After his ''Friends'' spin-off was cancelled in 2006, Matt LeBlanc took a year off ... which tuned into four. Now the star of ''Episodes'' finally talks openly about his self-imposed exile (hint: it involved cutting his own hair)
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Here are some things you should know about having lunch with Matt LeBlanc: You will eat at a sleepy Italian restaurant in the Valley instead of an overly trendy Hollywood tapas bar, as he generally likes to fly under the radar. You will be treated to free wine from the one other table of patrons and free tiramisu from the owner, as he generally cannot fly under the radar. In between the funny lines that will tumble out of his mouth, some intriguing ones will sneak out too. (There’s a reason he gave himself haircuts during his self-imposed Hollywood exile.) The subject of Friends? Fire away. In fact, he’ll light up when discussing it, almost as much as when he talks about his violin-playing daughter.

Or fast cars. Or how that hot girl he encountered on a New York street more than 20 years ago inadvertently changed the course of his life.

And after you and he finish breaking bread (rather, after you finish; he’s on a low-carb kick), you will realize that a lot more than a pair of quotation marks separates Matt LeBlanc from ”Matt LeBlanc.”

”Matt LeBlanc” is the high-wattage attraction of Showtime’s Episodes (season 2 premieres July 1 at 10:30 p.m.), which follows a charming British husband-and-wife producing team, Sean (Stephen Mangan) and Beverly Lincoln (Tamsin Greig), who move to L.A. to adapt their highbrow prep-school-set comedy Lyman’s Boys for a U.S. audience. The duo are told to make a teensy tweak, though: The esteemed British actor (Richard Griffiths) who starred as the sixtysomething headmaster will have to be replaced by Matt LeBlanc, the ex–Friends star in need of a comeback. (”For the erudite, verbally dexterous headmaster of an elite boys’ academy, you’re suggesting…Joey?” Sean asks incredulously.) Then the network strong-arms the producers into changing the headmaster to a hockey coach, and the show’s name becomes Pucks! The onscreen Matt — a showier, sharkier version of the real-life actor — is self-aware enough to realize that Pucks! sucks, but he’s otherwise occupied in a losing battle against his id. To top it off, by the end of season 1 he’s slept with Beverly and brawled with Sean, which surely will complicate production on their just-greenlit, now-crappy show.

LeBlanc isn’t the only celebrity currently starring as himself on a comedy series, but his high jinks are uniquely entertaining, partly because we find ourselves guessing at how much of his real life is encrypted into the show, and partly because he’s sending up the perks/pitfalls of having been one-sixth of NBC’s shiny-happy sextet. (If only the real LeBlanc had a signature ”How You Smellin”’ cologne.) With good word of mouth and a Golden Globe for LeBlanc, Episodes is turning out to be a savvy career move, his anti-Ed moment. But the role he was born to play wasn’t his idea, as you’ll find out in a few paragraphs. ”If you were to ask me, ‘Do I think my life is worthy of a character on a TV show?’ I would say no,” says LeBlanc, 44. ”Pretty normal guy. I burp. I fart. I have hair coming out of my ears now. Just like everybody else.” He pauses and perfectly deadpans, ”You’re not gonna print any of that, though, right?”

One day in the mid-’80s, a working-class Boston-area teenager was walking down a New York street when a cute girl caught his attention. ”I turned to look at her ass and she turned to look at my ass,” LeBlanc recalls, ”and immediately at the same time we started laughing.” As it happened, the actress-with-the-last-name-he-can’t-remember was en route to audition for a soap, and suggested that he meet her manager. ”I’d be banging nails in the snow if it wasn’t for her,” he says. ”I’d have been a carpenter.” Instead LeBlanc went on to build a résumé of commercials (Heinz, Levi’s), music videos (Alanis Morissette, Jon Bon Jovi), and short-lived series (TV 101, Top of the Heap) before landing Friends in 1994. He’d spend the next decade starring on the sitcom sensation as endearingly dopey aspiring actor Joey Tribbiani — and padding his great-grandchildren’s bank accounts. ”That was the best 10 years of all of our lives,” he says. ”I was the last one to leave the stage at night. It was the best gig in town. And the beer was free down there. Did you know that? On Friday night after the show, you didn’t have to go to the bar and pay for beer!”

