The cast of Friends before the fame

More than two decades have passed since the Sept. 22, 1994 debut of Friends on NBC. Originally titled Six of One, the sitcom became a launching pad for its stars. In May 2019, actress Courteney Cox (aka Monica Geller) shared a throwback photo with her co-stars on Instagram with the caption: "The one where the six of us went to Vegas and no one knew we were F.R.I.E.N.D.S yet." It was on that flight that legendary TV director James Burrows showed them the comedic series' first episode. On the ground in Sin City, "Jimmy took us to dinner, and he gave us each a little money to gamble with," Kudrow told Vanity Fair. "He said, 'I want you to be aware that this is the last time that you all can be out and not be swarmed, because that's what's going to happen.'" Kudrow thought at the time: "Why is he so certain?" 

Burrows remembers that trip too. "I don't know why I said this – I said, 'This is your last shot at anonymity. Once the show comes on the air, you guys will never be able to go anywhere without being hounded.' I knew the show had a chance to really take off." Burrows said he was the only one with any spending money, so the six soon-to-be-superstars wrote him checks so they could gamble. Clearly, that gamble paid off. 

The Trouble with Larry was no trouble for Courteney Cox

Many fans know that Courteney Cox got her show biz break in a Bruce Springsteen music video. She also played the girlfriend of Alex Keaton (Michael J. Fox) in Family Ties and Jim Carrey's sweetheart in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, but Cox told the Los Angeles Times that it was a failed CBS series called The Trouble with Larry that paved the way for her role as Monica Geller on Friends. "No one had ever seen me like that," she said. "I was mean and I was the funny one, and from that I was recommended for Friends." 

For Cox, the transition from playing it straight to becoming more of a comedienne was refreshing and revealing. "And that's why I love Monica, because not only is she a grown-up, and that's good for people to see, but I can bring more of my own personality to her, and I've never really been able to do that before," she told the LA Times. "She can be goofy and angry and sarcastic and a little bit naughty. People think of her sort as the goody-good and the prude on the show, but I think she has more sex than any of the others."

Jennifer Aniston was a good 'loser'

Jennifer Aniston was entangled in more than one TV series that didn't succeed (anyone remember Muddling Through?) The first episode of Friends was her sixth pilot! Before that, the daughter of actor John Aniston (Days of Our Lives) waited tables at a Manhattan restaurant (appropriate prep for Rachel Green's Central Perk gig) while taking psychology classes at night and auditioning for stage roles by day. "I was such a loser," she told People

Perhaps Aniston was being too hard on herself, but the publication said she dropped 30 pounds after moving to Los Angeles in 1990 (Aniston ruefully remarked that "Hollywood puts pressure on women to be thin.") Only three hours after auditioning for the part of Rachel, the-then 25-year-old actress found out she'd booked what became her breakthrough role: "I thought, 'Whoa! I never figured this would be happening to me at this age!'" Aniston said. "I thought I would be older, wiser, better."

Lisa Kudrow co-wrote a scientific paper

For Phoebe Buffay, writing something memorable meant the so-bad-it's-good tune "Smelly Cat," but for Vassar grad Lisa Kudrow, her real-life writing was quite brainy. Kudrow co-authored a scientific paper called "Handedness and Headache" with three others, including her father, Dr. Lee Kudrow, who founded the California Medical Clinic for Headache, which is now headed by her brother, Dr. David Kudrow. According to the article "Perspectives on Psychological Science" (via The Cut), the paper the actress contributed to dealt with "the relation between handedness and both cluster and migraine headaches." The report found that "the two groups of headache sufferers did not differ significantly from each other or from the expected 10 percent frequency of lefthandedness in males and females." 

The Kudrow family reportedly has a history of migraines, which apparently inspired its studies, including one about using the lidocaine local anesthetic to treat migraines, reported People. What does Lisa think of her father and his work? "My dad," she told the magazine, "is soooo cool."

Matthew Perry was a promising tennis player

Matthew Perry's struggles with alcohol and opioid addiction are well-documented. "I had a big problem with alcohol and pills and I couldn't stop," he candidly told People. "Eventually things got so bad that I couldn't hide it, and then everybody knew." What is less well-known: Before he played wisecracking Chandler Bing on Friends, Perry knew how to crack serves and returns on the court. 

Perry was a top-ranked Canadian junior tennis player who practiced for about 10 hours a day. He lived in Ottawa, Ontario with this mother, Canadian journalist Suzanne Marie Morrison, following her divorce from his dad, American actor John Bennett Perry. ”I needed to succeed at whatever I was doing so I could feel better about myself,” Matthew revealed in a profile for The New York Times. ”I had this incredible drive on the tennis court, and that translated into acting.” What ended his pursuit of tennis glory? "I was a very good tennis player in Ottawa, Canada — nationally ranked when I was, like, 13. Then I moved to Los Angeles when I was 15, and everyone in L.A. just killed me," he told Men's Health.

