The Tragic Life Of Matthew Perry

The following article includes references to alcoholism and substance abuse.

Saturday, October 28, 2023, turned out to be the one where we all said goodbye to one of our best Friends. Matthew Perry, best known for playing Chandler Bing on "Friends," was found "unresponsive" in his jacuzzi Saturday afternoon, TMZ reported. According to NBC News, first responders were dispatched for a "water emergency" after the 911 call came in at 4:07 p.m.; however, TMZ reported that the call came in for cardiac arrest.

Either way, 54-year-old Perry appears to have drowned. The actor had played pickleball earlier that day, but it is unclear whether that had anything to do with the events of his death. What is clear is that police said they did not suspect foul play and no illicit drugs were found. A toxicology exam will be performed, although results can take several months.

In his life, Perry seemed to have it all — a successful career on an iconic show, fame, fortune, good looks, and some of the best comedic timing in the business. But underneath that boyish charm and wit was a troubled soul who spent decades of his life battling addiction. He documented his struggles in his 2022 New York Times best-seller "Friends, Lovers, and the Big, Terrible Thing," in which he claimed he'd finally faced down his demons and gotten sober once and for all. It seemed like Perry had finally found the light at the end of the tunnel, making his death that much more shocking.

Matthew Perry's parents divorce left him feeling abandoned

When your mother is a former beauty queen turned press secretary to the Canadian prime minister and your father is the face of the Old Spice campaign, there's a good chance your childhood was far from typical. That was the case for Matthew Perry whose father, actor John Bennett Perry, left his mom Suzanne Langford to move to Los Angeles when Perry was less than a year old.

In his memoir, the "Friends" star wrote, "I saw his face more often on TV or in magazines than I did in reality." For her part, Langford traveled a lot for work. That left young Perry shuffling between Canada and the United States at a young age. In a snippet of his book shared by The Washington Post, Perry recalled flying unaccompanied to LA at the age of 5 to visit his dad. "Not having a parent on that flight is one of the many things that led to a lifelong feeling of abandonment," he wrote.

Perry's mother moved on to a career as a news anchor for Toronto's "Global Television," where she met and married Keith Morrison, famous for his work on NBC's "Dateline." As the newlyweds started their own family together, a teenage Perry moved to LA to live with his father. However, he remained close to his stepfather, a man he credited for holding his family together. To show his appreciation, Perry gifted Morrison with a Porche 911 once he became a megastar. 

According to Matthew Perry's memoir, the actor was given barbiturates when he was just a baby

In one of the stranger revelations of Matthew Perry's memoir, he recounted the time that he was given barbiturates as an infant. According to an excerpt from his book "Friends, Lovers, and the Big, Terrible Thing" published by the Daily Mail, Perry was apparently a colicky baby and a doctor prescribed the drug phenobarbital to stop his constant crying.

Perry wrote, "Once the barbiturate was on board, I would just conk out ... and this would cause my father to erupt in laughter. He wasn't being cruel; stoned babies are funny." Perry continued, writing, "There are baby pictures of me where you can tell I'm just completely f***ing zonked, nodding like an addict at the age of seven weeks."

Obviously, Perry was too young to remember the incident firsthand, but he does reflect on whether the drug could have done irreparable damage to his system and predisposed him to a lifetime of addiction. He wrote that he was on the drug for one month, beginning when he was just 30 days old, saying, "This is an important time in a baby's development, especially when it comes to sleeping. (Fifty years later I still don't sleep well.)" 

He went from being a tennis great in Canada to 'not so much in Los Angeles'

While he may not have been the picture of health in all stages of his life, Matthew Perry was once a competitive tennis player. In a 2012 interview with Men's Health, the "Fools Rush In" star shared that by the age of 13, he was nationally ranked in Ottowa, Canada. However, after moving to Los Angeles at the age of 15, he hung up aspirations of being a star on the court and instead directed his focus to becoming a star on the screen.

