Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing (7 page)

BOOK: Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing
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And how, pray tell, did you manage to pay such a debt, Mr. Perry, such an onerous debt to the woman who saved your life in one of the most meaningful ways imaginable?

Why, good reader, I paid that debt to Tricia by sleeping with almost every woman in Southern California.

(On one such date back then, with another eighteen-year-old, at one point the woman stopped dinner and said, “Let's go back to your house and have sex.”

Sex still being relatively new to me I agreed right away. We went to my apartment and as we crossed the threshold, she stopped me and said, “Wait wait wait! I can't do this! You have to take me home.”

Which of course I did.

The following day, I felt bothered by what had happened, and already in therapy, I shared the story with my therapist.

“I'm going to tell you a story and it's going to help you,” he said. “When a woman comes over to your place, and she takes her shoes off, you are going to get laid. If she leaves them on, you won't.”

I was eighteen then; I am fifty-two now; and he has been right 100 percent of the time. There have been times I've cheated a little and left a pair of shoes at my doorstep as a kind of hint that this is where the shoes go. But that therapist's insight has been correct every single time—if a woman keeps her shoes on, it's a make-out session at best.)

Years later, Tricia and I would date again, while
Friends
was at its peak. She didn't abandon me, but old fears crept up, and I ended the relationship. I only wish I could truly feel that she didn't abandon me, truly believe that. Maybe things would be better. Maybe vodka tonic wouldn't have become my drink of choice.

Maybe everything would be different. Or maybe, not.

But to Tricia, and those after her, I thank you. And to all the women that I left, simply because I was afraid that they were going to leave me, I deeply apologize from the bottom of my heart. If I only knew then, what I know now.…

INTERLUDE

Matman

“This is the pitch,” I said. “Ya ready?”

Adam said, “Sure! Lay it on me!”

I took a long drag of my Marlboro, pushed the phone closer to my cheek, gave a long exhale of tar and nicotine and pain, and began selling.

“OK,” I said. “It's about this guy. You'd recognize him. His name is Matt and he's about fifty years old. And he's very very famous from doing a super beloved TV show years ago. But now, when the movie starts, we meet him and he's got a pot belly—there are piles of empty pizza boxes in his apartment, all piled up like that totem in
Close Encounters of the Third Kind,
you know, the one they made out of mashed potatoes … anyway, his life is a little bit of a mess. He is lost. Then, out of the blue, a distant relative of his dies and leaves him $2 billion. And he uses the money to become a superhero.”

“I love it!” says Adam.

Then he said, “Did you really inherit two billion dollars?”

Adam's a funny guy.

“No, no!” I said. “It's just the character who inherits the money.
Does any of that spark anything with you? Because if it does, what's our next move? You're the big shoulders.”

“I'm not really the big shoulders,” Adam said, though we both know he is. I appreciated his modesty, but modesty won't get you even a “fuck you” in Hollywood.

“What do you mean?” I said. “Of course you're the big shoulders.…”

This was, after all, Adam McKay, the guy who directed
Anchorman
and
Step Brothers
and a bunch of other big stuff. At the time we were chatting, he was making
Don't Look Up,
that movie about a giant asteroid heading toward Earth, you know, the one that stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Timothée Chalamet, Mark Rylance, Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, Jonah Hill, even Ariana Grande
and
Meryl Streep—amazing cast.

I was in
Don't Look Up
at one point, too, and even though I was also heading to rehab in Switzerland, I nevertheless went to Boston to shoot my bit. While there, I pitched a line to Adam that he loved and which became the blow to the scene, which is what you're always hoping for (he ended up not using the scene—shit happens; no bigs). The point being, Adam McKay and I got along really well, and here he was, loving my pitch.

