How Matthew Perry Saved NBC’s 1996 Upfront Presentation, as Told by Former Network Boss Warren Littlefield

Matthew Perry will most often be remembered for his wit and charm, but there was so much more to him.

The pilot script of “Friends” had a lot of heat at the agencies and young actors both familiar and fresh were vying for the roles.

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There was interest and momentum for Craig Bierko to play the role of Chandler Bing, and until Craig said he wasn’t interested, Matthew stayed in the background because he didn’t want to compete with his friend. Who says show business has to be cut throat?

Once we saw and heard Matthew’s audition we knew that our prayers had been answered. The role we had struggled mightily with throughout the casting process was now cast. Or was it? We couldn’t have Matthew in first position because he’d made a sci-fi pilot for Fox called “LAX 2194” about baggage handlers in the future. Would we bet against that? We would, and we did.

The “Friends” pilot that tested as a “high weak” would, as Season 1 continued, show itself to be a hit. Week in and week out, Matthew would reveal just how gifted he was comedically. During their process, as each scene was scrutinized by the writers, producers, and the director, they always benefited from Matthew’s contributions and instincts.

In Season 2, “Friends” would anchor Thursday night at 8 p.m. on NBC, and stay there for its entire network run. At the fall upfront advertiser presentation in May 1996, with $2 billion riding on that event, a crisis hit. Due to an electrical failure, the presentation stopped. Eventually, we learned that a curling iron overheated and short circuited most of our power. I panicked. But then, with that unbelievably great smile accompanied by his then quite famous wit and charm, out walked Matthew from backstage and proceeded to entertain the audience. He winked and gave me a look to say, “I’ve got this boss.” Forget our new fall programs, that was the most memorably entertaining part of the presentation. No one asked Matthew to do that job – he just saw what was unfolding and jumped in. That was Matthew.

But with great success came complications for Matthew. Still fairly early on in the life of the series it was clear he needed help, and he entered rehab. There were many programs to choose from, but Matthew chose a particularly tough program in a distant city, one that didn’t cater to being rich or famous.

The choice was surprising, but he believed putting in the hard work was what he needed. From his book, and his openness to talk about it, we know that the next decades of his life would contain many visits to rehab. He wasn’t ashamed of that. It was what it was.

Matthew’s post “Friends” career included a memorable arc on “The West Wing” and starring in “Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip.” In each he used his famous quick wit and repartee, but also revealed the rich texture and layers of his dramatic skills. There was so much in his tank.

For me, like so many millions of people throughout the world, the joy of “Friends” is watching it over and over like a therapeutic balm at the end of a long day. Seeing the bond of that family and feeling the love that it delivers will always be there for us all.

We can only guess what the next chapters in life and career would have been like for Matthew, but we do know that honesty and giving back would have played a prominent role.

We celebrate you Matthew, and we miss you.

Emmy-winning producer Warren Littlefield (“Fargo,” “The Handmaid’s Tale”) gave the greenlight to “Friends” during his 1990-1998 tenure as NBC Entertainment president.

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