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Matthew Perry: Nobody's fool

Matthew Perry will make millions as a lovable loser on “Friends”–a day job he won’t quit no matter how big (or little) a hit his new movie is

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”These are from Virginia,” the waitress says, handing Matthew Perry a plate with banana fritters and a note on a red napkin, and she isn’t talking about the state. It’s dark inside Mandalay, a Swingers sort of place off Melrose in Hollywood, so Perry flicks his Bic and reads the mash note — loud enough for all the goateed hipsters at surrounding tables to hear: ”Because you make me laugh when I really need to…”

Ironically, Perry has just finished talking about how yutzy he can be with women. ”I’ve never been the swinging-single type,” he says. ”In high school, my prom date fooled around with another guy — on prom night.” Nevertheless, he cocks one brow and does his best approximation of a ’70s Lounge Guy leer. ”Maybe I should send a note back,” he says. ”Like ‘Hey, baby, I hope you’re gor-guss.”’ Instead, he slips the napkin into his jacket pocket, assuming Virginia to be just another starstruck fan reaching out to a Friend.

Well, let him think it, at least for now…

”I desperately — desperately — needed the money,” Perry says of his 1994 opportunity to read for Chandler Bing, his character on Friends. At the time, the actor from Williamstown, Mass., was hanging his hopes on a dog of a sitcom pilot called LAX 2194 — just the latest in a string of dud comedy series that ultimately got dropped. Perry’s not embarrassed to recount those sorry days now that he can afford it all: the two Porsches, the two-bedroom house in the Hollywood Hills with pool and Jacuzzi, the magic fingers massage chair from The Sharper Image. ”I just had my assistant call up and order it,” he says. ”And I used to hate people with assistants!”

The sacrifices millionaires make. And come the millennium, Perry, 27, will be one many times over. In addition to his recently renegotiated $75,000-per-episode Friends contract, he was paid a reported $1 million to make out with the truly gor-guss Salma Hayek for his first starring role, in Fools Rush In, opening Valentine’s Day. He reportedly will earn even more to get stupid with Chris Farley in the upcoming Edwards & Hunt, a Dumb and Dumber-style comedy about two guys trying to beat Lewis and Clark to the Northwest Passage. And Warner Bros. has tapped him to star in a movie he cowrote, Imagining Emily, about a man who falls in love with a grown-up version of his imaginary childhood friend.

Perry has every reason to be a happy, happy man. And he is. ”I’m going to my 10-year high school reunion this year,” he says, ”with a great big smile on my face.”

How long the smile remains is anyone’s guess. For Perry’s happiness is matched only by his insecurity. ”Oh, he’s definitely neurotic,” says his best friend and writing partner Andrew Hill Newman. ”He’s better looking than he thinks, more successful than he admits, more likable than he gives himself credit for.” Which, of course, also perfectly describes Chandler.

”The part of Chandler leapt off the page, shook my hand, and said, ‘This is you, man!”’ Perry says of reading the pilot, originally called Friends Like Us. That’s not to say Perry’s an insensitive dork. Says Friends costar Jennifer Aniston: ”Matty’s one of the most sensitive people I’ve ever met, more than most girls I know. His feelings get hurt. He cares what people think. He even bruises easily.” Perry himself admits to crying during movies (Men Don’t Leave and The Doctor, for instance). Perhaps most telling of all: ”Matthew owns Barry Manilow’s greatest hits CD,” says Newman, ”and likes it!”

At the moment, Perry is acutely sensitive to the possibility of bad reviews. “I come from a history of doing failed TV shows,” he’s saying over his banana fritters. “Fools Rush In was the first movie I’d been offered, they paid me a lot of money, and suddenly I’m in Las Vegas pretending that I’m confident knowing what the hell I’m doing. I was terrified.”

The romantic comedy finds Perry exchanging his ultra-nice-guy TV persona for that of an obnoxious New York businessman who marries Hayek after their one-night stand in Vegas leaves her pregnant. Filmed during every free minute he could steal away from Friends last year, the movie, he says, “squeezed everything” from him. He was exhausted, lost 10 pounds, and didn’t exactly make a best friend out of Hayek. “We definitely had our frustrating moments,” he says. “She didn’t get any of my jokes. I’d say, ‘Knock knock,’ and she’d say, ‘What is it already!?'” When asked how he felt about the Mexican-born actress’ implying in Movieline magazine that he was a jerk, Perry says: “You gotta understand, English isn’t her first language. She was actually trying to say how sexy I was.”