In true self-deprecating, Chandler Bing style, Perry told the magazine that it was not his choice. "Giving up tennis wasn't really a decision I had to make," he said, adding that the Los Angeles competition was stiff and he was outplayed by his peers. "I was pretty great in Canada. Not so much in Los Angeles. It was insane. I realized I wouldn't be playing tennis for a living, so I went for acting."

Perry, a self-described competitive player, said that he viewed both tennis and acting as "mental games." "They're both very heavy things to be a part of. I'm hoping the competitiveness that I had as a tennis player is gone now as I get older," he said. "When I was in my 20s, I wanted to do better than everybody else. Now, I just sort of want everybody to be successful." In the case of Perry and his fellow "Friends," it seems he got his wish.

Matthew Perry had his first drink at age 14

Matthew Perry first tasted alcohol at the age of 14. While it's not necessarily uncommon for a teenage boy to sneak a sip or two, Perry was not the average teenage boy, and that sip started a spiral that led to a lifelong love of liquor.

In an interview on "ABC News," Perry recalled that first introduction to alcohol in a conversation with Diane Sawyer. "I remember that day very well in Ottawa, Canada. I had never drank before. And we just sort of drank this entire bottle of [wine]," he said. "And I lay in the grass and just was in heaven. I thought to myself, 'This must be the way that normal people feel all the time,' and I thought that at 14." By his 18th birthday, he was drinking daily.

When Perry landed the coveted role of Chandler Bing on "Friends," he realized his good fortune and knew that he didn't want to lose what was looking like a life-changing gig. He took great pains to hide his alcohol use from the cast and crew, but over the years, it became too much for anyone to ignore. Sawyer summarized what happened next, citing Perry's struggle as chronicled by 6,000 AA meetings, 30 years of therapy, 15 rehab centers, 14 surgeries, and 65 rounds of detox.

Matthew Perry was addicted to perfection

Matthew Perry's drug and alcohol addictions are no secret, but what some people may not realize is that Perry had yet another addiction: perfectionism. As is the case for many people with addictive personalities, Perry's spilled over into other aspects of his life, resulting in some obsessive behaviors.

In a 2002 interview with The New York Times, Perry divulged that he would compulsively practice tennis for as many as 10 hours a day in his quest to be the best. ”I needed to succeed at whatever I was doing so I could feel better about myself,” he said. That included putting the perfect message on his answering machine. In what reads like an episode of "Friends" titled "The One With the Answering Machine," Perry shared with the publication that he would agonize over his outgoing message for hours, tweaking it until he thought it was funny enough to run by his friends for approval. Based on their feedback, he'd go back and spend even more time fine-tuning it until it was, well, perfect.

That obsession carried over into his desire for fame. He was fixated on achieving stardom and all that it entailed. In the same interview, Perry tellingly admitted, "There was steam coming out of my ears, I wanted to be famous so badly. You want the attention, you want the bucks, and you want the best seat in the restaurant. I didn't think what the repercussions would be.”

A Jet Skiing accident left Matthew Perry hooked on painkillers

A high-functioning alcoholic, Matthew Perry was juggling his newfound fame and hiding his excessive drinking. Before long, Perry also became addicted to prescription pills. He revealed to People that the pill problems started in 1997 when he was prescribed Vicoden after sustaining injuries in a Jet Ski accident.

"It wasn't my intention to have a problem with it," he says. "But from the start I liked how it made me feel, and I wanted to get more." So, he did. Eventually, he was taking 55 Vicoden every day, he revealed in his memoir (via The Washington Post). Fans of the show can pinpoint exactly when this addiction was at its worst — during Season 3, when Perry was alarmingly skinny. He'd dropped to 128 pounds to be exact. 

His first stint in rehab followed shortly thereafter when, in 1997, he spent 28 days in Minnesota's Hazelden Center. It didn't stick, and the actor was up to his old tricks and then some. Thus began the fall of one of Hollywood's brightest stars. Rehabs, interventions, hospital stays, and near-death experiences weren't enough to keep Perry clean and sober. Even his "Friends" co-stars couldn't help, although they tried. As Lisa Kudrow, aka Phoebe Buffay, told The New York Times in 2002 about watching Perry suffer, ”Hard doesn't even begin to describe it." 

