Inside Matthew Perry's Tragic Real-Life Story

The following article includes references to drug and alcohol addiction.

The world has mourned the loss of Matthew Perry following his death on October 28, 2023 at the age of 54, having reportedly drowned while relaxing in his hot tub. Though details surrounding the actor's passing are unclear, as of this writing, neither drugs nor foul play are suspected, per TMZ. Perry, of course, was once one of television's most beloved stars. For 10 years, from 1994 to 2004, he played the unforgettably sarcastic Chandler Bing on the hit NBC sitcom "Friends," a role that snagged him an Emmy nomination for outstanding lead actor in a comedy series in 2002. It also made him impossibly wealthy, with the series' stars banding together to negotiate a massive salary that earned them millions.

Perry later followed up on his small screen success with the TV series "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," "Mr. Sunshine," and "Go On" — not to mention films like "The Whole Nine Yards" and "Serving Sara." But while Perry's pockets were lined with lots of cash, his private life was secretly falling apart.

From an addiction to alcohol and prescription pills and several trips to rehab to health issues and surprising scandals, Perry's Hollywood life wasn't all red carpets and applause. To learn all about the late actor's off-screen troubles that unfortunately spanned decades, keep reading and go deep inside Matthew Perry's tragic real-life story.

Matthew Perry's first experience with alcohol changed everything

As Matthew Perry explained during a 2022 interview on ABC News' "20/20" with Diane Sawyer, his well-documented struggles with alcohol dated back to when he took his first drink at age 14. "I remember that day very well in Ottawa, Canada. I had never drank before," Perry recalled. Noting that he and his friends polished off a bottle of wine during this particular hangout, he added, "And I lay in the grass and just was in heaven. I thought to myself, 'This must be the way that normal people feel all the time.'"

Perry didn't realize it at the time, but the effects that his friends were feeling from getting drunk were significantly different than what he was experiencing. "I finally felt at home, for the very first time, as soon as I drank alcohol," Perry reflected in an interview with CBC Radio's "Q with Tom Power" around this same time. "Normal people have a drink and they feel a little, you know, woozy," he went on to explain. "... I have a drink and, for the first time in three weeks, life seems to make sense."

He beat up the future Canadian prime minister

Even before Matthew Perry was famous, he was admittedly a troublemaker — like the time he beat up Justin Trudeau. Yes, that one. Granted, Perry was a fifth grader in Canada when he and a friend roughed up the future prime minister, but the memory stuck with him. "We both beat him up," Perry told Jimmy Kimmel in 2017. "I think he was excelling in a sport that we weren't, so it was pure jealousy."

"I think he was the only kid in school that we could beat up," Perry continued. "You know, I'm not bragging about this, this is terrible. I was a stupid kid, I didn't want to beat him up. In fact, I think at one point I tried to turn it into love play."

Trudeau, who would pen a moving tribute to Perry on X, formerly known as Twitter, following the actor's death, also made news when he issued a statement asking for a rematch. Perry, who had wised up, declined the invitation. "I was like, 'Dude — you have an army at your disposal. I'm not going to accept the challenge!'" he said.

A jet ski accident started Matthew Perry's spiral

Following Matthew Perry's early introduction to alcohol, the star's initial spiral out of control actually had nothing to do with hard-partying in Hollywood. According to a 2013 chat with People, Perry suffered a jet ski accident in 1997 and became addicted to prescribed Vicodin. "'Here, take this,'" he remembered the doctors telling him. "I did and I felt better than I ever felt in my entire life. I had a big problem with pills and alcohol, and I couldn't stop."

Things were further complicated by the success of "Friends." "I was on 'Friends' from age 24 to 34," Perry said. "I was in the white-hot flame of fame. The six of us were just everywhere all the time. From an outsider's perspective, it would seem like I had it all. It was actually a very lonely time for me because I was suffering from alcoholism. It was going on before 'Friends,' but it's a progressive disease." He added, "I wasn't a massive party guy. I wasn't a bull-in-a-china-shop kind of drinker."

In his 2022 memoir "Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing," Perry pondered how different his life might have become had he never been prescribed Vicodin and ingested that first pill. "I swear to God I think if I'd never taken it, none of the next three decades would have gone the way they did," he wrote, in an excerpt shared by ABC News. "Who knows?"