If Fools Rush In does as well as other Friends‘ films, then, well, it won’t do well at all. The past year saw several stars of the smash sitcom strike out on the big screen: David Schwimmer’s black comedy, The Pallbearer, grossed only $5.7 million, while Matt LeBlanc’s chimp romp, Ed, petered out at $4.4 million. How disappointing are these figures? Let’s see: Almost 30 million fans tune in to Friends each week. A movie ticket averages about five bucks. Thirty million times five is 150 million. You tell us.

So now it’s Perry’s turn to put his head on the theatrical chopping block. He admits the position is not a comfortable one. “When these first movie offers came along,” Perry says, “it was just a big deal that we were getting the offers. ‘Wow, you got a movie? Great!’ We didn’t think about what movies they were. Maybe when you’ve been in the business for 10 years, you can read a script and know whether it’s gonna bomb.” Or fly. “[Writer-producer] Dean Devlin offered me Harry Connick Jr.’s part in Independence Day,” Perry admits, before putting his usual best-face spin on bad news. “That was such a failure that turning it down didn’t really bother me.”

Of course, not every Friendly film has tanked. Considering its $3 million budget, She’s the One, with its acclaimed supporting appearance by Jennifer Aniston, made a respectable $9.5 million, and Mother, with a familiar Lisa Kudrow cameo (it’s Phoebe and Ursula’s long-lost triplet!) promises some small-scale success. Only Scream, featuring Courteney Cox as a To Die For-esque tabloid reporter, has emerged a $50 million surprise hit. But more are on the way: Along with Perry’s Fools, the coming months will bring Cox in the comedy Commandments (March), completed a year ago; Aniston in the also-delayed ‘Til There Was You (April 4) as well as Picture Perfect (April 4); Kudrow with Mira Sorvino in Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion (May 2); and Schwimmer directing and starring in his own high school reunion comedy, Dogwater.

Why hasn’t Friends‘ popularity translated into similar fortune at the multiplex? Some say the TV-to-movies gulf is just too wide for stars of an ensemble sitcom. “The dynamics of an actor carrying a feature go against the weekly familiarity a television audience requires,” says She’s the One producer James Schamus. The relative success of One and Scream signals that at least for now, supporting roles are the way to go. “Courteney was very intelligent in choosing to work in an ensemble movie,” says Scream producer Cary Woods.

But success in ensemble films, says ICM senior VP Rosalie Swedlin, who produced Ed, doesn’t “negate the possibility that a starring vehicle might not work under different circumstances.” So maybe it’s just a case of less-than-intelligent script choices. In that case, perhaps our six budding movie idols ought to consult with their old pal Marcel: The monkey’s turn in Outbreak, which boasted a $67.6 million gross, makes him the most successful movie Friend of all.

Even if Fools should go straight to video, Perry still has a killer TV career to fall back on—especially now that those pesky contract negotiations are well behind him.

The media frenzy that accompanied what should have been standard contract talks perpetuated rumors that the six stars were acting under the leadership of a disgruntled David Schwimmer. Perry and his fellow cast members vehemently deny that there was a ringleader. Perry will confirm that they asked for $100,000 per episode, a figure they felt was appropriate after learning that Warner Bros.’ syndication division sold reruns of their show for $4 million an episode. But he also denies that anyone (Schwimmer again) threatened to walk after the fifth year if Warner didn’t show them the money. “It was amiable every step of the way,” insists Perry. “I think you’d have to be a moron to leave the show.”

He admits that at times the negotiations themselves were “a headache, but it was also something we needed to deal with; it was the year to renegotiate and we thought it was best for the dynamic of the show if we did it together. We didn’t want one person making a fortune and someone else making nothing. Public perception of us changed a little because of it, I think, and that’s not good,” he adds. “But anything that gets away from Friends‘ being just a well-acted, funny show would bother me.”

