Matthew Perry: Odd Couple character is not Chandler

No matter what other roles Matthew Perry takes on, to audiences, he is still Chandler from the popular TV series

He knows it is coming and you can almost see the exact second Matthew Perry's brain registers that someone is going to ask him - once again - about Friends.

That sitcom about the lives and loves of six New Yorkers was a smash hit from 1994 to 2004 and it made Perry and the rest of the cast - Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, Courteney Cox, Matt LeBlanc and David Schwimmer - the biggest names on television.

The downside is, in the decade since the final episode, the less successful of them have had to live in a sort of professional purgatory, the kind reserved for one-hit wonders who seem both blessed and cursed by their former glory, which no one will ever stop asking them about.

Perry, 45, whose sardonic alter ego Chandler had some of the best lines on the show, has arguably been the unluckiest Friend, his career sputtering from one disappointment to another. It is the elephant in the room at a recent press event as he tries to steer the conversation towards his latest TV offering, The Odd Couple.

A remake of the Emmy-winning 1970s TV series, hit 1960s film and Broadway play of the same name, the sitcom casts Perry as the slovenly Oscar, who finds himself sharing an apartment with his neat-freak friend Felix (Thomas Lennon) after both their marriages fall apart. It debuts in Singapore tomorrow on RTL CBS Entertainment HD (StarHub TV Channel 509 and Singtel TV Channel 318).

At a press event in Los Angeles, it is obvious that Perry has come to expect the Friends questions. But it does not stop a flicker of exasperation from flitting across his face when, after the press has spent a few minutes dutifully asking about the new show, one reporter finally cracks and invokes the F word.

"This is for Matthew," she says. "I'm sure you never get tired of addressing this issue…"

"Noooo," he says sarcastically before she can even finish her sentence.

What follows are two questions that have been directed at the Friends cast ad nauseam for almost a decade: Is the long-rumoured Friends' reunion episode in the works and does he still keep in touch with the other actors?

"I definitely hang out with them from time to time and there's no talk of a reunion at all," he replies, polite but curt.

After a brief respite, the onslaught continues, this time with a query about whether people expected his Friends' roommate LeBlanc to be his roommate on The Odd Couple too, and a request to contrast the slobby, sports-obsessed Oscar with Chandler.

Perry says: "When people heard I was doing The Odd Couple, they thought I'd play Felix... because Chandler was more of a Felix-type character.

"And then once they see this show, they realise, oh, of course, he's an Oscar and that's what I am."

He seems resigned to the fact that people may never be able to stop seeing him as Chandler, even though each of his roles since has been an attempt to break away from that. "I think when you are on a show for as long as I was, people do have a certain expectation and it's your job to sort of go away from that a little bit. And this character of Oscar is very different from Chandler," he says.

Even if that is true, it may not help. Like most of the Friends cast, he has not established a screen persona that departs significantly from his character on the show, which, thanks to syndication, continues to feature on TV schedules across the world.

But playing into or off their Friends' archetypes has seemed to worked well for Cox and Aniston. Cox has gotten away with recycling her neurotic character Monica in her ongoing sitcom Cougar Town and the Scream slasher movies (1996-2011). Aniston has channelled the all-American Rachel in big-screen comedies such as The Switch (2010), then subverted it in the Horrible Bosses films (2011 and 2014).

Perry has not fared so well. Each of his TV projects since 2004 has been a shortlived flop, cancelled after poor ratings and middling reviews. There was the comedy-drama Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (2006-2007), where he played a character based on show creator Aaron Sorkin, and the sitcoms Mr Sunshine (2011) - which Perry created and co-wrote - and Go On (2012).

His film career has not gone anywhere either. Fools Rush In, the 1997 romantic comedy with Salma Hayek, fell flat, as did 17 Again, a 2009 bodyswopping comedy with Zac Efron.

Perry did earn an Emmy and a Golden Globe nomination for the well-reviewed 2006 TV biopic The Ron Clark Story, playing a small-town teacher who tries to help a class of minority students in New York.

On the personal front, it has been up and down as well for him. His marriage to actress Lizzy Caplan ended three years ago.

His addiction to pills and alcohol, along with his stints in rehabilitation, has been meticulously documented by the paparazzi, which has also delighted in charting his fluctuating weight.

Still, he appears to have kept his sense of humour about it all.

When a reporter remarks that he looks in good shape and asks for details of his fitness regimen, he responds: "Oh, thank you. I just removed all pleasure from my life."

Professionally, he is not giving up either. The Odd Couple is very much his baby - not only does he star in it, but he also serves as an executive producer and writer.

He says he was such a "big fan" of the acclaimed 1968 film with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau that he knows it "by heart".

He says: "I was so familiar with the movie that when I co-wrote the pilot, it was difficult not to put every line from the film in the script. One of the biggest laughs in our first episode is a line directly from the movie."

Getting to play Oscar Madison is "a dream come true", he says, adding that the show is meant to be a throwback to "those great comedies in the 1980s and 1990s - it's just a straight sitcom that is funny, rather than groundbreaking".

In that sense, it will not be dissimilar to the formula that underpinned Friends and he acknowledges that.

"Yeah, I tried for the last 10 years to do something different - to do a drama and then do a one-camera comedy. Then I realised the sitcom lifestyle and having an audience are just so much fun. I missed it," he says.

stlife@sph.com.sg

The Odd Couple debuts on RTL CBS Entertainment HD (StarHub TV Channel 509 and Singtel TV Channel 318) tomorrow at 9.55pm.