He went to rehab twice while starring on Friends

In 1997, Matthew Perry made his first trip to rehab to try to kick his pill habit. According to People, he stayed 28 days at Minnesota's Hazelden Foundation rehabilitation center. The following year, he told the magazine, "I don't think there's anything in the world that I can't face, having faced that," he said. "That was the scariest thing that's ever happened to me. You get a whole new respect for yourself and life when you go through something that difficult."

He returned to rehab a second time in 2001, reported ABC News. "Matthew has every intention of completing his treatment so that he can continue his dream of entertaining people and making them laugh," his publicist said in a statement. "He appreciates everyone's concern and thanks them for respecting his privacy."

According to the Los Angeles Times, Perry's second stint in rehab caught NBC off guard as "Friends" was in production, but network officials would not disclose if his treatment affected the filming schedule.

Matthew Perry suffered from pancreatitis

In between his first and second trips to rehab, Perry wound up in the hospital for two weeks with acute pancreatitis and lost 20 pounds. The condition can reportedly be caused by both excessive alcohol and prescription drug use.

"In my case, it was hard living and drinking hard and eating poorly," he told Us Weekly (via E! News). "You play, you pay. But there were no pills involved. I learned my lesson at Hazelden."

Following his release from the hospital, Perry crashed his Porsche into an empty house. He was thankfully uninjured in the snafu, and neither drugs nor alcohol were found in his system at the time. "The irony was terrible," he told Us Weekly of the awful day. "I was going to hang with my father at his place outside L.A. I made the first corner around my house on these really narrow streets, saw a courier van in the middle, swerved to the right and — well, I don't really know what happened — I crashed into this porch."

He'd attend open houses to steal pills from medicine cabinets

As Matthew Perry's dependence on Vicodin escalated, he hit a point where he needed 50-plus pills each day, just to prevent himself from experiencing brutal withdrawal symptoms. In order to feed this ever-growing drug dependence, Perry went to some pretty extraordinary measures. "I would fake back injuries. I would fake migraine headaches. I had eight doctors going at the same time," Perry told The New York Times. All that effort, he clarified, was simply to avoid the pain of withdrawal for one more day. "I wasn't doing it to feel high or to feel good," the actor explained.

In addition to lying to physicians, Perry also came up with some even more unorthodox methods to obtain pills. "The weirdest thing I did was on Sundays I would go to open houses and go to the bathrooms ... in the open house and see what pills they had in there and steal them," Perry said.

The way he saw it, he'd never be caught because the notion that one of TV's biggest stars would be ripping off meds from open houses would be too bizarre for his victims to contemplate. "And I think they thought, 'Well, there's no way that Chandler came in and stole from us,'" Perry mused.

Matthew Perry forgot three years of Friends

Matthew Perry's excessive substance use was a continual undercurrent during his decade on "Friends." In fact, his memories of three full years of his time on the sitcom were a little blurry. As he revealed in a 2016 BBC Radio 2 interview, he couldn't remember a big chunk of the series because of his addiction. When asked what his least favorite episode was, Perry didn't mince words. "Oh, my goodness," he said. "I think the answer is, I don't remember three years of it. So none of those ... somewhere between Season 3 and 6."

Perry also told People in 2013 that his struggles during this period were hard to mask: "I couldn't stop. Eventually things got so bad that I couldn't hide it, and then everybody knew." Noting that he never used drugs or consumed alcohol while on set, the actor said, "I was never high at work."

In fact, Perry explained during a 2022 appearance on "The View" that the only thing that helped keep his substance misuse in check was the responsibility he felt to his "Friends" co-stars — at least, during the hours he was on the set — which resulted in his strict rule to never show up to work while under the influence. "I had a deal with myself that I would never drink or take anything while working, and I held up to that deal, but I was insanely hungover doing the work," Perry explained.

Friends reruns reminded him of his addiction

While Chandler Bing was beloved by millions of TV viewers, Matthew Perry admitted that he simply couldn't watch himself on those old "Friends" episodes. "I was taking 55 Vicodin a day, I weighed 128 lbs., I was on 'Friends' getting watched by 30 million people — and that's why I can't watch the show, 'cause I was like brutally thin and being beaten down so badly by the disease," Perry said in an interview with CBC Radio's "Q with Tom Power," explaining that watching reruns was a painful reminder of how his addiction impacted his physical appearance. "... That's why I don't wanna watch it, 'cause that's what I see."

