BOSTON •There was a surreal decade, starting in 1994, when fans confused Matt LeBlanc with his Friends alter ego Joey Tribbiani: a flailing actor with voracious appetites who was also kind of dumb.
So when David Crane, a creator of the hit television show (1994-2004), and his partner Jeffrey Klarik pitched a new series, Episodes, to LeBlanc several years later, he was initially concerned.
They wanted him to play a character named Matt LeBlanc - like himself, only a jerk.
"I was like: 'I'm playing myself? I don't know what that means. How close to the real me?'" he recalled.
"I wasn't sure just how damaged he was going to be." (Apparently not too damaged to earn four Emmy nominations and win a Golden Globe in 2012.)
Episodes, whose fifth and final season began yesterday on Showtime, follows a couple of British TV writers (played by Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan) whose award-winning sitcom about the headmaster of an elite boys' school is given the Hollywood treatment - including a starring role for LeBlanc, 50.
And in no time, their erudite comedy is as dumbed-down and tattered as an overused CliffsNotes study guide.
In a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where he lives when not shooting BBC's Top Gear in London, a mellow LeBlanc chatted about his life - the real version - while soaking up the sun on a hotel patio.
These are edited excerpts.
After Friends ended in 2004 and then its spin-off, Joey, in 2006, you did not work for nearly five years.
I was tired and I had gone through a divorce. I was going to take a year off and then I had such a good time not doing anything that I was like, "You know what? I'm going to do that again and again and again and again."
And then David and Jeffrey pitched Episodes.
Playing an occasionally unflattering version of yourself must have seemed rather daunting.
I've known David and Jeffrey since Friends so I trusted them implicitly. I was able to commit very readily to whatever the story was, whatever the joke was, whatever the scene needed. I knew that they would look out for me and not throw me under the bus.
Your character's ample endowment has fuelled quite a few jokes and this season begins on a hilariously raunchy note. Did you ever feel the need to draw the line?
There was only one joke in the whole five seasons that I wasn't comfortable with and I asked them to leave it out.
Then, as time went on, I would pitch things to them that they said were too gross: "We can't do that!"
Was there anything freeing about playing the fictional Matt?
It was a similar thing with Joey Tribbiani. There are no rules. It was kind of like the sky is the limit with this character.
He just wasn't worried about the consequences of his actions. He was like a child in a sense.
Have you finally escaped Friends?
I'm very proud of that show. I don't feel the need to put it behind me. And I don't think any of us will ever be able to escape it.
But I also don't see why we should try to. That's something that new generations discover every year and it's on all the time all over the world and it makes people laugh and it's brought people a lot of joy.
You have a 13-year-old daughter, Marina. Has she discovered it?
She has watched it here and there, but I think she sees enough of me. I don't think she wants to watch me on TV.
As a host of Top Gear, you've zoomed around in a Ferrari 812 Superfast and a Porsche Panamera Gran Turismo. What do you drive in real life?
I'm a Porsche 911 guy. I have a little collection going accidentally. Some new ones, some old ones, some not-so-old ones.
The perfect car wardrobe for a man who just turned 50. How is it reaching that milestone?
I've found myself looking at my life and thinking that it's time to maybe slow down a little bit and smell the roses.
So I'll let these shows play out and see. And then I don't know that I'll do anything else. I might just fade off into the distance.