When it was time for Friends to end in 2004, he was the only one of the six who didn’t leave the building: LeBlanc headlined a spin-off, in which Joey moves from New York to L.A. Although critics and audiences never warmed to Joey, which lasted two seasons, LeBlanc doesn’t regret the experience. ”If that was a stand-alone show, we’d probably still be on the air,” he says. ”It didn’t matter who wrote that show or what we wrote about. It was doomed to fail because there were five people missing.”

As Joey was sputtering to a finish in 2006, LeBlanc was facing hardships off the set. Tabloids were circling as his three-year marriage to Melissa McKnight came to an end, and his young daughter, Marina, was facing a rare medical condition. ”The expectation on Joey was so high, it was so stressful,” he shares. ”And then to go home and be like, ‘What’s going to happen with our daughter?’ It was a very, very hard time. I almost had a nervous breakdown.” Once Joey was canceled, he told his agent to hold all calls for a year. ”It had been 12 years of nose to the grindstone,” he explains. ”I made a lot of money. I was in a position where I could retire. I want to just be with my little girl and figure out what my life is…. It ultimately turned out to be the best decision. I learned a lot about myself. I matured quite a bit. I developed a bond with my little girl.” (Marina, now 8, has since outgrown the condition.)

LeBlanc fell into the rhythm of leisure, and his one-year sabbatical turned into two, then four, as he turned down a few offers to star on another network sitcom. Tucked away at his expansive ranch in Santa Barbara County, he rode horses with his daughter, hung out with his girlfriend (ex–Joey costar Andrea Anders), cruised on mountain bikes and motorcycles, herded cattle, hunted pigs, and then there was this: ”I was cutting my own hair for a little while,” he says. ”I usually went with a mohawk. Because I figured if I cut my own hair and do a mohawk, I will definitely not go out of the house. It was like my own insurance policy to stay out of the public eye.”

Meanwhile, a plan to bring him back into sight was being hatched by two old pals: Friends co-creator David Crane and Mad About You writer/co-producer Jeffrey Klarik. (Fun fact: Klarik met LeBlanc at a New York deli where the teenage future Friends star worked — until he was fired for sneaking chocolate cake in the basement.) The pair, who also created CBS’ short-lived The Class, were brainstorming a sitcom for the BBC that would become Episodes. LeBlanc, or his persona, was so perfect for the role of a buffoonish actor starring on a crassly Americanized remake of a British sitcom, says Crane, ”if Matt had said no, we would have scrapped the whole thing.”

In 2009 the duo dialed up LeBlanc. ”They said, ‘What are you doing?”’ recalls the actor. ”My exact words were ‘Nothin’. Spending some of that money that I made. Thanks again, by the way.’ And they said, ‘Let’s get together and have lunch.”’ They laid out the entire first season, nervous that he might balk at being the punchline. LeBlanc was actually cool with that — ”In their hands I don’t mind being the brunt of the joke, as long as it was a good, worthy joke” — and his only question was about how closely the show would mirror his life. ”This ‘Matt LeBlanc’ is not me; it’s the public’s perception of me, or of a celebrity,” he says. ”Once I got my head around that, then I thought it could be really fun. Because there are no rules now.”

The three of them began fleshing out his character at the meal. In a nod to the fuss surrounding those million-dollar-a-week Friends paychecks (”Let me just go on the record as saying: A million dollars a week was wrong. It was 1.3… We clear?” he corrects with mock sternness. ”I mean, $300,000 a week is not something to shake a stick at. That’s a nice stick”), LeBlanc pitched that his alter ego should have Bill Gates money, including his own jet. (In real life there’s no jet, though he does have a bulldozer.) And speaking of generous endowments, LeBlanc notes that it wasn’t his idea to give the character a large penis: ”They said, ‘We’re going to give you a huge c–k. You okay with that?’ I said, ‘It’s better than you giving me a small one.”’

While the amount of Matt in ”Matt” varies per story, inspiration can strike anywhere. Once, before shooting an upcoming scene with Mangan, ”we started talking about how I kind of believe in Bigfoot,” LeBlanc recalls semi-sheepishly. ”I don’t know that I actually believe in it. But I love the idea that it could be. So David and Jeffrey are giddy at the table like, ‘Wait, wait, wait. What?‘ And I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah.’ I start telling them about the show Finding Bigfoot that I’m hooked on. The next day I get an envelope, and the front part of that scene is completely rewritten, verbatim, from Stephen and me.” He laughs. ”So when I hang out with them now, my guard is up a little bit.”

