Matt Le Blanc

Perhaps it’s the pain that blurs and distorts Matt Le Blanc’s appearance. Perhaps it’s the painkillers. Either way, he’s pretty much unrecognisable as he slouches into the dimly lit bar in Beverly Hills. No big entrance, no swagger, no boyish grin in camera-conscious three-quarter profile. Instead, that firm jaw-line is diffused by a week’s stubble, and the leather jacket he’s wearing makes his shoulders look rounded, his physique stocky. I squint uncertainly and give him one of those vague hand signals that can be turned into a stretch and a yawn if identity proves mistaken. He sits down at my table, orders a Stoli with soda and lime, sinks it and signals the waiter over for a second one. He’s just come from the gym, he explains in a voice so soft and low against the background chatter, I have to lip-read to get the gist. He dislocated his shoulder while doing laterals. ‘If you move a millimetre, it kills you,’ he mouths slowly. ‘The pain is so bad you get light-headed.’

It’s the eighth time this has happened since his shoulder bone first parted company with its socket during a rehearsal for Friends. Matthew Perry collided with Matt Le Blanc when – as Chandler and Joey – they were racing to occupy the same chair. For the following half a dozen episodes, while Le Blanc was in a sling, the injury had to be incorporated into the script.

At first, as we sit and talk, the actor is subdued and earnest, fixing me unblinkingly with eyes that seem 96 per cent pupil, four per cent iris. This keeps distracting my eyes from their lip-reading duties and, as a consequence, our conversation becomes stilted. The thought bubbles above Le Blanc’s head are reading: ‘Jeez…stuck with…goddam English stuffed shirt…keeps looking from my eyes to my mouth like a moron…’

He orders another vodka. Along with the five Advils he’s already taken, this relaxes him enough to bare a broad smile that features teeth so impossibly white and even I find myself involuntarily covering my own mouth with my hand as I smile back. To compound this, I’m veering between feelings of paranoia that I’m the dullest person he’s ever met, and, as I get better at deciphering his mumbled words, mounting panic that it might be the other way round.

Without the sharp, deadpan one-liners the Friends scriptwriters put into his mouth, Le Blanc has all the social buoyancy and grace of a seal out of water. Still cute, still in possession of the big, sleepy brown eyes but now clumsy and inelegant with it. I order another beer. Telepathically, we have agreed that the best way for both of us to survive this evening is to get steadily drunk.

Later at the restaurant, we are led to a table in the middle of the room and Le Blanc requests that we be moved to one in the corner where he can have his back to the other diners. ‘I used to enjoy eating out,’ he says, and then loses the train of thought. He munches on a bread stick and furrows his brow as he studies the menu for about 40 minutes. ‘Yeah, I used to enjoy people-watching,’ he says, suddenly returning to his subject and making me jump. ‘Now I can’t do that any more because people just end up watching me, do you know what I mean?’

I’m about to tell him I know exactly what he means because, the previous year, I had sat a few tables away from him and the rest of the cast from Friends, in a restaurant not far from here and – ha ha ha – I hadn’t been able to take my eyes off them. Luckily I don’t get the chance before he adds, ‘And I hate that. No, I don’t hate that, because it has made me financially comfortable. New house and car for mom and a new smile on my face. It’s made me feel like Elvis.’ He says that he is not very good at ‘this whole celebrity thing’. You can see why: jealous men are want to approach him in bars and punch him for no reason. And he is constantly harassed by predatory women. ‘It’s not that it makes you feel vulnerable. Just unreal. Being stared at all the time. There was this one girl, 13 or 14-years-old, and she just gaped at me, then started shaking. I freaked out because I didn’t know what to do. I felt really guilty because it was like she was so overwhelmed she didn’t know how to react. The trouble is, people have an imaginary relationship with you, especially when they see you on television. It’s more intimate than the cinema. You see in their house and often they are watching you in bed, you know?’

