Headliner remembers Friends star James Michael Tyler aka Gunther

James Michael Tyler, best known for his role as Central Perk manager Gunther in Friends, has sadly died at the age of 59 following a battle with cancer. An accomplished actor, he was also a skilled musician, with a particular penchant for keyboards and synths. Here, Headliner digs into the archives to revisit the time we had the honour of meeting the great man at FriendsFest in London, where he discussed his lifelong love of music, jamming with Def Leppard and singing on stage with The Rembrandts…

Is it fair to say that the song I’ll Be There For You is as iconic as the show itself?

Oh, that song absolutely defined the show. The Rembrandts are actually mates of mine; over the past year we’ve become quite close and we go out to dinner a lot. They’re really great guys.

You sang with the band when you did a Friends pop-up in LA last year, right?

I did. It was odd, because they just did the theme song, of course, so weren’t around during the production of the show, but because I’d been doing all these pop-ups, we just got on. I’m a musician as well, so we started talking music, and they’re just very easy to get on with. They’ve told their story: got it’s kind of defined them, that one song. And of course, they have many other songs. In that sense, they’re kind of similar to me: that one role has defined me, although I have also done a lot of acting and have played tons of other roles… [pauses], which never gets mentioned, of course [smiles].

I suppose you take that on the chin, though, considering the success of Friends?

Oh yeah. Of course there is some typecast in the role, and at times that has been a hindrance, but the blessings have truly outweighed any hindrances I might have had. And I’m a mature person, so I have to accept it. That’s part of my life, and I’m very proud to have been a minor part on a major show; and to still be recognised for what I did, playing a character of very few words, is pretty astounding.

My home was always full of synths, everywhere you looked. James Michael Tyler

Agreed. You were in over half the episodes, though, so we don’t think your role was necessarily minor…

[smiles] Thank you. Yes, I was in 170-something episodes, I think – and that is bewildering! I just embrace it, though, and I feel blessed; I don’t take any of it for granted.

And you kind of fell into the part of Gunther, right?

Yes, I did. I was an extra for a year-and-a-half – a background performer – then one day, one of the executive producers asked if I had any acting experience, right out of the blue. I told her I had a master of fine arts in acting, and she just said ‘OK, cool’. The next week she came back and said, ‘your name is Gunther, and you have a line of dialogue’. At that time I was just grateful I had dialogue, as it meant I would be able to pay the rent that month! It wasn’t a large amount for having one word, of course, but I came back the next week and I had more dialogue; and this was before they’d even established Gunther, and his love for Rachel. He was just there to deliver blows in scenes: ‘give that line to Gunther, as none of the other characters can say what he can say’. 

I guess I was pretty good at playing ‘dead pan’; I thought, ‘hey, he’s in a New York coffee shop, he’s gonna be a bit surly, hating the world’, so I played him like that – and thankfully they liked it, and it worked. From there, it grew organically, which was pretty amazing for me.

We can imagine. Before you go, do tell us about these big shot musicians you jam with…

[laughs] Well, I am a synthesist – a keyboard player. I’ve been playing by ear since I was four-years-old, so I guess I’ve got a natural talent for that. My home was always full of synths everywhere you looked, which are still taking up space, but of course you can do these things on a laptop now, right? But that’s what I do in my free time as a hobby. Do I perform? [pauses, then smiles] I jam with some friends of mine. Vivian Campbell from Def Leppard is great – and The Rembrandts, of course. I just enjoy it – it gives me a breather from everything, you know?