Voices: Let Matthew Perry’s legacy be those he helped with addiction

“My name is Jack,” says Matthew Perry’s character in 2016 West End show The End of Longing. “And I’m an alcoholic.”

Written by Perry himself, The End of Longing wasn’t a brilliant play, but it was a brave one. Perry, who passed away yesterday aged 54, wrote the piece as a testament to addiction starring a character who had clear parallels with his own journey.

Perry will be remembered for his pitch-perfect embodiment of the hilarious but skittish and vulnerable Chandler Bing on Friends. For 10 seasons in the Nineties and Noughties, Perry and his cohort played a major part in reimagining the TV, fashion and wider pop culture landscape.

For me and many of my male friends, Chandler was the most relatable of the gang. Boundlessly fun, he was also an early projection of anxiety and self-doubt. Personal challenges that wider society has become much more cognizant of now than we were when the show ended in 2004.

But Perry used his relatability for far greater things than playing the lovable TV guy.

Two out of three times he trod the boards in theatre, for vastly lower sums than the million dollars an episode he was commanding for Friends, Perry was tackling addiction. The End of Longing premiered in the West End in 2016 and was so much more than a lazy star project. It shifted Perry’s legacy from a lovable but light comedy star to a versatile actor capable of asking big questions about heavy issues through his art.

It will be remembered for an incredibly powerful monologue spoken by Perry’s character Jack set in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Addressing the audience and breaking the fourth wall, he opened Jack up in a way that felt raw and honest. But who are we kidding, this was really about Perry.

He delivered lines about challenges with alcohol and drug addiction on stage alone, in front of hundreds of people who, let’s face it, had booked to see Chandler Bing. But he was vulnerable. He performed the piece every night for months. Contrary to the performative energy and comic timing he brought to Friends, on stage Perry stood naturally and spoke conversationally. He wasn’t afraid to offer himself. When he said, “I’m an alcoholic,” leaning into that final word, it demonstrated theatre’s power to shock.

Reviews were mixed, but on a human level, no one in my theatre critic circle that I spoke to could deny the power of Perry’s testimony. And the positive influence it would have on lives.

The End of Longing combined work with life for Perry, but since 2013 the actor had shifted in many ways from playing other people to offering more of himself. In 2013 he opened Perry House with addiction specialist Earl Hightower, offering rehabilitation programmes in his former home.

He told ABC he became dedicated to helping people struggling, to help them “see the light come on in their eyes. I have the answer because of stumbling so much. I could help them.” The final part of his cause-based work was his memoir, Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing. Published last year, Perry had been on a promotional tour, doing on-stage Q&A sessions to destigmatise addiction. In the final video he posted on Instagram in November 2022, he said: “I want people to understand that they’re not alone... their behaviour is not insane... they have a disease and it’s not their fault.”

In his memoir, he reveals that in 2019 he had a two per cent chance of survival after his colon burst due to opioid abuse. He visited rehabilitation centres 15 times and during the height of his prescription drug addiction would take more than 55 Vicodin pills a day. He first drank at 14 and from a young age felt a sense of abandonment from both of his divorced parents. Statistics show how people who become addicted to drink and drugs often face familial challenges.

He pushed on, despite the onslaught of tabloid headlines that came out to tear him down. In a sea of “shocked” pieces about his slurred speech during his appearance on the 2021 Friends reunion, I tried to do a tiny bit towards supporting him by refusing to write another toxic headline. Instead of sensationalising his speech like others had done, I reframed the story to tell what I felt was a more truthful version of events. “Fans defend him over slurred speech claims”, I wrote. It was true. That was actually what fans on social media were saying.

We don’t know what took Matthew Perry’s life, but we do know how he wanted to be remembered. Writing in his memoir last year, Perry said: “When I die, I know people will talk about Friends, Friends, Friends. And I’m glad of that, happy I’ve done some solid work as an actor, as well as given people multiple chances to make fun of my struggles on the world wide web.

“But when I die, as far as my so-called accomplishments go, it would be nice if Friends were listed far behind the things I did to try to help other people. I know it won’t happen, but it would be nice.”

Perry didn’t only change the narrative around addiction, but the way we humanise it. Could he have been a more relatable role model for any of us who struggle with anything at all? I don’t think so.