Fame! Sometimes, Like Matthew Perry, You Don’t Live Forever

David Hinckley
5 min readOct 30, 2023

When we think about celebrities who died way before their natural time, we often focus first on the really young — Selena, Tupac Shakur, Heath Ledger, Notorious B.I.G., the “27 Club” of Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, etc.

We find it a little less jarring, perhaps, when the deceased are younger than they should have been, but have been around long enough to have built a memorable body of work. Michael Jackson, 50. Prince, 57. Whitney Houston, 48. Jerry Garcia, 53. Tammy Wynette, 55.

Now the roll includes Matthew Perry, who was 54 when he died Saturday at his Pacific Palisades estate. Emergency responders reportedly found him in his hot tub, with police saying there was no evidence of drugs or foul play.

The coroner’s report, presumably, will tell us whether medications were involved, or whether he had, perhaps, a heart attack. It’s hard to drown in a hot tub without some abnormal factor involved.

The cause, of course, doesn’t lessen the tragedy. Whatever killed Matthew Perry, he wasn’t supposed to die at 54. He had a comedic talent that made millions of people laugh, most prominently on the iconic sitcom Friends, and he had recently tackled a more somber and ambitious role, becoming the latest celebrity to lay out the hellish effects of drug addiction. In Perry’s case, that was opioids and painkillers (Vicodin, Oxycontin), which he said he met in 1997 after incurring painful injuries in a Jet Ski accident while filming the movie Fools Rush In.

Previously just a social drinker, he said he liked opioids well enough to make them a regular part of his diet. In his best-selling 2022 memoir Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing, he said he didn’t remember much of anything from Friends seasons 3 to 6 (not by coincidence, approximately 1997 to 2000).

In both the book and interviews, Perry painted himself as someone who made Charlie Sheen look grounded, and offered multiple numbers and statistics to reinforce his point. He said he relapsed “60 or 70” times, went to rehab 15 times, attended 6,000 AA meetings and spent $7-$9 million on rehab programs. He said that at one point during the run of Friends, he was taking 55 Vicodin a day and drinking a quart of vodka. When he was hospitalized in 2018 with a perforated colon — a side effect of opioid addiction — he said the doctors gave him a 2% chance to survive. During a 2020 operation, he wrote, his heart stopped for five minutes because he had been taking hydrocodone and that triggered an adverse reaction with the anesthesia drug propofol.

Perry painted himself as a survival superman — until, on Saturday, he wasn’t.

In any case, what’s hard to miss or ignore with Matthew Perry is that he also had another addiction: fame.

“There was steam coming out of my ears, I wanted to be famous so badly,” he told The New York Times in 2002. “You want the attention, you want the bucks, and you want the best seat in the restaurant.”

And when he got it with Friends?

“Friends”: six golden tickets to fame and fortune.

“It’s kind of like Disneyland for a while,” he told the Times. ”For me, it lasted about eight months, this feeling of ‘I’ve made it, I’m thrilled, there’s no problem in the world.’ And then you realize that it doesn’t accomplish anything, it’s certainly not filling any holes in your life.”

Or, based on his Vicodin intake, fixing them.

Now all celebrities who publicly announce they are cleaning up — okay, except maybe Keith Richards — include some version of “Don’t do this, kids.”

The tougher question is whether those young, not-yet-famous people hear it — and, if they do, seeing how Matthew Perry even now was living large, whether they consider the potential reward worth the risk.

There’s a common trope that today’s teens and pre-teens, in the age of Insta, TikTok, etc., almost all dream of growing up to become at least phone-famous, their success and worth neatly measured in followers.

It’s a seductive scenario. You sit in your room with your phone, summon your most clever and witty self, edit, post and within minutes are flooded with likes and admiration — plus maybe, if you rise to “influencer,” cash from a beauty product or skateboard manufacturer.

Whether every teen dreams that dream is trickier to ascertain.

A 2010 survey cited by The Independent in Britain found that the career ambition for 54% of 16-year-olds was to become famous. Three years later The Guardian, also in Britain, cited a BritainThinks survey that found most teenagers expected to work hard at a job that interested them, not get famous.

Back in the U.S.A., the Children’s Digital Media Center at UCLA asked teenagers in 2020 to rank the importance of seven life goals: community feeling, image, benevolence, fame, self-acceptance, financial success, and achievement. In Los Angeles, “fame” led with 40% of the votes. When the Uhls organization asked the same question to kids 9 to 15 across the whole country, “achievement” and “benevolence” finished first and second, with “fame” next to last. Pick your stat.

Truth is, it’s hardly news that many teenagers and pre-teens want to be a star athlete or an actress or a tech wizard, before time and reality redirect them to something more realistic. Mechanic, programmer, accountant, sales associate, doctor, carpenter, teacher, police officer, farmer, conservationist, lots of options.

Matthew Perry said in 2022 that he hoped he would be remembered most for helping people, that is, learning from his mistakes, rather than as Chandler Bing from Friends.

Early returns this weekend say he’s not getting all of that wish, because the world doesn’t work that way and because we love entertainment that makes us happy, which Matthew Perry provided. The fact he also lived a cautionary tale doesn’t reduce his life to a case study. It does remind us that fame and riches, at any age, do not provide an immunity card.

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David Hinckley

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”