Matthew Perry wanted to be remembered for fighting addiction

Matthew Perry made a million dollars a week starring in a network sitcom that morphed into a cultural phenomenon - all while he was admittedly drowning in addiction that he fought most of his life.

So when Perry appeared on BBC's "Newsnight" to discuss drug laws and addiction in 2013, the "Friends" star was livid when panelist Peter Hitchens, a conservative British columnist and anti-drug campaigner, declared that medical profession's designation of addiction as a disease was nothing but a "fantasy." Perry, who had supported drug courts and championed recovery in the years after he struggled with addiction, responded that the pain he suffered was not a fantasy and not by choice.

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"You don't know what you're talking about," Perry said to him. The comic actor later added, "You are making a point that is as ludicrous as saying Peter Pan is real."

Perry wasn't done with Hitchens, who continued to push the claim that drug addiction wasn't real. He referred to the columnist as "Santa," which got a laugh out of the other panelists, and urged him to do more research.

"Read something other than your book," Perry said, referring to Hitchens's 2012 book, "The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment's Surrender to Drugs."

The moment captured much of Perry's life after "Friends," focusing his latter years helping those struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. He became a spokesman for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals and was awarded the Champion of Recovery Award by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in 2013.

"Best thing about me, bar none, is if somebody comes up to me and says, 'I can't stop drinking, can you help me?' I can say, 'Yes,' and follow up and do it. That's the best thing," Perry said at a November 2022 event in Toronto, in promotion of his memoir. "I've said this for a long time: 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 going to live the rest of my life proving that."

Perry, who was known for playing the sarcastic, boyishly charming and tightly wound Chandler Bing in "Friends," was found dead Saturday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 54.

A witness discovered Perry unresponsive in his hot tub, Capt. Kelly Muniz of the Los Angeles police said in a statement. The Los Angeles City Fire Department responded and pronounced Perry dead at the scene, she said, adding that detectives from the LAPD's robbery-homicide division investigated and found "no obvious signs of trauma." Determination of an official cause of death is pending a coroner's investigation, Muniz said.

As tributes have poured in from around the world, many have thanked Perry for talking about his addiction and the pain that came with it. Among those was Adele, who recently announced that she had quit drinking.

"He was so open with his struggles with addiction and sobriety, which I think is incredibly, incredibly brave," the singer said during her Saturday show in Las Vegas. "I just want to say how much I love what he did for us, especially what he did for me . . . and hopefully now he can rest in peace."

Perry's story of addiction was a central theme in his New York Times-best-selling memoir, "Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing." In the decades after "Friends" changed his life, Perry said he didn't watch the show because he could tell what substance he was abusing when he was bringing laughter and joy to a worldwide audience.

"I could go, 'Drinking. Opiates. Drinking. Cocaine.' I could tell season-by-season by how I looked. And I don't think anybody else can, but I certainly could," Perry said in Toronto last year. "And that's why I don't want to watch it, because that's what I see."

In an interview with The Washington Post last year, Perry shared that he ingested 55 Vicodin a day and dropped to 128 pounds during Season 3 of "Friends" around 1997. At his heaviest, he was 100 pounds heavier due to him downing a quart of vodka a day. Perry said he abused drugs and alcohol every year of the "Friends" decade except Season 9, which, he noted, was "the only one where I was nominated for an Emmy."

"Sometimes I think I went through the addiction, alcoholism and fame all to be doing what I'm doing right now, which is helping people," he told The Post last year.

In December 2013, Perry was invited on BBC's "Newsnight" to debate specialist drug courts, which feature former addicts sitting as magistrates so that they could offer a more informed judgment on nonviolent addicts involved in abuse-related offenses.

"I know that they work," he said of drug courts, pointing to research showing how people who went through the program had better odds at not being arrested again.

Hitchens, the brother of the late Christopher Hitchens and an opponent of same-sex marriage, claimed that the medical profession got it wrong when addiction was designated as a disease. The American Medical Association and other medical organizations classified addiction as a disease in 1987.

"The medical profession is constantly doing extraordinary things," Peter Hitchens said at the time. "The American Psychiatric Association said for years homosexuality was a disease - they were wrong."

Both Perry and Baroness Meacher, an advocate for drug-policy reform who was on the panel, were appalled by Hitchens's views on addiction. Perry noted on the show: "I'm a drug addict. My life is, 'If I have a drink, I can't stop.' And so it would be following your ideology that I'm choosing to do that."

He also questioned Hitchens's views on addiction and his book: "Your book is the only book in modern times that has this ideology, so doesn't that teach you something?"

After Perry called Hitchens "Santa," the conservative columnist accused the actor of treating a "very serious subject" with "immense levity." Toward the end of the segment, Meacher denounced Hitchens's remarks toward addiction as "simply not true" and pleaded with him to read the evidence. At that point, Perry advised Hitchens to read something other than his book, which made Meacher and host Jeremy Paxman laugh.

The segment was so contentious that a "Newsnight" editor posted how he had a producer escort the guests out through different exits.

The actor later described Hitchens in his memoir as "a complete tool" who sounded "like some insane great-aunt who'd had one too many glasses of sherry." Hours after Perry's death was announced, Hitchens, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, shared one of his 2017 articles with the headline, "The Fantasy of Addiction." The image includes a screenshot of Perry from the 2013 segment.

Years after the segment, Perry was proud of the work he had done at the Perry House, a rehab center in his former mansion in Malibu, Calif. He would later acknowledge that he could finally watch himself play Chandler Bing, even knowing the pain he went through at the time.

"I would watch that again. I've been too worried about this," he said in Toronto. "And I want to watch 'Friends,' too."

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Karen Heller contributed to this report.

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