Friends star Matt LeBlanc tries mass-appeal sitcom again

Matt LeBlanc plays father to (above, from left) Hala Finley, Matthew McCann and Grace Kaufman.
Matt LeBlanc plays father to (above, from left) Hala Finley, Matthew McCann and Grace Kaufman.PHOTO: RTL CBS ENTERTAINMENT

Matt LeBlanc headlines another sitcom with mass appeal - about a father who looks after his children while his wife works

On the hit sitcom, Friends (1994-2004), Matt LeBlanc was often written off as the cast member least likely to succeed once the show ended - a result, perhaps, of being confused with his dim-witted character, Joey Tribbiani.

In person, the star is a lot sharper than his on-screen persona might suggest, answering questions at a recent Los Angeles press event for his new sitcom, Man With A Plan, with a quick wit and self-deprecating charm.

Yet, the actor admits that he, too, had moments of doubt about his career prospects after Friends - especially after his Friends spin-off series, Joey (2004-2006), tanked, a failure that he said put him off acting for years.

"I had a conversation with my agent, saying, 'Let me just take a year off.' And then, I took another one and another one and another one. And then, I was just, like, 'I don't know if I want to go back to work,'" says LeBlanc, 49.

The hardest thing about being a dad sometimes is patience. You have to really dig deep to find it - you find yourself being short with them and kids are brutally honest, so if you hurt their feelings, they don't hide that. And you feel bad.

ACTOR MATT LEBLANC

He would end up taking a six-year hiatus, mostly "to just spend time being a dad" to his 12-year-old daughter with his ex-wife, former model Melissa McKnight, 51.

"I was in a really fortunate position - I had enough money that I didn't have to go to work. I could retire," says the actor, who at the height of Friends' popularity, was earning US$1 million an episode.

The break ended when he got a call from Friends co-creator David Crane and his partner Jeffrey Klarik, who had an intriguing proposal: They wanted LeBlanc to play a version of himself on a new British-American series called Episodes, which would poke fun at Hollywood and play with the perception of him as a sort of shallow, womanising, Joey-like figure in real life.

It did not take much convincing to get him on board - "I just had so much faith in them as writers", he says.

That faith turned out to be well-placed: Episodes was a hit, winning LeBlanc the 2012 Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy, along with four Emmy nominations. It was arguably a bigger critical success than anything achieved by fellow Friends alumni Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow and David Schwimmer.

Episodes - which debuted in 2011 and airs its fifth and final season next year - "re-whet my whistle for work", says the actor, and this is why he decided to take on Man With A Plan, another shot at headlining a Friends or Joey-type sitcom - something with mass appeal and filmed with multiple cameras in front of a live audience.

Man With A Plan debuts in Singapore on Friday. LeBlanc plays a father who has to take on a bigger role raising his three children when his wife goes back to work.

The star says the show is not quite a gender reversal of the kind seen in the 1983 Michael Keaton comedy, Mr Mom, but rather a humorous look at a couple trying to "navigate this new dynamic in our relationship, with kind of a fish-out-of-water thing for me - dealing with the teachers and the other parents at school, which is not really my comfort zone - and also a fish-out-of- water thing for my wife, being back in the workplace after 13 years".

LeBlanc - who also has a stepson, 25, and step-daughter, 21, from his marriage to McKnight - says he can easily relate to the challenges facing his character.

"The hardest thing about being a dad sometimes is patience. You have to really dig deep to find it - you find yourself being short with them and kids are brutally honest, so if you hurt their feelings, they don't hide that. And you feel bad.

"They are young for such a small period of time," he says wistfully. "They grow up so fast. I am forever buying shoes. It seems like their feet just won't stop growing. I don't understand it."

LeBlanc is also signed on to another show. He is the co-host of the popular BBC motoring series, Top Gear.

Despite a shaky start with the show - which saw ratings dip in Britain, followed by the unceremonious departure of co-host Chris Evans, who reportedly did not get along with LeBlanc - he confirms that he will pick up his hosting duties when Top Gear returns next year.

The lifelong car enthusiast says: "There's nothing I love more than an engine. And it doesn't need to be a fast car. I can appreciate anything. My dad was a mechanic and I was that kid who used to take stuff apart.

"So, yes, it's fun. And it's a bit of a travel show, too - I have seen parts of the world that you wouldn't necessarily say, 'I would like to go there for a week.' But to go with a TV show and on someone else's budget is great."

He is diplomatically silent on the reasons for Evans' departure, but suggests that things are looking up now that the British host has exited.

"Alex Renton, who is one of the producers on the show, is a smart guy and the right guy to be in charge of the show. And I think, moving forward, he does have creative control of the show now that Chris has left."

•Man With A Plan debuts in Singapore on Friday on RTL CBS Entertainment (StarHub TV Channel 509, Singtel TV Channel 318) at 9pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2016, with the headline 'Friends star is back as a dad to three kids'. Print Edition | Subscribe