In his memoir "Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing," Perry further explained about how, in hindsight, his ever-changing appearance on the show was a window into the severity of his excessive substance use at various points in the show. "You can track the trajectory for my addiction if you gauge my weight from season to season," he wrote, in an excerpt published by Page Six, revealing that his appearance also offered clues as to which substances he was primarily abusing at different points in the series' run. "When I'm carrying weight, it's alcohol; when I'm skinny, it's pills," Perry wrote. "When I have a goatee, it's lots of pills."

He self-sabotaged his relationship with Julia Roberts

‌Among the many famous women Matthew Perry dated was Julia Roberts, with the two seeing each other for a few months in 1995. Perry recalled in his memoir that the "Pretty Woman" star was offered a role on "Friends" during a special episode set to air following the Super Bowl, which promised to be one of the year's highest-rated broadcasts. She agreed, but with one caveat: that her storyline include Chandler Bing. They hit it off immediately. 

For Perry, dating Roberts proved to be an anxiety-ridden experience, due to his belief that she'd eventually dump him. "Dating Julia Roberts had been too much for me," Perry wrote in "Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing," as excerpted by ET Canada. "I had been constantly certain that she was going to break up with me. Why would she not? I was not enough; I could never be enough; I was broken, bent, unlovable."

So, rather than wait for what that shoe to drop, Perry took matters into his own hands by preemptively calling it quits before she could break up with him. "Instead of facing the inevitable agony of losing her, I broke up with the beautiful and brilliant Julia Roberts," he explained. "She might have considered herself slumming it with a TV guy, and TV guy was now breaking up with her. I can't begin to describe the look of confusion on her face."

His ongoing struggles shut down a movie production

In the midst of "Friends," Matthew Perry — like other members of the cast — capitalized on his TV popularity by embarking on a movie career while still appearing on the show.

In fact, Perry was working on "Friends" when he shot the 2002 rom-com "Serving Sara," in which he co-starred with Elizabeth Hurley. 20 years later, Perry acknowledged the difficulties that his own substance misuse caused for the film. In "Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing," Perry recalled shooting the movie — which was shot in Dallas — and "Friends" at the same time, flying back and forth between Texas and L.A. To cope with a stressful situation that had essentially doubled his workload, he escalated his intake of booze and drugs accordingly — to the point that production on the film had to be paused when he became so messed up he was forced to enter rehab. "During 'Serving Sara' ... the director was pissed off — I'd ruined his movie; Elizabeth Hurley, my costar, was pissed off (she never got to do another movie, either)," he wrote in his memoir (via Vulture).

While Hurley held no grudges, she admitted that shooting "Serving Sara" had been no picnic. "I have very fond memories of him," she told Yahoo! Entertainment in 2022. "To be honest, it was a nightmare working with him at that time and, as it's now known, our movie was shut down because of his addiction." Hurley later added, "But he came back and he was fabulous."

Matthew Perry returned to rehab in 2011

Matthew Perry returned to rehab for a third time in 2011. At the time, he told TMZ he had not relapsed but was simply being proactive. "I'm making plans to go away for a month to focus on my sobriety and to continue my life in recovery," the actor said. "Please enjoy making fun of me on the world wide web."

From there, Perry began striving to advocate for others recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. He subsequently visited Washington, D.C., where he spoke with a Congressional committee to share his support of drug courts, which take on cases for non-violent offenders whose crimes are the result of substance misuse. 

Speaking with lawmakers (above), the actor said, "Drug courts are the single most effective program for curing serious drug addicts for lifelong recovery." Talking to The Hill, Perry added, "Any opportunity I get to talk about drug courts on a one-on-one level or a much bigger level — like testifying in that scary room — I grab at because it's just one of the few things that's a no-brainer: it saves lives, it saves money, it's bipartisan."

He turned his house into a rehab facility

Matthew Perry's work to help others fighting their demons went beyond speaking with lawmakers. He took it a step further and opened his former home to those in need in 2013. 

