocks, in ladies’ rooms”. “No one knew – not my family, my friends, no one. I was impossibly sick all the time.”

At 26 Perry goes to rehab.

The Friends cast role play penguins

Rehab kicks Perry’s Vicodin addiction, but not the drinking, which persists until 2001.

Aged 30, just before signing on for seasons six and seven of Friends – the deal that, at David Schwimmer’s suggestion, secured the cast more than $1m per episode each – Perry is hospitalised with pancreatitis. He carries on drinking, and starts on methadone – on top of the Xanax and cocaine.

Aniston comes to his trailer to confront him: “I know you’re drinking ... We can smell it.” One day, at a table read, the medication combines with the alcohol so disastrously that no one can understand what Perry is saying.

“In nature, when a penguin is injured, the other penguins group around it and prop it up until it’s better,” he says. “This is what my co-stars on Friends did for me.”

Perry moves to Dallas to shoot a film, Serving Sara, but finds he is too unwell to go ahead. He is later sued for the movie’s shutdown, costing him $650,000: “Small price to save my life.”

He is still living in a treatment centre in Malibu when Monica and Chandler get married, in May 2001.

When Friends tapes its final episode, three years later, the cast, crew and audience is in tears and Perry feels nothing. “I couldn’t tell if that was because of the opioid I was taking, or if I was just generally dead inside.”

Genuinely traumatic medical consequences

After hitting rock bottom and having a religious experience in his kitchen, Perry manages to go without alcohol for periods of up to two years. He has a six-year relationship, and several shorter ones.

In July 2019 Perry awakes from a two-week coma: his colon has exploded due to opiate abuse. He has to carry a colostomy bag for nine months. “The next time you think about OxyContin,” his therapist tells him, “I want you to think about living out the rest of your days with a colostomy bag.” Perry quits.

Smoking proves harder, even when his doctor tells him that he will be dead by 60 if he doesn’t stop now – even when he starts seeing a hypnotist and manages to quit for 15 days.

One day, when Perry bites into a piece of toast with peanut butter, his front teeth fall out. The pain sends him straight back to cigarettes.

The struggle is ongoing: in January this year Perry had his 14th surgery pertaining to opiate abuse. He does not believe he has slept more than four hours in his whole life. He is single, and filled with regret about past relationships. “This is the life of someone who’s been blessed with the big terrible thing,” writes Perry.

And yet – concludes Perry, now 53, writing from his rented home overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with a Diet Coke in his glass and a pack of Marlboros in his pocket – “at this point in my life, the words of gratitude pour out of me because I should be dead, and yet somehow I am not”.

Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing by Matthew Perry is published by Headline