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James Michael Tyler, who portrayed the neglected Central Perk barista Gunther on all 10 seasons of Friends, has died after a battle with prostate cancer. He was 59.
Tyler died Sunday morning at his home in Los Angeles, confirmed his longtime friend and manager Toni Benson, who described him as someone who loved live music and the Clemson Tigers. “If you met him once you made a friend for life,” Benson wrote in a tribute emailed to The Hollywood Reporter.
Friends co-creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane paid tribute to the actor as well.
“James was a genuinely kind, sweet man,” they said in a joint statement. “When he started as an extra on Friends, his unique spirit caught our eye and we knew we had to make him a character. He made Gunther’s unrequited love incredibly relatable. Our heart goes out to his wife, Jennifer Carno.”
Friends star Jennifer Aniston posted a clip on Instagram where Gunther tells her character, Rachel, that he’s in love with her. In the caption, she wrote: “Friends would not have been the same without you. Thank you for the laughter you brought to the show and to all of our lives. You will be so missed.”
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Tyler announced on 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.
“My goal this past year was to see my 59th birthday. I did that,” he said. “My goal now [by revealing his illness and advocating for checkups] is to at least save one life.”
He shared his story to encourage those with a prostate to get a first PSA blood test as early as 40 years old.
Tyler was working as a barista at the Bourgeois Pig coffee shop on Franklin Avenue near Hollywood when he was asked to stand in the background and work the levers of the Central Perk espresso machine on the NBC sitcom.
It took him two seasons and 33 appearances before he got 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 a Television Era.
Tyler would show up on 150 of the 236 episodes of the show, from the second installment that first aired in September 1994 to “The Last One” on May 6, 2004. No other actor recurred more often.
Gunther, a peroxide blond, once was a soap actor on All My Children, but his character was killed off in an avalanche, leading to his gig at Central Perk. He pines for Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) for years but does not reveal his true feelings to her until the series finale; off to Paris, she tells him she’ll think of him whenever she sees someone “with hair brighter than the sun.”
In his book, Austerlitz noted that Gunther “served as an ongoing running joke for the show, the outsider whose perpetually foiled attempts at penetrating the inner circle emphasized the charmed status of the sextet.
“He was background color for Friends, present at the characters’ parties and gatherings, lurking over their shoulders as they sipped coffee at Central Perk. He was there to be ignored and overlooked, forgotten and taken for granted.”
Tyler regrettably was 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 reunion special that premiered in May 2021.
He said it was his decision not to appear in person. “I didn’t wanna bring a downer on it, you know?” he said.
The youngest of five children, Tyler was born on May 28, 1962, in Winona, Mississippi. After his father, a retired Air Force captain, died when he was 10 and his mother, a homemaker, died when he was 11, he went to live with his sister in Anderson, South Carolina.
He acted in student plays at Clemson University, where he graduated with a degree in geology in 1984, then received a master’s in fine arts 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 Paul Newman-starring Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) and at the Bourgeois Pig before landing on Friends.
Later, he appeared on such shows as Just Shoot Me!, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Scrubs, Modern Music and, as himself in 2012, on LeBlanc’s Episodes.
In 2009 and 2014, he celebrated Friends anniversaries by standing behind the counter of Central Perk replicas.
While undergoing treatment, Tyler continued to perform and starred in two short films — The Gesture and the Word and Processing — which earned him accolades at various film festivals. Earlier this year, his spoken-word performance 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, script coordinator Jennifer Carno.
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