End of 'Friends'-ship?

Sunday, August 25, 2002

Well, summer's almost over. School's about to start.

"Yes," Matthew Perry agrees, "that's exactly how it feels."

Rather than new textbooks, what Perry soon would be studying is the new season's first script for "Friends," on which he plays wisecracking friend Chandler Bing. With the hit sitcom entering season No. 9, Perry is almost certainly approaching graduation.

But "Friends" isn't why he has installed himself in this Manhattan hotel suite. On his first day at work after four months off, he is relaxing in stocking feet to talk about his new film. A romantic caper called "Serving Sara," it opens Friday.

Will "Sara" be seen as a harbinger of his post-"Friends" prospects as a movie star?

"When I let that issue creep into my thinking, I'll obsess on it for a moment," Perry says. "But I've made a few movies during the run of the show, some successful, some not. My goal is, to keep doing it."

In "Serving Sara," Perry plays Joe Tyler, a New York-based process server who initially is chasing Sara (Elizabeth Hurley), a cattle baron's wife he means to serve with divorce papers.

Then Joe teams up with Sara to trump Gordon (Bruce Campbell), her two-timing husband whom she wants to serve with divorce papers first. With millions of dollars at stake, they are soon dodging Gordon's henchmen as well as Joe's process-server rival, Tony (Vincent Pastore).

Zany action

The film is full of zany action and cartoonish violence (poor Joe is repeatedly beat up by bad guys, yet never sustains more than a bloodied nose).

"But other scenes are quite real," Perry says, "and it's kind of a darker character I'm playing. This is not Chandler. This is a bummed-out guy whose dreams are shattered. He's kind of a mess."

Perry isn't alone in his extracurricular activities. His "Friends" co-stars -- Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc and David Schwimmer -- have all been active in films, with Aniston scoring earlier this month with her critically acclaimed performance in "The Good Girl."

In October, Perry begins his next -- a sequel to his 2000 hit "The Whole Nine Yards." He mentions other projects in development. And with undisguised gratitude, he adds that, at age 33, he is financially set for life. (In recent seasons, each of the "Friends" sextet has gotten a reported $24 million per year.)

Not a bad place

All in all, it's not a bad place to be as Perry faces the end of "Friends"-ship. (The show airs on NBC Thursday at 7 p.m.)

But is this really the end? Recently NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker said he "wouldn't 100 percent" rule out a 10th year.

"Stranger things have happened than that we all decide to go again," Perry allows. "But it's pretty sure in everybody's minds that we're looking at this as the final season. It's not something I like to think about -- that this major portion of my life is going to be over."

Like his co-stars, Perry emerged in 1994 from near-obscurity (anyone remember him from such gone-in-a-flash series as "Home Free" or "Sydney"?) to win instant fame in a sitcom whose success has been unmatched by any since.

"We all have been very smart about acknowledging what a wonderful time this has been in our lives," Perry says. "It's been magical timing. And a magical blend of talented, nice people."

Even so, the spell was almost broken for Perry more than once as he grappled publicly with drug and alcohol abuse.

In 1997, he entered a rehabilitation hospital for what his spokeswoman called "early stages of chemical dependency." Then in early 2001, he left the set of "Serving Sara" to check into rehab again, forcing the production to shut down for several weeks. He says he hasn't had a drink since February 2001.

So it's an older, wiser Matthew Perry who soberly looks back on the past eight years -- both his and Chandler's.

Today Chandler Bing is happily wed to fellow friend Monica (Cox). Not that he doesn't exhibit scars (and quips) from his romantically challenged youth. "Up until I was 25," he cracked on last week's episode, "I thought the only response to 'I love you' was 'Oh, crap!'"

Chandler still gets plenty of laugh lines. "But the character has moved on and worked through a lot of his insecurities," says Perry. "In the very beginning, he was a guy who was not comfortable with any form of emotion or seriousness, and would joke around about everything."

Conveniently for Perry, this was a trait he shared with his character. "Even as a child, I had that sort of defense mechanism. If something was awkward, I would try to lighten it up by making people laugh.

"But like Chandler, I've grown up a little bit in the last eight years and become a lot more comfortable with my serious side. I feel the need to fill the silences a lot less with jokes."

A moment of silence is followed by a smile. "It's just too much energy!"

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