Although in recent years Matt Le Blanc’s name has been romantically linked with his manager, Camile Cerio, Goldie Hawn’s then 16-year-old daughter, Kate Hudson; porn star Jenn Jameson; Playboy model Tonya Poole; Minnie Driver; Jennifer Aniston and Amanda de Cadenet, the actor doesn’t have a steady girlfriend at the moment. ‘Now I’m 30, though, I suppose I’m thinking about marriage,’ he says. ‘Sometimes I think, yeah, that’s what I want – but you can’t look for it. It’s got to find you. I saw this girl one time on the freeway and she saw me and we both pulled over and ended up going out for a year.’

Not all his assignations are so charming. When dining at a Hollywood restaurant with some caddish companions, he took a female admirer off to the washroom after being introduced to her just 15 minutes earlier. He came back to his table grinning and soaking up the laddish applause and then all but ignored his latest conquest for the rest of the evening before leaving without saying goodbye to her.

‘It’s difficult with girlfriends,’ he says ploddingly, in his barely audible bass, ‘because I will go to a premiere and when I get home she asks, “What’s the matter?” and I say, “I just signed a hundred autographs” and she doesn’t know how I feel about that. That’s why a lot of actors end up going out with actresses. I don’t know what she wants me to say, “I’m a freak?” My shoulder hurts, I feel mortal. Yet I have people screaming at me and I think, “What’s real and what’s not real?”’

A fine example of this state of unreality could be witnessed on a visit he made to London in April. He was with the cast of Friends, filming an hour-long special which included a chance meeting with the Duchess of York. Friends-mania ensued, with British fans following the cast everywhere, waiting at the airport, and camping outside their hotel.

Refreshingly, Le Blanc is under no illusion that he is adored by his female fans simply for his acting ability. His foppish black hair, bee-strung lips and wing-mirror cheekbones also enter into the equation. Much to his chagrin, the same features seem to appeal to men, too – which is why this high-testosterone, all-American heterosexual has become a gay icon. A photo of him even appeared on the cover of Spartacus: International Gay Guide for Men. He went to court to stop further copies being printed. It has since become a collector’s item.

This said, there is no denying his gifts as a comic actor. His timing and delivery are good. But his theorising about them is less so. In an eerie echo of the sort of cool and opaque self-analysis you would associate with his new best friend the Dunchess of York, he says of his acting technique that it’s really just a matter of thinking of himself as a dozen eggs. To do Friends he takes eggs two, four, six and eight. To do something different, maybe he would use eggs one, three, seven, nine and twelve.

Presumably for his first starring role in a $90 million Hollywood film, he has utilised eggs five, ten and eleven. In Lost in Space, which opens this summer and co-stars William Hurt, he plays the hero, a clever, ruthless engineer who saves the spaceship from the on-board psychopath, played by Gary Oldman. He says that he is surprised to find himself being cast in such a major film, alongside such distinguished actors, but he can at least relate to Gary Oldman in terms of his wild, hard-drinking life as well as the hardship of his upbringing. Matt Le Blanc was an only child brought up by his divorced mother, Pat Grossman, who worked in a factory making circuit boards. The young Matt knew that his father had gone to Vietnam but had been too frightened to ask his mother whether or not he had been killed there – because she made it clear she did not want to talk about him. ‘Ours was a blue-collar, Italian-American household in Newton, Massachusetts,’ he says. ‘I met my father when I was eight. Ran down the stairs and there was this guy wearing army fatigues with long hair. He looked like Jesus Christ and I could see Le Blanc on his shirt. But he never came home to stay and my mother remarried. Am I in touch with him? Yes and no. It’s a sore issue though, and I don’t really want to talk about it. The way I am is because of my mom, not my dad. She was there always, always, always.’