Matthew Perry was on life support with a slim chance of survival

Matthew Perry's memoir "Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing" holds nothing back. The actor shared a grizzly look into his physical health, including being hospitalized with pancreatitis in 2000. However, it would not be until his colon exploded in 2018 – due to severe constipation from prescription drugs — that things took a near-fatal turn.

Given a mere 2% chance of survival, Perry was put into a coma for two weeks and woke up with a new accessory — a colostomy bag that he had to wear for nine months. A small price to pay, given the damage done, but it still was not enough to scare him straight. After five months of hospitalization and additional surgeries, Perry came home and called his dealer, even though he knew it was the drugs that nearly killed him. He told GQ, "It didn't matter. I needed to take them."

That stunt landed him another trip to rehab, this time in Switzerland, where he cheated death yet again when his heart stopped for a full five minutes during another surgery. The culprit was propofol, a drug that had been administered to Perry prior to the procedure. "This huge, strong guy leaped on top of me and did CPR, and broke eight of my ribs and saved my life," Perry told GQ.

Matthew Perry was living in a treatment center during one of Friends most pivotal moments

The wedding of Monica Geller to Chandler Bing was the cherry on top of the show's seventh season, with millions of viewers tuning in to watch as the friends-turned-lovers tied the knot in a two-part season finale. While it may have looked beautiful on screen, it was another story behind the scenes. The groom had been living in a treatment center. He told The New York Times, "I married Monica and got driven back to the treatment center — at the height of my highest point in 'Friends,' the highest point in my career, the iconic moment on the iconic show — in a pickup truck helmed by a sober technician." 

Monica was almost left at the altar when Matthew Perry's father intervened. According to the actor's book, the senior Perry threatened to pull his son from the show when the creators asked if he was ready to return for the big finale scene. "I was so grateful for him for being my dad and doing the dad thing, but I also didn't want to be the problem," Perry wrote. "They were just doing their job; they had the number one hit TV show, and two of the main characters were about to get married. I couldn't just disappear."

A compromise was reached when Perry was moved to a closer treatment center in Malibu, and he got hitched without a hitch before returning to rehab. 

Matthew Perry died alone after a string of failed relationships

With his charm and boyish good looks, Matthew Perry had no problem meeting women, but he did have a problem keeping them around. He famously dated "Pretty Woman" Julia Roberts and Neve Campbell, among others, but says he would always leave them before he could get hurt. He told GQ, "I break up with them because I'm deathly afraid that they will find out that I'm not enough, that I don't matter, and that I'm too needy, and they'll break up with me and that will annihilate me and I'll have to take drugs and that will kill me. That's why I break up with these wonderful women that have crossed my path."

Of all the women he pushed away, the one that haunted Perry the most was Roberts. He told GQ that he broke up with her while they were in a car that was being chased by paparazzi. "She was upset. And couldn't believe it," he said, adding, "And you know that the reason I did that was purely out of fear. I needed to get out." Although Perry told the The New York Times that he could see himself married with children, he sadly never got the chance. 

Matthew Perry spent more than half his life and close to $9 million in his quest to get sober

Matthew Perry's story is proof that drug and alcohol addictions cross all socioeconomic barriers. Even with the vast amount of resources at his disposal, Perry still couldn't kick his demons or his habits until it was almost too late. At a glance, his life looked like a dream. He had the house, the cars, the women, and the kind of financial freedom that earning more than $1 million per episode can buy. Unfortunately, he couldn't enjoy it all. He used up a large portion of his life — and his money — on his efforts to get sober. In his memoir, he estimates about half of his life and somewhere in the neighborhood of $9 million between all the rehabilitation centers, hospital bills, treatment facilities, and more. 

However, it wasn't all in vain. Once he finally got clean, Perry used some of his time and money for good. He established a sober living center called Perry House for men in Malibu, California. He also became very vocal about addiction and recovery, championing drug courts in Congress in 2012. Just a year before his death, Perry said on the "Q with Tom Power" podcast, "When I die, I don't want Friends to be the first thing that's mentioned. I want [helping people] to be the first thing that's mentioned."

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).