At the time I was in pain from the scar tissue from the surgeries, so I needed pain meds, but I'd get addicted to them, of course, which would only cause more damage to my insides … but feeling a bit better, I was happy recently when I got a call from Adam. We were just chatting, but in Hollywood there's no such thing as just chatting, so I figured what the hell—why is he calling me? And when he never seemed to get to his point, I seized the moment and I pitched him my idea.

“Anyway, Mr. Big Shoulders,” I said, ignoring his false modesty, “what do you think?”

You know when there's a pause in a conversation that in hindsight
you wish could have lasted forever so you don't have to hear the rest of it?

“I don't think you're talking to the person you think you're talking to,” “Adam” said.

“What? Well, who is this?” I said.

“It's Adam McLean. We met six years ago. I'm a computer salesman.”

If you've seen
Don't Look Up,
you'll know that at the end … well, let's just say that when I realized it was Adam McLean, not Adam McKay, a huge fucking asteroid smacked into my brain.

I have history in this kind of shit, too. Years earlier, Bruce Willis won the People's Choice award for Best Actor for
The Sixth Sense
and asked me to present it to him. That night, backstage, I met Haley Joel Osment and M. Night Shyamalan, and spoke to both of them for about ten minutes.

Six months later, I was with some friends at the Sunset Marquis Hotel, and who should walk in but M. Night Shyamalan.

“Hey, Matthew,” he said, “long time no see! Can I sit down?”

Can he sit down? He had just written and directed
The Sixth Sense.
He was the next Steven Spielberg, of course he can sit down! I was a few drinks in and having a good time (this was when alcohol alone still worked for me).

Eventually my friends filtered out, and it was just M. Night and me, sitting there, kickin' it. I remember making a mental note that we were not talking show business at all, just talking about love and loss and girls and LA and all the other stuff people chat about at bars. He seemed to be having a really good time, too—laughing at all of my dumb jokes—and I began to think,
Hey, this guy likes me! He must be just a huge
Friends
fan or something, because he really seems super focused on everything I'm saying.

I usually never do this—I've been burned by this line of thinking way too many times—but I began to have wild fantasies about what
this could do for my career. He told me that there was another bar that had just opened across town and asked if I wanted to go with him. Did I want to go with him? He was M. Night Fuckin' Shyamalan! Of course I wanted to go with him.

We went to the valet, picked up our cars, and I followed him across town to this new place, all the while certain that I was going to be the star of his next, huge movie—yeah, there was going to be a new, awesome, twisty movie and the trick ending was going to be me!

My head was doing cartwheels. I can't explain why—he just seemed like he loved me, and my work, and I was just drunk enough to think that this was going to be a life-changing night. As we took our seats at the new place, I felt comfortable [read: drunk] enough to say that we should work together sometime. All at once, a strange look came across his face, and I remember immediately regretting having said it. He excused himself to go to the bathroom, and while he was gone, someone I knew a bit came up to me asked me how my night was going.

I said, “Well, I've been hanging out with M. Night Shyamalan all night and I'm telling you, the guy loves me.” My buddy was impressed … that is, until M. Night returned from the bathroom.

“Matty,” my pal said, looking closely at M. Night, “could I have a word in private?”

This was weird as fuck, but drink will make almost anything plausible, so I stepped away from my magical evening with M. Night for a moment.

“Matty,” my friend whispered, “that is
not
M. Night Shyamalan.”

This revelation caused me to attempt to fully focus my vodka-softened eyes for a moment, and through the gloom of the dark bar I squinted hard at N. Night Shyamalan.

Not.

Even.

Close.

Turns out, “M. Night” was actually just an Indian gentleman who looked the tiniest bit like M. Night Shyamalan (maybe it was N. Night Shyamalan?), and who was, in reality, the maître d' at Mr. Chow Beverly Hills, a hip restaurant in LA that I frequented … and that I no longer frequent, because I told its maître d' that we should work together sometime.
What kind of a night did he think he was having?
I thought.

3
Baggage

I lived in a perpetual state of
Groundhog Day.
It's my favorite movie for a reason.

