The hit NBC sitcom Friends had a number of memorable guest stars throughout its 238-episiode, 10-year run. Actors such as Elliott Gould, Paul Rudd, and Tom Selleck had notable runs on the show, but their arcs pale in comparison to the show's longest-running guest star, James Michael Tyler's Gunther. The actor appeared in 144 episodes as Central Perk's resident barista, becoming a fan favorite throughout the show's run. I recently had the chance to speak with James Michael Taylor over the phone to discuss Friends: The Complete Series, which debuts on Blu-ray November 13.
Here's what he had to say.
I read that you were cast as Gunther because you were the only extra who knew how to work an espresso machine. Obviously, you must have known that previously working as a barista would have lead to a 10-year stint on the biggest comedy series.
James Michael Tyler (Laughs) You know, I didn't. That's also kind of the myth that's on the Internet about it. It does not mention that I came to Los Angeles about four years prior, with a Master of Fine Arts in acting. I was out here looking, trying to become an actor, and I had taken some extra roles on a few shows prior to that. It just so turns out that the person who became the second A.D. (assistant director) for Friends, when they first started, I had worked with before. I was actually working in L.A. as a barista at the Bourgeois Pig. He knew I was working there, and that there was the coffee shop set, Central Perk, so he called me and asked if I would like to come in, because they had an espresso machine on the set. Of course, I never had to make any real espressos in those 10 years, because it's so loud, but I did have experience before that.
Was there a point during that first season that you knew you'd be sticking around for awhile? Or was it a role that was always evolving?
James Michael Tyler: Yeah, I really wasn't sure if they would have me back or not. I had no idea it had gained so much popularity after the first season, until I would say about two weeks before we were scheduled to start the second season. I called the second AD to see if I would come back as "the coffee guy," which was what I was known as through the first year and a half. He said, 'Weren't you paying attention this summer? It became number 1 in the ratings in reruns.' I had no idea. So, of course, we got picked up and they had me back. They had much better Craft Services the next year.
(Laughs) I can imagine. I believe you had the longest guest-starring stint on the show, 144 episodes. Was there any really memorable, behind-the-scenes moments that will always stick out, when you think back on this whole experience?
James Michael Tyler: There are several of them, of course. Over a 10-year span, there are a lot. I will have to say that something I will never forget is about midway through the second season, one of the creators and executive producers, Marta Kauffman, walked up to me outside one evening while we were on a break. She came up and asked me if I had any acting experience, and I told her that I have a Master of Fine Arts in acting, and I expected the conversation to continue. She said, 'Oh, that's good to know,' and turned around and walked away. When I came back the next week, she said, 'Oh, you have a character name now. You're no longer just the coffee guy. Your character name is Gunther, and also, you have a line in tonight's show.' Of course, I was really exciting, being an actor who is struggling and all that, to finally get to say something. It wasn't really a line, it was a word, and the word was, 'Yeah.' I got to say, 'Yeah,' in response to Ross (David Schwimmer) handing Gunther a Slinky, after he asked me if I had stairs in my house. I said, 'Yeah,' so he gave me a Slinky. It just kind of evolved from there, organically. I had no expectations that they would keep me around for 10 years. Once they developed the obsession that Gunther had with Rachel's (Jennifer Aniston) character, and that they didn't resolve it after a two-episode arc, which I thought it might be, they continued that arc for eight more seasons.
That's amazing. You hear these stories every now and then about guys who come on for guest-starring roles and end up being these fixtures of the show. It's cool to see a role like that evolve into something much bigger than what was originally planned.
James Michael Tyler: Oh, absolutely. I count my blessings, and I'm very grateful to the powers that be over there, all the time.
Did you have a lot of fans interacting with you on the street, after Gunther became more developed? The show was just so huge at the time, so were fans coming up to you a lot while you were just walking around?
James Michael Tyler: Not so much here, in the States. I was being sent to London, because the show was gaining popularity there as well, and getting really huge. NBC was sending me there to do some publicity stuff every now and then, and the response I got there was really surprising. I was shocked. For whatever, reason, the Gunther character was, and continues to be, very popular. I don't have the right hair anymore. I don't bleach my hair anymore, which I did for 10 years.
James Michael Tyler: Actually, not a whole lot. I live in Los Angeles, so I will see them in passing a lot of times. I'll go into a restaurant and the waiter will say, 'You just missed your friend.' I'll say, 'Oh, who?' expecting it will be somebody from my neighborhood, and they say, 'Jennifer Aniston just finished eating here and you just missed her.' It's either that, or passing them in traffic (Laughs). It's just because people have different lives and have gone in different directions now. That was the first time I had seen Matt since I visited the set of Joey. They filmed that on the same soundstage they shot Friends. Of course, they shoot that in London, so getting back together with Matt LeBlanc in London was kind of surreal. It was early in the morning when we started shooting, so it was pitch black and raining, normal London weather, and I'm standing in front of my trailer and this shadow figure comes walking up to me. He just said, 'James!' It was great to see Matt again. He's a great guy. David Crane, he's the producer and writer of Matt's show, along with Jeffrey Klarik, they both worked on Friends as well. He's the one who made first contact to make a cameo on Episodes. I love that show. It's kind of meta, this show within a show, making fun of the whole Hollywood scene. Matt is fantastic in the show.
Is there anything that you're currently working on now that you can talk about?
James Michael Tyler: Acting-wise, I did a web series. I play a music agent in a series called Keeping Up with the Downs. The creators of that are shopping it around to some network and cable entities. I don't know what's going to come out of that. There is also another series in pre-production called The Modern Music Biz, which is still in a casting and read-through mode, so they haven't shot anything yet. Ironically, in both series, although they're not connected to each other, I play a music agent. Maybe I'm going from a barista to a music agent, as far as my acting chops. I also just finished my first screenplay, with my two writing partners. It's an animated feature, so we have that out there now too, going through the town. I also do music production, so I'm just trying to be multi-faceted.
Is there anything you can say about the story of the script you wrote?
James Michael Tyler: You know what, I'd rather not right now. It's an animated feature, I just don't want to jinx it. I will happily talk to you again, once somebody buys it.
Not every show gets a huge Blu-ray set like this. Are you looking forward to seeing fans revisit the show again, years after it went off the air?
James Michael Tyler: Oh yeah, absolutely, especially because this is the first time in Blu-ray. I think it's going to capture all the nuance and the big bright colors. I'm sure Gunther's shirts and ties are going to be blinding in Blu-ray.
I'd love to see a before and after thing, with Gunther's shirts, like how they looked on DVD then on Blu-ray.
James Michael Tyler: Maybe they used that to see how better it is.
What would you like to say to those who have supported the show throughout the years, about why they should pick up this set?
James Michael Tyler: Well, it's the first time released in this quality. There is over three hours of bonus features, and one thing I'm really excited about is there is a producer's cut of an episode with scenes that were never, ever shown. I think it's "The One Where Rachel Tells...". I remember us shooting a lot of these scenes, and, for reasons I won't spoil, we were not able to include those scenes. The broadcast version of that episode is completely different than the one that's on the Blu-ray.
Great. Thanks so much. It was great talking to you, James.
James Michael Tyler: And you as well. Thanks so much!
You can watch James Michael Tyler as Gunther on the massive Friends: The Complete Series, which debuts on Blu-ray November 13.