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'Friends' star Matthew Perry has died at age 54

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Matthew Perry, star of the hit TV sitcom "Friends," has reportedly died at age 54. An actor since his teenage years, Perry was best known for playing charming, sarcastic Chandler Bing. Here's Chandler watching a sad movie with his friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRIENDS")

MATTHEW PERRY: (As Chandler Bing) See, now, that I can see crying over, but "Bambi" is a cartoon.

MATT LEBLANC: (As Joey Tribbiani) You didn't cry when Bambi's mother died?

PERRY: (As Chandler) Yes. It was very sad when the guys stopped drawing the deer.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: But even as "Friends"' success was turning him into a worldwide star, Perry was struggling with crippling addictions to alcohol and drugs. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans joins us now. Hi, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.

RASCOE: First, what do we know about Matthew Perry's death?

DEGGANS: Well, not much. Several news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, have quoted unnamed law enforcement sources that say Perry was found unresponsive in a hot tub at his home on Saturday after an apparent drowning. There's been no official cause of death released yet.

RASCOE: Even though many TV fans got to know him as a star on "Friends," Perry had actually been acting for quite a while before he landed on that show, right?

DEGGANS: Yeah. It's true. You know, he was raised in Canada, but he moved to California when he was a teenager, and he started acting on TV shows like "Growing Pains" and "Beverly Hills, 90210." In fact, Perry almost didn't get on NBC's "Friends" because he was committed to a pilot for a terrible comedy on another network about futuristic airport baggage handlers. But luckily, he got out of that contract and began playing Chandler, who stood out as this sarcastic, quick-witted, lovable character on a show that became such a generationally defining hit that all its stars became the highest-paid actors on television at the time. Now, we've got an outtakes clip from the National Geographic Channel documentary "The '90s," where Perry talked a little bit about why the role fit him so well.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE '90S: THE LAST GREAT DECADE")

PERRY: It was a role that I really just sort of could shake hands with off the page kind of thing. It really just was me.

RASCOE: Still, with all that success, Perry struggled with addictions to alcohol and drugs. So, I mean, it just seems like the fame and the wealth, it didn't solve everything, right?

DEGGANS: That's very true. You know, Perry released a memoir last year where he talked a lot about his issues with substance use, saying he first started drinking heavily as a teenager. And by the mid-1990s, while he was making "Friends," he was addicted to painkillers like Vicodin. He later entered multiple rehab programs and became an advocate for helping those with substance use disorders. During an interview with the CBC last year, Perry said it was tough for him to watch old reruns of "Friends" because he could see the effects of his addictions. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PERRY: Well, I didn't watch the show and haven't watched the show because I could go, drinking, opiates, cocaine. Like, I could tell, season by season, by how I looked. I think I'm going to start to watch it because it's been an incredible thing to watch it touch the hearts of different generations.

DEGGANS: And, you know, it's also true that "Friends" reached new generations of fans, even after it stopped making new episodes in 2004, thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Max. Now, Perry would go on to star in films like "The Whole Nine Yards" and other TV shows like "Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip" and a revival of "The Odd Couple." But it was his turn as Chandler Bing on "Friends," where he's playing this character very close to his own personality, that endeared Matthew Perry to legions of TV audiences over multiple generations.

RASCOE: That's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Eric, thank you so much.

DEGGANS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEYOND THE GUITAR'S "I'LL BE THERE FOR YOU - FRIENDS' THEME (SAD GUITAR VERSION)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.