Every evening, I would head to the Formosa Café on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood with my friends. There were two signs over the bar: the one under all the headshots read
WHERE THE STARS DINE.
The other read
WINE BY THE GLASS
, but we didn't drink by the glass—we drank by the pint and the quart and the gallon … and vodka, not wine.

“We” was Hank Azaria, David Pressman, Craig Bierko, and me. We had formed our very own mini–Rat Pack.

I'd met Hank first, when I was sixteen. We were at the CBS lot auditioning for a pilot starring Ellen Greene (of
Little Shop of Horrors
). We both got cast, and he played my uncle in the pilot. We got along so well that when I left the nest to move out on my own, I moved into a studio apartment in his building. He was already a seriously funny guy, and by the time I met him he was doing a ton of voiceover work. That gig would eventually lead him to becoming an incredibly wealthy guy, but back at the start of it, all we wanted was fame. Fame, fame, fame, that's all we wanted. And girls, and erm, fame. It was all we cared about
because, at least for me, I figured being famous would fill the great hole that was endlessly growing inside of me.

But being prefamous, it was a hole I filled with alcohol.

I was drinking all the time—I spent my college years drinking at the Formosa—in fact, in drinking I got a 4.0 GPA and was Alkoól Beta Kappa. Love of alcohol had indeed become the helmsman of my life, but I don't think I realized just how much it controlled me until one night when I was out with my girlfriend at the time, Gaby. Gaby would go on to write for
Veep
and a bunch of other stuff and be a friend for life, but that night, she and I and a group of friends went to a magic show in Universal City. I remember ordering some specialty drink, simmering with alcohol, to sip on while the guy produced rabbits out of hats, or whatever, but eventually the endless lines of silk scarves out of sleeves grew wearisome, and we all headed back to Gaby's apartment to hang out. Gaby didn't have any alcohol at home, which is, of course, totally fine, but for me at the age of twenty-one, all of a sudden this creeping feeling came over me for the first time. I felt my blood on fire for more to drink; I really wanted another drink, and I could think of nothing else.

It was that night when I first felt the
obsession
for alcohol. I noticed that no one else seemed even the slightest bit fazed by the lack of drink at Gaby's—but I had that overpowering pull, like a great magnet and I was just little shards of iron. I was freaked-out by this, especially as it was me and only me who seemed to be struggling. So, I decided to not go find more to drink that night … but it left me unable to sleep, uncomfortable, tossing and turning, lost to it. Restless, irritable, and discontented until the sun finally rose.

What was happening to me? What was wrong with me? Why was I the only person there who had been dying for another drink? I couldn't tell anyone this was happening, because even I didn't understand it. I think for many years my drinking was a secret to people—well, at least
the extent of it. Certainly back then. I was just a college-age kid wasting the equivalent of his college years on booze and women and making my guy friends, and women, laugh. What was there to admit?

But what no one knew was I was drinking alone—that remained a secret. How much I drank when I was drinking alone depended entirely on the year. Eventually I'd work my way up to that party bottle with the handle—killed that in two days, by myself. But that night of the magic show, even then I was freaking out. What's going on? I've never experienced this feeling before in my life. Why can't I think of a single fucking solitary thing except a drink? If you're at a bar, you just order another drink … but when it's the middle of the night, you don't tend to lie wide awake wishing you had one in your hand. That was new. That was different. That was terrifying. And that was a secret.

Ten years later, I read the following words in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Drinkers think they are trying to escape, but really they are trying to overcome a mental disorder they didn't know they had.”

Eureka!—someone understands me. But reading that was both wonderful and horrible. It meant I wasn't alone—there were others who thought like me—but it also meant I was an alcoholic and would have to quit drinking one day at a time, for the rest of my life.

How was I ever going to have fun again?

I can't decide if I actually like people or not.

