James Michael Tyler: a tribute to ‘Friends” Gunther, the king of Central Perk

Tyler passed away over the weekend at the age of 59 following a battle with cancer

James Michael Tyler, who has died aged 59 following a battle with prostate cancer, occupies a unique place in pop culture as “the seventh Friend”. Though he was only ever credited as a guest star on Friends, he appeared in 150 episodes of the era-defining sitcom about six endearing New Yorkers navigating their late 20s and early 30s in a way that felt both aspirational and, at times, familiarly chaotic.

Tyler’s character Gunther, a barista at the Central Perk coffee house who later becomes its manager, didn’t always speak and was never given a surname, but he became an integral part of the show anyway. It was a decade-long supporting role that made the Mississippi-born actor globally recognisable.

Tyler was actually working as a real-life barista in a Hollywood coffee shop when he was hired to appear as an extra on Friends. “I’d worked with the assistant director, Joel Wang, and he gave me a call,” Tyler later recalled. “He said, ‘Hey, do you want to come on and be in the background in a coffee shop? I would love you to just stand by the espresso machine and pretend like you’re actually really working it, just so it would look authentic’.” Though Tyler never made a single cup of coffee on the show – probably because Central Perk’s coffee machine wasn’t really turned on – he continued to busy himself in the background until he was finally given a line in his 33rd episode.

Later, Tyler was rewarded for biding his time when Gunther was given his own recurring joke: an unrequited crush on Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel. Though peripheral, this storyline became a part of Friends folklore and had a touching resolution in the final episode. With Rachel about to depart for Paris, Gunther finally plucked up the courage to reveal his true feelings.

“I know you’re leaving tonight, but I just have to tell you: I love you,” he tells Rachel tentatively. “I don’t know if that changes your plans at all? But I thought you should know.” Rachel’s reply encapsulated the infectious mix of sentimentality and gentle teasing that made Friends so irresistible. “Gunther. Oh, I love you too,” she says sweetly. “Probably not in the same way, but I do. And when I’m in a café having coffee, or I see a man with hair brighter than the sun, I’ll think of you.” The hair that was “brighter than the sun” wasn’t natural, by the way: Tyler bleached his locks every two weeks during filming to maintain Gunther’s peroxide glow.

In a statement that was released after his death was announced yesterday (October 24), Friends co-creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane said they made Gunther a recurring character because the actor’s “unique spirit caught our eye”. They also praised Tyler for making “Gunther’s unrequited love incredibly relatable”.

It’s this storyline he’ll be best remembered for, but Tyler also got to deliver some zingy lines. When Lisa Kudrow’s Phoebe brought a new boyfriend to Central Perk in season three, Gunther became alarmed that his loose-fitting shorts left little to the imagination. “Hey buddy, this is a family place,” he says crisply. “Put the mouse back in the house.” Tyler later said it was one of his favourite Gunther moments.

James Michael Tyler gunther
James Michael Tyler, who plays the owner of the Central Perk cafe in the TV series Friends, stands behind of the counter of the Friends Cafe in New York City, USA, 15 September 2014 (Picture: Simon Broll / dpa / Alamy)

Tyler didn’t accumulate a huge number of TV credits after Friends ended in 2004, but he did play a fictionalised version of himself in a 2012 episode of the meta TV industry sitcom Episodes. When Matt LeBlanc, also playing a fictionalised version of himself, failed to persuade his more famous Friends co-stars to guest on his new show, he reluctantly gave Tyler a call as a last resort. It was a game cameo that typified Tyler’s good-humoured attitude towards his signature role. He was always happy to dive into the breach (and the bleach) to launch fan events, such as Comedy Central’s FriendsFest in London in 2015.

Back in May Tyler appeared via Zoom on Friends: The Reunion, the much-hyped special filmed to promote the show’s new home on HBO Max. A month later, he revealed that he made the “bittersweet” decision not to join his castmates in person because he was receiving treatment for stage four prostate cancer. “I didn’t wanna bring a downer on it, you know? I didn’t want to be like, ‘Oh, and by the way, Gunther has cancer,'” the actor said poignantly.

Friends fans will take comfort in the fact that he still got to participate – just as they’ll remember Tyler fondly every time they re-watch an episode where Gunther steps briefly into the spotlight, or just bustles comfortingly in the background. He’ll always be the king of Central Perk.

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