According to a People magazine interview (via Today), Perry created Perry's House for men seeking a 12-step sobriety and meditation program. He essentially gave up his four-bedroom Malibu home to help others, and the star partnered with interventionist and addiction specialist Earl Hightower to prepare. "Matthew is an ambassador of possibility for a vast group of people," Hightower said. "People he'll never meet will get services because he championed their cause."

Nearly a decade later, Perry opened up about how he hoped he would be remembered, revealing he'd rather be thought of for his work helping others than for his TV stardom. "The best thing about me, bar none, is if somebody comes to me and says, 'I can't stop drinking, can you help me?' I can say 'yes' and follow up and do it," he said during a 2022 interview with CBC Radio's "Q with Tom Power." "... 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 gonna live the rest of my life proving that."

Matthew Perry was forced to sell the rehab facility

Perry's House experienced two years of success, but in 2015, the program hit a bump in the road — and it all had to do with finances. As a result, Matthew Perry sold the 5,500-square-foot home for $10.65 million, noting that it simply cost too much to keep going. "That was a Malibu beach house, and it was too expensive to run and the business didn't really work," Perry explained to The Hollywood Reporter.

But just because the Malibu home wound up not working out, Perry insisted it wasn't over. He shared that he was going to continue running the rehabilitation center once he found a more affordable location. Mentioning that he was looking at places in Santa Monica and Studio City, Perry said, "I'm keeping the business going because I like it; it's a good way to go help alcoholics."

While Perry had vowed to resume the facility at another location, sadly, it never happened; at the time of his death, there had been no plans announced about reopening Perry's House.

He was recognized by the White House

In May 2013, Matthew Perry's efforts — with both Perry's House and his advocacy for the effectiveness of drug courts — resulted in him being awarded the Champion of Recovery Award from the Obama Administration's Office of National Drug Control Policy. When presented the award, Perry was speechless. According to The Hollywood Reporter, he called the honor "surreal," adding, "During my darkest times, I never could of imagined receiving an award at the White House."

In 2015, Perry was given the Phoenix Rising Award by the famed rehab facility Phoenix House. "You can't have a drug problem for 30 years and then expect to have it be solved in 28 days," Perry told The Hollywood Reporter. "At Phoenix House, I was very moved by the hope that I saw there, which is what this is all about. Getting sober is a really hard thing to do."

Ever the comedian, Perry quipped, "I'm an award-winning alcoholic. I shouldn't be getting an award; Phoenix House should be getting an award."

Did no one tell him The Odd Couple was canned?

In April 2017, Matthew Perry tweeted, "My face on the 'Odd Couple' stage door has been painted over with green paint. I think it's safe to assume that we have been cancelled. #subtle." Perry seemed to imply that he was blindsided with the sudden end to his big return to a network sitcom; however, upon closer inspection, it seemed Perry may have either been naive or just plain deceptive.

Co-star Thomas Lennon already spilled the tea to Cinema Blend the month prior, telling the site that the series' ratings weren't so hot. If "The Odd Couple" returned, he said, "No one would be more surprised than me." Before that, TV Line reported in November 2016 that CBS left Season 3 at only 13 episodes, rather than ordering the back-nine to bring it to the more traditional 22-episode run — an ominous clue that apparently flew right over Perry's head.

It sounded like Perry was maybe playing up the role of unsuspecting victim here a little; but still, we admit that a phone call would have been the classier move for CBS.

Matthew Perry's opioid addiction caused near-fatal constipation

In 2018, Matthew Perry's rep issued a statement to ET, confirming that the star had just undergone surgery. "Matthew Perry recently underwent surgery in a Los Angeles hospital to repair a gastrointestinal perforation," said the rep. "He is grateful for the concern and asks for continued privacy as he heals." The following month, Perry tweeted that he'd been hospitalized for three months — which ultimately amounted to five.

What nobody knew at the time was how close to death Perry actually came. "I had been on opiates, and off opiates, and back on different opiates for so long that I suffered from a situation that only a subset of the population gets," Perry, who'd checked into a sober living facility at the time, wrote in his "Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing" memoir, per E! News. Explaining that his colon "exploded" in connection to his longtime drug addiction, Perry noted, "Opiates cause constipation." He ultimately underwent over a dozen surgeries, was forced to use a colostomy bag for nine months, and spent two weeks in a coma. "It's kind of poetic," the actor wrote. "I was so full of s*** it almost killed me."