People have needs, they lie, cheat, steal, or worse: they want to talk about themselves. Alcohol was my best friend because it never wanted to talk about itself. It was just always there, the mute dog at my heel, gazing up at me, always ready to go on a walk. It took away so much of the pain, including the fact that when I was alone, I was lonely, and that when I was with people, I was lonely, too. It made movies better, songs better, it made
me
better. It made me comfortable with where I
was instead of wishing I was somewhere—anywhere—else. It made me content to hang out with the woman in front of me rather than continually wondering if life would be better if I were dating someone else. It took away being an outsider in my own family. It removed the walls all around me, except one, even if for a while. It allowed me to control my feelings and, in doing so, control my world. Like a friend, it was there for me. And I was fairly certain I would go crazy without it.

And I'm right about that, by the way—I would have gone crazy without it.

It made me want to be a completely different person. To give it up seemed impossible. Learning to move forward in life without it was tantamount to asking someone to go about his or her day without breathing. For that, I will always be grateful to alcohol. It finally beat me into a state of reasonableness.

According to Malcom Gladwell, if you did anything for ten thousand hours, you could be an expert. This made me an expert in two areas: 1980s tennis and drinking. Only one of those subjects is important enough to save a life.

I'll let you guess which one.

But when I wanted to feel less alone among people, it was Hank Azaria, David Pressman, and eventually Craig Bierko I chose.

Weirdly, I'd played a character with the surname Azarian on
Beverly Hills, 90210.
Getting a guest spot on episode nineteen of the twenty-two-episode first season was a big deal.
Beverly Hills, 90210
hadn't yet reached cultural phenomenon status by the time I played Roger Azarian, Beverly Hills High tennis star and the son of a hard-charging, distant, businessman father—but the themes in that episode (teen depression, suicide, and learning disabilities) marked it out as a show that wouldn't shy away from real shit, however privileged its milieu.

The episode, which borrowed its title from T. S. Eliot of all people (“April Is the Cruelest Month”), opens with me hitting the crap out
of some tennis balls, showing off my Canadian-ranked form, my big, whipped forehands and aggressive backhand winners, showcasing the fact that I could really play. I was even using a throwback, Björn Borg–style wooden Donnay racket with the tiny head, which I manage to break in the scene by hitting too hard. Jason Priestley, in the role of Brandon Walsh, noting my thinly veiled rage, proceeds to ask me how many rackets I go through in a week, and in an art-imitating-life moment, I say, “Depends on whose face I see on the ball.”

I couldn't escape stairwells, even when I was playing a fictional character on a TV show. By the end of the episode, I've shared a screenplay with Brandon, gotten drunk, held a gun to my own face, and ended up in a locked psychiatric ward—only the gun bit was play-acting, the rest was Method.

I wasn't yet twenty-two. For a few years I'd been a guest actor, doing a series here, a series there, guest starring roles.

The point was, I was working. My first biggish break had come when I was cast in
Second Chance,
though my casting was overshadowed by who
wasn't
cast.

I still think
Second Chance
had a great premise: a forty-year-old guy called Charles Russell dies in a hovercraft accident (because that happens
all
the time) and goes to see Saint Peter in his office. If the light shines gold on Charles as he stands in judgment, he goes to heaven; if it shines red, he goes to hell—but if it shines blue, as it does in Mr. Russell's case, he was called a Blue Lighter, meaning, they didn't know what to do with him. So, Saint Peter decides to send him back to Earth to meet his fifteen-year-old self and guide him through a life of better decision-making. That way, by the time he once again boards a hovercraft at forty, when he dies the second time, because he's been a better person, the light will change from a we-don't-know-what-to-do-with-you blue to a we're-sold, welcome-to-eternity gold. Can you think of a more perfect premise for a father-son acting team? And my father and
I duly auditioned. Then, disaster—I got a green light to be the son of a Blue Lighter, and Dad got no light at all.

