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Point Park University's Student-Run Newspaper

Point Park Globe

Advocate before actor: the legacy of Matthew Perry

Last year, during an interview for the podcast “Q with Tom Power,” actor Matthew Perry said, “The best thing about me, bar none, is that if somebody comes up to me and says, ‘I can’t stop drinking, can you help me?’ I can say yes, and follow up, and do it…when I die, I don’t want ‘Friends’ to be the first thing that’s mentioned, I want that to be the first thing that’s mentioned, and I’m going to live the rest of my life proving that.” 

On October 28, Perry died at his home in Los Angeles. 

Throughout his life, Perry struggled with substance abuse. His role as Chandler Bing on popular 90’s sitcom ‘Friends’ thrusted his struggles into the public eye, although they began before his rise to fame. 

Born on August 19, 1969 to actor and singer John Perry and journalist Suzanne Morrison, Perry struggled with feelings of abandonment from a young age. His parents split up when he was less than a year old, his mother taking him to live in Canada while his father moved to California. In his 2022 memoir, “Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing,” Perry described the neglect he felt alone on flights 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…. If I’d been enough, they wouldn’t have left me unaccompanied, right? Isn’t that how all this was supposed to work? The other kids had parents with them. I had a sign and a magazine,” Perry wrote. 

Perry often took it upon himself to cheer up his mother in an attempt to alleviate her stress as a young single parent. He credits this experience with helping him develop his sense of comedy; in the initial audition for the character of Chandler, Perry describes his approach by saying, “I was cheering up my mother.”

However, unhappiness towards his situation also caused Perry to act out, putting less effort into school, getting into fights and taking up smoking and drinking. Perry’s feelings of abandonment grew further as his mother married another man and started having more children. He felt as though he didn’t belong in her new family, leading to his decision to go live with his father in California at 15. 

Having developed a passion for tennis in Canada, Perry attempted to continue his pursuits in California, hopeful to make a career for himself in the sport. However, upon seeing the talent of his competitors in LA, he abandoned the notion but continued to play recreationally throughout his life. In need of a new sense of direction, Perry turned to acting, eager to flex the comedic chops he had developed to cheer up his mother. 

Perry spent the next several years appearing in minor roles on sitcoms such as “Charles in Charge,” “Silver Spoons” and “Growing Pains.” At 17, he was tapped for his film debut in, “A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon” alongside the late River Phoenix, although it proved to be  a commercial failure.  

During this time, Perry developed friendships with eventual “Simpsons” voice actor Hank Azaria, as well as with David Pressman and Craig Bierko, mostly known for supporting roles in movies and television. The group shared a penchant for dreaming of becoming famous and drinking at West Hollywood’s Formosa Cafe. Eventually, Perry came to fear he had an attachment to alcohol that his peers didn’t. He described intoxication frequently getting in the way of auditions. 

“What was happening to me? What was wrong with me? Why was I the only person [at a friend’s party] who had been dying for another drink?” Perry wrote in his memoir. 

24, discouraged and broke, Perry booked a pilot for a comedy about baggage handlers at a future L.A.X. airport catering to alien clientele; the show failed to get picked up, leaving Perry open to audition for “Friends Like Us,” eventually to be renamed “Friends.”

The show quickly took off, becoming a cultural touchstone along with its cast, giving Perry the sense of fame he had been yearning for since he was a teenager. 

At the same time, his addiction continued to worsen. Perry wrote in his memoir that, at 26, he was taking 55 pills a day, desperately trying to hide his struggle from family and friends. On set, Perry put substantial pressure on himself in regards to his performance, sharing at the 2020 “Friends” reunion, “I felt like I was gonna die if [the live audience] didn’t laugh.” 

After wrapping the third season of the show, Perry made the decision to go to rehab after being confronted by an ex-girlfriend about his struggle. The years to follow would see Perry returning to various rehab and detox facilities multiple times. 

His physical health suffered greatly throughout his years of addiction. At thirty, Perry contracted pancreatitis, a rare occurrence for his age group. He spent 30 days in the hospital, unable to eat or drink. At fifty, his colon exploded, sending him into a coma. Upon waking up, he was told he would need to wear a colostomy bag for nine months. About a year later, during the Coronavirus Pandemic, surgery preparations caused Perry to be knocked unconscious, necessitating five minutes of CPR to revive him. In the process, eight of his ribs were broken. As of the writing of his memoir, Perry had received fourteen surgeries on his stomach. 

The battle took further toll on Perry’s mental health, as he continued to struggle with feeling inadequate or abandoned. His hopes that finding fame would help him proved flawed. In an interview with The Guardian, he said, “I’ve been on the least watched show in the history of television and the most-watched and none of it really did what I thought it was going to do to my life.” 

In the early 2000s, Perry quit drinking for good upon experiencing what he described as a visit from God in his kitchen. 

“Bill Wilson, who created AA[Alcoholics Anonymous] was saved by a lightning-bolt-through-the-window experience where he felt he was meeting God. This was mine,” Perry wrote of the phenomenon in his memoir. 

However, Perry’s struggle with prescription medication continued a while longer, lasting until after his coma at 50. Around the same time, he visited a hypnotherapist to help him stop smoking after being told that he risked dying in his sixties should he continue. 

Perry utilized his experiences throughout his recovery journey to help others suffering from addiction, frequently acting as a sponsor or mentor.

“I’ve almost died several times, and the lower you get down the scale, the more people you can help.” Perry wrote. 

He also took advantage of the platform and resources his career provided to raise awareness and  contribute funding to causes that dealt with addiction disease. Around 2001, Perry converted his home in Malibu into a sober living facility named “Perry House.” At the same time, he frequently met with lawmakers to convince them of the effectiveness of drug courts, which offer nonviolent addicts treatment as opposed to jail time. 

According to The Independent, in 2013 Perry earned a Champion of Recovery award from the Office of National Drug Control Policy for his work in recovery advocacy. 

Perry concluded his 2022 memoir with a deep sense of gratitude for those who helped him through his struggles, and a better understanding of himself. 

“I find myself most days filled with not just longing, but also peace and gratitude and a deeper understanding of just what I’ve been through, and where I am now,” he wrote. 

The news of his death, the cause of which has been ruled an apparent drowning in his home’s hot tub, prompted an outpour of tributes and homages, including from individuals whom Perry had helped in their addiction recovery journey. 

Hank Azaria was among them, crediting Perry with helping him through his own struggles with alcohol. 

“The night I went into AA, Matthew brought me in. As a sober person, he was so caring and giving and wise, and he totally helped me get sober.”

William C. Moyers, vice president of public affairs and community relations for Hazelden Betty Ford, a rehabilitation facility where Perry received treatment, told The Independent, “In the end, Matthew’s legacy is his recovery and how he turned the adversity of his own life’s struggles into the opportunity to inspire others never to give up, to get up and keep striving a step at a time and a day at a time.” 

In the wake of Perry’s death, the Matthew Perry Foundation was established in order to continue Perry’s mission of providing aid to those suffering from addiction. They are currently accepting donations. 

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