In the end, the cast got a nice pay hike: $75,000 per show this year (up from the first two seasons’ $30,000 to $40,000), $85,000 per show next year, $100,000 in year five, and $120,000 by the 1999-2000 season. More important, they stayed friends. “Yes, we like each other,” Perry says of a question he has grown weary of. “LeBlanc, Schwimmer, and I just took a two-week vacation together in London and Paris. Friends is big in Europe,” he adds, “but if you put a baseball cap and sunglasses on and play Enya on your Walkman, the Eiffel Tower is yours.”

“Now, that’s hysterical. Hysterical!”

Perry is sitting on a couch with Schwimmer and Lisa Kudrow on the Central Perk set during an early run-through for the Friends producers. The scene revolves around a new date for Phoebe (Kudrow). She’s brought him to meet the guys, when suddenly Chandler notices an offending, er, protrusion sticking out of their guest’s shorts. He takes Ross (Schwimmer) aside.

CHANDLER: Robert’s…coming out.

ROSS: Like, he’s gay?

CHANDLER: No. Coming out of his shorts.

ROSS: What?

CHANDLER: Ross, the guy’s hanging brain!

It’s a lost cause after that. Chandler and Ross try desperately not to look directly at…It. “It’s like an eclipse,” Chandler says. Of course they wind up fixated on the offending member until someone gets up the nerve to tell the guy to “put the mouse back in the house.”

Perry loves the joke, with one caveat. “How come all Lisa’s story lines end up with penises in them and mine all end up with antique furniture?”

Visiting the Friends set these days must be what it was like to visit The Brady Bunch or Welcome Back, Kotter in their heyday. Conversations, props, wardrobe—they all mark a certain moment in American pop culture. The tiny T-shirts. The modified Caesar haircuts. The distressed furniture. The Martha Stewart jokes. And the caffeine, abundant enough to raise the Titanic.

In other words, Friends has 1995 written all over it. And in these times of super-accelerated trends, what a difference a year makes. Although still a top 10 show, Friends—which pulled in an astounding 46 ratings share after last year’s Super Bowl—is off by as much as 15 percent this season. “It’s a rare show that just exploded fast and stayed hot, helped by stunts like Tom Selleck and post-Super Bowl guest spots,” says NBC’s senior VP of programming, Preston Beckman. “Now it’s settling into more realistic numbers. But nobody’s going ‘My God, Friends has lost its curveball.’ It still works.”

If anything, Perry appreciates the dip in the show’s fortunes. “In the beginning,” he says, “the series was about six loserish people who hung out and talked about their lives. They weren’t famous, they weren’t hairstyles or the covers of magazines. They weren’t a phenomenon. I’d love to see us get back to that original idea of six people, just hanging out.”

Long after the last banana fritter is gone, the waitress returns, looking a bit anxious. “Virginia’s just wondering how everything is,” she says. Which prompts Perry to reread the note, which sends him into an immediate panic. There, at the bottom of the napkin, in clear penmanship, is the woman’s last name. And guess what? Virginia is a somebody—as in Madsen, the beautiful, talented, and single actress. Perry freaks.

“Oh, God,” he says, “she’s gonna think I’m pathetic. What should I do?”

He weighs his option against a tide of angst. “Okay, let’s see. Paying for her meal screams that I’m desperate and I’m gonna die alone. So maybe I’ll just be funny. Funny’s good, right?”

It should be noted that Perry is a reluctant bachelor. But he’s also wary of dating as millions watch—a la those few evenings with Julia Roberts last year. “They were just dinner and nothing happened,” says Perry. But the gossip pages went gaga. “If you have dinner with someone and the next day the country thinks you’re in a relationship, it gets a little weird,” he says. “I was confused about dating before Friends. This all just makes it more confusing.”

Still, he’s got to respond to Madsen’s note, and after getting some advice from the waitress, Perry decides to join her at her table, where drinks are shared, jokes laughed at, and phone numbers eventually exchanged.

Ultimately, though, Perry exits the restaurant alone. “Worst-case scenario,” he says as he waits for the valet to deliver his car, “I still have the best job anyone could ever ask for.”

(Additional reporting by Dan Snierson)