“They want you. They don't want me,” Dad said when he heard the news. I guess I threw him a hard-to-read look—after all, I'd gotten a huge part, even if he hadn't, so I imagine my face combined sorrow for him and glee for me—so much so that he said, “Do I have to
repeat
it? They want
you.
They
don't
want me.”

My father's hurt feelings aside, I had just booked my first TV show. I was making five grand a week; I was seventeen years old. My ego was off the charts; I thought I was the shit, just like everyone thought
Second Chance
was. It came in as number 93 of the ninety-three ranked shows that season. For the final nine episodes after the initial thirteen, the whole Saint Peter / Blue Lighter stuff had been forgotten and the show just followed me and my pals in our various adventures. So, it didn't matter that the show remained ninety-third in a list of ninety-three—someone important had liked me enough to build a show around me, which only increased my ego to epic proportions. And might well have set me up for success later.

My father dealt with this news by not attending a single taping except the very last one. He had his reasons, I suppose.

Accordingly, I was able to score various guest roles after that, and two years later I got another series, this time in a show starring Valerie Bertinelli. The show, called
Sydney,
followed the exploits of Valerie as a private eye (!), and I played her fast-talking brother—that's all you'll ever need to know about those thirteen episodes (
Sydney
was canceled after one half season). But despite its failure to ignite audiences, I'll never forget two things about
Sydney.

First, Valerie's lawyer/love interest in the show was played by an actor named Craig Bierko—almost immediately after meeting Craig on set, I called Hank Azaria and said, “He sounds the way we do!” which was the highest praise I could give someone. But before I could truly
get to see how funny Craig was, there was the second thing I should tell you about
Sydney
—during filming, I fell madly in love with Valerie Bertinelli, who was clearly in a troubled marriage and truly getting off on two of the funniest guys on the planet adoring her and heaping their attention on her.

Valerie Bertinelli—those seven syllables once stirred every part of my soul and other parts.

In the early 1990s, there was no one more attractive than Valerie. Not only was she stunning and vivacious, but she also had this great, booming, adorable laugh, which Craig and I longed to hear all day long. Now that Craig and I were cast, it was as if Valerie had two new clowns to play with, and we threw ourselves into those roles with abandon. The three of us had a lot of fun.

But for me, being on
Sydney
and playing the fool with Valerie was more than just fun—it was serious shit. I was having to hide my love for her as we worked (this wouldn't be the last time this happened), which was desperately difficult. My crush was crushing; not only was she way out of my league, but she was also married to one of the most famous rock stars on the planet, Eddie Van Halen. Back when we were making
Sydney,
Eddie's band, Van Halen, were in the middle of a string of four, back-to-back, number one albums—they were arguably the biggest band on the planet in the late 1980s, early 1990s, and Eddie was arguably the greatest rock guitarist on the planet at the time, too.

As for me, well, I was always able to get laid because I made women laugh, but I knew that being funny always came in second to musicians. (In the world of music, there's a hierarchy, too—it's my contention that bass players tend to get laid first, because they're stolid and cool and their fingers move in gentle yet powerful ways [except for Paul Mc- Cartney; he never got laid first]; drummers come next because they're
all power and grit; then guitarists because they get those fancy solos; then, weirdly, the lead singer, because even though he's out there up front, he never quite looks fully sexy when he has to throw his head back and reveal his molars to hit a high note.) Whatever the correct order, I knew I was way behind Eddie Van Halen—not only was he a musician, which means he was able to get laid more easily than someone who is funny, but he was also already married to the object of my desire.

It is important to point out here that my feelings for Valerie were real. I was completely captivated—I mean, I was obsessed with her and harbored elaborate fantasies about her leaving Eddie Van Halen and living out the rest of her days with me. I was nineteen and lived in a one-bedroom apartment on Laurel Canyon and Burbank (called Club California, mind you). But fantasies and first loves don't know about real estate, they don't know about real
anything.

BOOK: Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing
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