David Schwimmer founded a Tony-winning theatre

David Schwimmer is best known as geeky anthropologist Ross Geller on Friends, but he cut his acting teeth as a somewhat athletic co-founder of Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company. That company started when Schwimmer was a senior at Northwestern University and went on to win the 2011 Regional Theatre Tony Award. "It was David who very much initiated our trademarks — literary adaptation, physical theater, the stress on ensemble," Lookingglass colleague Joy Gregory told The Washington Post. "And after we all graduated from college, we were feeling very much like David was our director." 

And he was pretty nimble in his leadership role, too. "At one point I was a really good roller skater, some gymnastics — you want to puff yourself up and put anything out there," Schwimmer said in an Interview magazine article. "I wasn't that good of a singer, so I didn't really emphasize that, but I was a pretty good dancer." Schwimmer's athletic prowess probably came in handy when Ross adopted that monkey!

Matt LeBlanc was a carpenter before Friends

Matt LeBlanc hails from a blue-collar background. "Everyone in my family goes to work with some kind of tool in their hands," he said during a 2015 Jimmy Kimmel Live appearance (via The Hollywood Reporter). LeBlanc was a carpenter's apprentice before heading to Los Angeles and finding fame as Joey Tribbiani on Friends. "I made a complete kitchen and installed it in a house."

A chance New York City sidewalk encounter with an actress (LeBlanc doesn't recall her name) finally hammered home that his future lay in acting instead. She suggested LeBlanc meet her manager, and that changed the course of his life. "I could have been framing houses in the snow in New England in winter, instead of telling jokes on TV," he told The Hollywood Reporter. The actor also revealed on Conan that he only had about $11 to his name when he won his part on the sitcom. LeBlanc is now worth about $80 million, but during his "starving artist" days, he even attempted to improve his smile by filing a tooth with emery boards instead of paying a dentist to do the work. 

James Michael Tyler was Gunther before he was Gunther

The top supporting player on Friends was James Michael Tyler, who plays lovelorn Central Perk barista Gunther in 148 of the series' 236 episodes. Tyler had plenty of experience making and serving steaming cups of Joe before and after he landed that part. 

"During the first four years while I was working on Friends, I kept my job at the real-life LA coffee house, the Bourgeois Pig, where I was an actual barista," Tyler told Parade magazine. "The days when I would work on Friends I'd go to the set and work in the fake coffee house. It became a kind of blurring of reality and fantasy for a while." His part began as an extra role listed as "Coffee Guy" on the show's call sheet. "I had no name, no speaking lines," he recalled. Then his character, like the show, continued to grow in popularity and the rest is TV history. 

So how does he like his coffee? "I'm pretty much a purist," Tyler said. "I like black coffee, no sugar, no cream. There are some really nice espresso blends, but I would just prefer a good black coffee."

Maggie Wheeler refused to give up before Friends

Janice didn't give up easily on the idea of becoming Mrs. Chandler Bing, and the woman who plays her in every season of Friends showed similar persistence in her acting career. Maggie Wheeler (whose last name was Jakobson before she married sculptor Daniel Borden Wheeler in 1990) earned her memorable role after a decade in Hollywood. That decade included being dropped from Ellen DeGeneres' sitcom (then called These Friends of Mine) following its first season. "I was one of the first of many people to get fired as they re-tooled that show," she told Uproxx, "and then the Friends episode came across my desk — in those days across my fax machine — and I looked at that part and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it." 

No, Janet's nasally whine isn't her real voice. It's based on voices Wheeler heard growing up in New York City, where her father worked on the New York Stock Exchange and her mother, an architecture and design writer, served as a Museum of Modern Art trustee. Janice's high-pitched laugh also had a very practical purpose on Friends. She told This Morning that "the laugh happened organically in the first rehearsal because I needed to find a way to laugh because Matthew Perry is so funny ... I thought, 'This guy is going to make me laugh on set. I've gotta be prepared.'" To use Janice's catchphrase, "Oh my God!"

Jane Sibbett played pregnant Carol right after giving birth

Actress Jane Sibbett made television history during the second season of Friends in 1996. She plays Ross' ex-wife, Carol, who marries her girlfriend, Susan (Jessica Hecht), in "The One With the Lesbian Wedding." That same-sex marriage was one of the first on TV. However, it's actress Anita Barone who plays the part of Carol in the second episode of Season 1, "The One With the Sonogram at the End," — that's the episode where Carol tells Ross she's pregnant. Ironically, Sibbett's real-life pregnancy with her son, Kai, had initially prevented her from being cast on the hit show. 

"I told my agent to tell them that if they want, I'd be happy to play the pregnant lesbian — that that would be a really great alternative for me," Sibbett told AfterEllen. "But they said no, that still won't work out for the schedule. So I said, 'Keep me in mind,' and they said they would. I came home from the hospital the day after my son was born. A phone call came in and the producers said, 'Can you help us? We really need you [to] take over this part ... and you'd have to start tomorrow.' And I had just got home. I could hardly walk!" Needless to say, Sibbett went to work on Friends just two days after giving birth!