Le Blanc’s first job was a paper round, then he stacked shelves in a convenience store and worked in a burger bar. He had, he says, no real ambitions. He enrolled on a construction and technology course only to drop out of it soon after. He never studied at drama school but was spotted one day in the street by a woman and asked to try modelling. This lead to him appearing in a series of high-profile TV commercials for Heinz ketchup, Coca Cola and, most notably, as the Levi’s 501 man. His attempts to get into acting were less smooth. He spent a year in New York looking for work and even had to sell his furniture to pay for food. ‘I kept looking at other actors and saying, ‘What’s he got that I ain’t got? Some fancy drama-school diploma? I know I will never be the best actor in the world. But then, I don’t see it as a race to the top.’ Eventually he landed some small parts in soaps and sitcoms, and then in 1994 came the big one, Friends, which soon went to number one in the ratings in Britain and America.

While most American television comedies are pitiful and cringe-making, over the years a handful have been outstandingly well-honed: M+A+S+H, Taxi, Cheers and Frasier. Friends, with its crisp metropolitan humour, is in this category. And as the self-obsessed, dim-witted but amiable womaniser Joey Trebbiani, Matt le Blanc gets some corking lines. ‘Do you know what blows my mind?’ he’ll muse. ‘Women can see their breasts any time they want. How they get any work done is beyond me.’ Or when giving advice on dating he will say, ‘Why do you have to break up with her? Be a man and just stop phoning.’

In terms of delivery, of course, it helps that in real life Matt Le Blanc himself seems to be a self-obsessed, dim-witted but amiable womaniser. I had heard reports of his reputation as being the moody one among the cast of Friends and of his prima donna-ish behaviour, but there is none of that this evening, and when the conversation turns to his favourite pastime – snowboarding – he seems positively animated. Any dangerous sport will do, in fact. He collects fast cars and motorbikes and says, ‘I’m an adrenaline junkie. Love speed. I ski-dived – ski-dove? – as well. It’s like banging your head against a wall just because it feels so good when you stop.’ He pauses, ‘God, I’ve had a brain failure, where was I going with that thought? Oh, here we go; afterwards it’s so life-affirming. ‘Oh man, you think. I’m still alive. Wow!”

The restaurant is on the ground floor of the Four Seasons, the hotel where my wife and I are staying. She has declined my suggestion that she join us for a drink after dinner because she thinks Le Blanc will think that she, like every red-blooded female, must be desperate to meet him – and she does not carry out her threat to approach us at the bar, pretend not to know me, turn her back on Le Blanc and chat me up. We are joined instead after dinner, by a female friend of Le Blanc, who is also a friend of Kirstie Alley, and by one of his snowboarding chums – who has the obligatory permatan, dazzling white teeth and chiselled jaw. A lissom young woman with dyed blond hair and a spray-on skirt approaches and introduces herself to Le Blanc. He says hello rather curtly and then turns back to his friend to continue their analysis of a recent snowboard jump they have done. Another woman, almost identical, approaches and says that she cannot believe it is him and that if she had known he would be here tonight she would have worn more make-up. Ignored she goes away and another, with long black hair this time, approaches, giggles flirtatiously, and says she is called Melody or Misty, or one of those Californian names. She hangs around for a few seconds, ignoring Le Blanc’s peeved expressions, and says that she is sitting at a table in the corner if he fancies company later. Over the next hour or so about half a dozen more long-limbed women do the same thing.

Good grief.

In January, a law was passed in California banning smoking in restaurants and bars. Le Blanc and his chum head for the French windows that lead out on to a garden to have a smoke. Two skeletal pouting blondes appear from nowhere and make for the door with such indecent haste that the fronds on a nearby rubber plant bend over in their slipstream. I watch their body language as they ask Le Blanc for a light. It’s not subtle. I assume that this is the last I will see of the actor. But small talk over, cigarettes stubbed out, he and his friend mosey back over. I ask what he thought of the girls who had followed him out. He shakes his head wearily and sighs, ‘They’re not exactly rocket scientists.’

Well, I suppose by his standards the night is young. They are about to head off to hear a guitarist they know play in a nearby club. Kirstie Alley is going to be there, apparently. I’m welcome to join them, to discuss the latest developments in Space Shuttle heat-shield technology, presumably. I thank them awfully, yawn conspicuously, look at my watch and, like a goddam English stuffed shirt decline.