James Michael Tyler, who portrayed Central’s overlooked barista Perk Gunther on all 10 seasons of Friends, died after a battle with prostate cancer. He was 59 years old.
Tyler died Sunday morning at his Los Angeles home, confirmed his longtime friend and manager Toni Benson, who described him as someone who loved live music and the Clemson Tigers. “If you’ve met him once you’ve made a lifelong friend,” Benson wrote in an emailed tribute to The Hollywood reporter.
Friends co-creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane also paid tribute to the actor.
“James was a really kind and gentle man,” they said in a joint statement. “When he started out as appearing on Friends, his unique spirit caught our attention and we knew we had to make him a character. He made Gunther’s unrequited love incredibly accessible. Our hearts go out to his wife, Jennifer Carno.
Friends star Jennifer Aniston posted a clip to Instagram where Gunther tells her character, Rachel, that he’s in love with her. In caption, she wrote: “Friends wouldn’t have been the same without you. Thank you for the laughter you brought to the show and to all of our lives. We will miss you so much.
Tyler announced the Today show in June that he had stage 4 prostate cancer that had spread to his bones; he said he was first diagnosed in September 2018 during a routine physical exam.
“My goal this year was to celebrate my 59th birthday. I did that, “he said.” My goal now [by revealed his illness and advocating for checkups] at least it’s saving a life.
He shared his story to encourage people with prostate cancer to get their first PSA blood test when they are 40 years old.
Tyler was working as a barista at Café Bourgeois Pig on Franklin Avenue near Hollywood when asked to stand in the background and operate the levers on the Central Perk espresso machine on the NBC sitcom.
It took him two seasons and 33 appearances before he had his first line of dialogue and for his character to get a name, according to Saul Austerlitz’s 2019 book, Generation Friends: an inside look at the show that defined an era of television.
Tyler would appear in 150 of the series’ 236 episodes, from the second installment which premiered in September 1994 to “The Last One” on May 6, 2004. No other actor has returned more often.
Gunther, a peroxide blonde, was once a soap opera actor on All my kids, but his character was killed in an avalanche, which led to his concert at Central Perk. He pines for Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) for years but doesn’t reveal his true feelings to her until the series finale; in Paris, she tells him that she will think of him every time she sees someone “with hair brighter than the sun”.
In his book, Austerlitz noted that Gunther “served as an ongoing joke for the show, the stranger whose perpetually foiled attempts to penetrate the inner circle underscored the sextet’s charmed status.
“It was the background color for Friends, present at parties and gatherings of the characters, crouched on their shoulders as they sipped coffee at Central Perk. He was there to be ignored and neglected, forgotten and taken for granted.
Tyler was sadly on the outside again when he reconnected – but only via Zoom – with Aniston, David Schwimmer, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow and Matt LeBlanc on the Friends HBO Max special reunion which premiered in May 2021.
He said it was his decision not to appear in person. “I didn’t want it to bother me, you know?” ” he said.
The youngest of five children, Tyler was born May 28, 1962 in Winona, Mississippi. After his father, a retired Air Force captain, died when he was 10 and his mother a housewife when he was 11 he moved to live with his sister in Anderson, in South Carolina.
He performed in student plays at Clemson University, where he earned a geology degree in 1984, followed by an MA from the University of Georgia three years later.
He moved to Los Angeles in 1988, sold keyboards at a Guitar Center, and worked as a production assistant on the film starring Paul Newman. Fat man and little boy (1989) and Cochon Bourgeois before landing on Friends.
He later appeared on shows such as Just shoot me!, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Scrubs, Modern music and, like himself in 2012, on the LeBlanc site Episodes.
In 2009 and 2014 he celebrated Friends birthdays by standing behind the Central Perk replica counter.
During his treatment, Tyler continued to act and starred in two short films – The gesture and the word and Processing – which has earned him distinctions in various film festivals. Earlier this year, her oral interpretation of Stephen Kalinich’s poem “If You Knew” was adapted into a short video to raise awareness for the Prostate Cancer Foundation.
Survivors include his second wife, screenplay coordinator Jennifer Carno.