While Perry could joke about it after the fact, his prognosis at the time was dire. "The doctors told my family that I had a 2% chance to live," he told People. "I was put on a thing called an ECMO machine, which does all the breathing for your heart and your lungs. And that's called a Hail Mary. No one survives that."

He dropped out of an Oscar-nominated film due to a medical emergency

Back in 2020, Matthew Perry had been cast in the Netflix movie "Don't Look Up" as part of an all-star cast including Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Jennifer Lawrence. In "Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing," Perry recalled being in a treatment center in Switzerland around this time, where he was awaiting surgery. As he wrote, he lied to doctors about his symptoms in order to procure a prescription for hydrocodone, an opioid-based painkiller. What he hadn't factored in was that he'd be given the anesthetic propofol for that surgery. When the two medications combined, the result nearly cost him his life. 

"I was given the shot at 11 a.m.," Perry wrote, as excerpted by E! News. "I woke up 11 hours later in a different hospital. Apparently, the propofol had stopped my heart. For five minutes." According to Perry, it may have been his celebrity status that wound up saving his life. "I was told that some beefy Swiss guy really didn't want the guy from 'Friends' dying on his table and did CPR on me for the full five minutes, beating and pounding my chest. If I hadn't been on 'Friends,' would he have stopped at three minutes? Did 'Friends' save my life again?" 

Unfortunately, Perry was forced him to drop out of the film, because all that CPR broke eight of his ribs. "Don't Look Up" was ultimately nominated for four Oscars.

Matthew Perry's front teeth fell out right before the Friends reunion

When Matthew Perry reunited with his five co-stars in 2021 for the long-awaited and much ballyhooed "Friends" reunion, viewers couldn't help notice that Perry appeared to slur his words when speaking. This led to speculation that Perry, who had claimed to be sober at that time, had possibly fallen off the wagon yet again. 

During his interview with Diane Sawyer the following year, Perry revealed the real reason for his slurred speech. "A couple of days before [the 'Friends' reunion], I had an emergency dental surgery," he said, as reported by Marca. "It made my mouth feel like fire. They did all sorts of things. So, it sounded like my voice was off. I knew I couldn't not show up. So what I chose to do was just go and do the best that I could."

In a subsequent interview with GQ, Perry revealed the sad reason why he was forced to have that surgery: when he bit into a piece of toast with peanut butter, all of his front teeth fell out.

The beloved actor remained committed to helping others

Despite a personal life filled with numerous ups and downs, during the years that ended up becoming the final ones of his life, Matthew Perry continued to transform his troubles into a positive purpose. Throughout it all, in fact, he continued to maintain his commitment to helping others who were going through the issues that he had.

"My life has a lot more meaning now that I try to help people," Perry told The Hill back in 2013. "It's also a selfish thing — it makes you feel better than anything else will." No matter what, Perry always seemed to embrace a glass-half-full perspective. "I've had a lot of ups and downs in my life and a lot of wonderful accolades," he later told The Hollywood Reporter, "but the best thing about me is that if an alcoholic comes up to me and says, 'Will you help me stop drinking?' I will say, 'Yes. I know how to do that.'"

Matthew Perry spent half his life and millions on treatment

It was while recording the audiobook for his memoir that Matthew Perry experienced an epiphany. While reading "Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing" aloud, he thought to himself, "Oh my God, what a terrible life this person has had!" Then it suddenly dawned on him. "Wait a minute, it's me! I'm talking about me," he recalled during an interview with The New York Times.

After writing the book, Perry noted that by the time he'd turned 50, he'd spent half his life in treatment facilities or sober-living homes. He'd also attended more than 6,000 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, detoxed 65 times, and entered rehab on 15 separate occasions. Attempting to free himself from addiction, Perry admitted, had cost him a lot of money. "I've probably spent $9 million or something trying to get sober," he told the Times.

However, Perry eventually felt as if he'd finally emerged from the dark tunnel, in which he'd spent much of his life, after attaining sobriety. "I'm an extremely grateful guy," the late actor told People in 2022. "I'm grateful to be alive, that's for sure. And that gives me the possibility to do anything."

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).