Without Gunther, Friends would have been very different

James Michael Tyler – more barista than actor – was recruited from a Hollywood coffee shop

James Michael Tyler, best known for playing Gunther in the TV series Friends, has died of prostate cancer aged 59. Photograph:  Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images

James Michael Tyler, best known for playing Gunther in the TV series Friends, has died of prostate cancer aged 59. Photograph: Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images

 

Friends remains the world’s most beloved sitcom in large part due to the incredible chemistry between its six leads. But across its 10-year run the show also featured a rich ensemble of supporting characters, whether that be Tom Selleck as Monica’s older boyfriend, Elliott Gould as Ross and Monica’s dad or Reese Witherspoon as Rachel’s sister.

There was one B-list character for whom fans always had an especially warm spot, however: sardonic Central Perk barista Gunther, who featured in Friends’ first season and was a regular all the way to its end.

That is why there has been such an outpouring following the death of James Michael Tyler, the actor who played Gunther and became an essential part of the tapestry of Friends.

He has died from prostate cancer at age 59, having been diagnosed in 2018. Gunther appeared in over half Friends’ 236 episodes (and joined by videolink during last summer’s Friends reunion).

Without Gunther Friends would have been very different. He seemed to exist slightly outside the universe of the series, which is perhaps why he complemented the core cast so efficiently. They were glossy-haired and effervescent – the human equivalent of that perky theme tune. He, by contrast, appeared to have wandered in from Seinfeld (or a Beckett production).

As Gunther, Tyler always looked as if he’d been up all night sucking a lemon. And his put-downs of the “Friends” had a real kick – and clashed agreeably with their cutesy in-jokes and slacker irony.

The writers made sure to give him some zinging lines, too. When Phoebe starts dating a guy whose free-and-easy style of pants wearing has everyone spewing in their coffee, he’s the one to tell it like he sees it. “Put the mouse back in the house,” he yells.

He had a long-term crush on Rachel, which could have been creepy – at one point we hear him monologuing about wanting to be her “lover” – yet which Tyler made sweet and innocent. This led to the memorable sequence in which, as Rachel is asked out on a date in front of him, Gunther walks off screen and smashes up up some crockery. Finally, he arrives back and states simply “I dropped a cup”.

Friends was the role of a lifetime for all its cast. But particularly for Tyler, who’d previously struggled to break into acting. He’d been recruited straight from behind the counter at a Hollywood coffee shop, having arrived in Los Angeles from small town Mississippi. In fact it was his talents as a barista rather than as an actor which initially won him the gig.

“I had a job at a coffee shop in Hollywood. I was working just a couple of days a week,” Tyler recalled in a 2010 interview with TV Web. “A friend called me because he knew I knew how to make coffee. There was a coffee house set on ‘this new series that might be pretty good’.

“He called up: ‘would you like to come down as a background performer we’ll give you free meal’. A free meal when you’re a struggling actor is nice. It was right place, right time, with that sort of experience.”

Post-Friends his acting accomplishments were modest (he played himself in Matt LeBlanc’s HBO comedy, Episodes). However, he wasn’t bitter. With time his pride in having been a part of Friends if anything grew more intense.

“It’s timeless, the struggles of these six characters,” he said in 2010. “It’s not of its time. Although Friends was filmed during the 1990s, I believe the situations are universal. And people can relate to that : having these people who are your family, your friends,” he said in 2010.

He added that he was constantly amazed by the enduring popularity of Friends. “The longevity has surprised me honestly. But I will still occasionally be surfing through the channels and say, ‘oh, I love this episode’. I’m a fan of this show although I was on it.”