He’s (mostly) kidding. Truth is, he signed on to Episodes because of his friendship with Crane and Klarik. ”I feel a sense of security with them,” he says. ”If it was someone I had never worked with before, I would never have said yes to this. Not ever…. It has a little bit of a melancholy feel because it’s them, like maybe Friends isn’t really over. It still has the same cadence to the writing…. They pull at your heartstrings and then whack you in the funny bone.” The show aims to subvert audience expectations of LeBlanc — he can sucker punch you with kindness, intelligence, or crassness (see: the season 1 scene in which a drunk Matt speaks movingly about his sons — and then barfs on Beverly). ”A lot of times people will speak slowly to me because of Joey,” says LeBlanc. ”We [said], ‘Let’s make ‘Matt LeBlanc’ a guy who uses that thing where people assume he’s dumb to manipulate situations to his advantage whenever he wants…. I don’t do this in my personal life. Honest to God.” Adds Klarik, ”I always felt there was so much more to him than the audience realized. Believe me, he’s the opposite of dumb.”

And off screen, LeBlanc doesn’t treat Friends as the F-word. ”I’ll speak only for myself…. When the show took off and was Must See TV, it was like, ‘Well, after season 10, should we do more or should we get out before we’re pigeonholed?’ And I was like, [laughs] ‘I think the damage is done there.”’ Offers Crane: ”He totally owns it, which seems really healthy. I don’t think you can spend 10 years playing that iconic a part and not have that remain in people’s heads. The trick is to do what he’s doing on the show. If you give them enough reason, they can see you another way in addition to Friends, not instead of.”

Provided Showtime renews Episodes for future seasons, LeBlanc says he’ll stay committed to the role ”for as long as David and Jeffrey want to do it.” In the meantime, the actor will shoot the indie comedy Lovesick this summer, starring as a grade-school principal afflicted with a disease that causes him to turn psychotic when he falls in love. When Episodes finally ends its run, though, how does he want things to wrap up for ”Matt”? He turns serious for a moment. ”Maybe for this ‘Matt LeBlanc’ to find something within himself that keeps him content, to find peace, to know that he’s going to be okay. It sounds a little sappy. Is that too sappy?” He continues anyway. ”To find something poignant that he discovers about himself that he grows from in a way that feels like it has some closure to it, whether that be something with his ex-wife, his kids, careerwise. Something that moves him enough to change him or make him grow…” A pause. A shrug. A smile. ”If not that, a three-way.”

Episodes Ahead

Here’s what to expect when the show returns for season 2 (July 1 at 10:30 p.m.) — and yes, there may just be Friends involved

The Unforgiven Sean is still smarting from wife Beverly and Matt’s brief hookup, though Pucks! star Morning (Mircea Monroe) may help comfort him. ”[Beverly and Matt] are both trying to get back in his good graces,” says LeBlanc, ”so we’re allies in this weird battle of reconciliation.”

Love is Blind Matt’s new love interest is a sight to behold: It’s Jamie (Genevieve O’Reilly, right), the blind wife of network president Merc Lapidus (John Pankow), who’s having his own affair with underling Carol (Kathleen Rose Perkins). ”The boss’ wife? That can’t end well,” says creator Jeffrey Klarik.

Beware: Falling Ratings When the show’s numbers drop, the network pressures Sean and Beverly to make adjustments. ”I’m left with light acting duty and am not happy about it,” says LeBlanc. ”I act out by acting inward.”

Fan Overboard! Prepare to meet Matt’s highly experienced twentysomething stalker: She’s been following him too closely since she was 8 years old.

Friend-ly Request Desperate to juice the ratings, Merc asks Matt to get one of his former Friends costars to make an appearance on Pucks!, but ”it’s not so easy for Matt,” hints creator David Crane.

What About a Friends Reunion Special?

”That show was about a finite period of time, before you got married and went off to start your life with a family. It was that magical time that everyone can relate to. To see what we’re all doing now…it’s almost like the book is better than the movie,” says LeBlanc. ”I don’t want to see old Joey. I don’t want to see Chandler and Monica with their kids that are [raising a hand a few feet off the ground] this big now. I’d rather imagine that. Everyone’s going to have a different vision of what those characters are like, so to have that materialize is going to disappoint most people. A couple of people will go, ‘That’s what I thought!’ but for the most part it’s going to let people down. It’s better to just let them think.”

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