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Issue date: October 8, 2000

In this article:
Dumb role; smart actress
Friends meets Survivor
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Balancing friends and family

As the sitcom's only cast member with a child -- not to mention a new movie with Travolta, Lisa Kudrow has to stay on her toes as she juggles her priorities.

By Jeffrey Zaslow

It was among the most human of Hollywood moments. In Lisa Kudrow's last movie, Hanging Up, her dying father was played by Walter Matthau, her sister by Meg Ryan. During filming, Matthau himself was seriously ill with various ailments. "We were waiting to play a scene where Walter was in a hospital bed," Kudrow recalls. "Meg and I were on either side of him, and kind of quietly, Walter said to us, 'You're watching the end of a life.'

"He wasn't kidding. It was like he was saying, 'You girls have to understand. You're watching the end of my life.' " Kudrow and Ryan looked at each other, frozen. "I really wanted to ask, 'How does that feel? What's that like?' " Kudrow says. "But then a crew member said, 'OK, we're ready.' And we shot the scene." Matthau died in July at age 79.

A doctor's daughter who majored in biology at Vassar, Kudrow is an actress well-attuned to the human condition. She has the manner of the medical researcher she long assumed she'd be, full of questions and observations. She also has gut instincts honed in improvisational theater, where she administered comedy by dissecting people's needs and hurts. And then there's her mind. Friends say she's one of the smartest people they know, which -- it's a cliché by now -- makes her so unlike the character who made her famous, Phoebe on NBC's Friends.

As Friends enters its seventh season, Kudrow, 37, has a blossoming movie career and an astute take on the Hollywood stratosphere where she now resides with French husband Michel Stern, an advertising exec, and their son Julian, 2. Just eight years ago, Kudrow was an office manager and researcher for her dad, a noted headache specialist. Now she's earning $750,000 an episode on Friends and winning raves for film roles such as the repressed teacher in The Opposite of Sex. It's a remarkable ascent that astounds her, yet doesn't surprise her. From her earliest memories, something inside her insisted she would be famous.

"I'd watch talk shows as a girl and think, 'What will you say when you're on these shows?' Even when I was studying biology, with no plans to be an actress, I'd think that. It would catch me by surprise. Then I'd say, 'What are you thinking? What will you talk about on these shows? Lab rats?' But on some level, I just knew."

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In Kudrow's new movie, the dark comedy Lucky Numbers, she plays a TV "lotto-ball girl" who conspires with a weatherman (John Travolta) to rig a state lottery drawing. Yes, she recognizes that the two-year, $40 million contract each Friends actor signed last spring was like winning the career lottery. "That's because it wasn't just based on talent. We were lucky enough to be in the right mental place to audition and get the part over hundreds of talented people." Most of all, she says, she's lucky all six stars became "best friends" offscreen, enhancing their on-air chemistry. "We all made the exact decision: Let's be friends."

Press reports pegged Kudrow as the rabble-rouser in the castmates' demands for $1 million an episode. She insists that "no one voice was stronger than the others." Indeed, series co-creator Marta Kauffman says the actors "were a unified front" in the negotiations, and Matthew Perry, who plays Chandler, says, "There was no ringleader." It's obvious, though, that Kudrow's castmates valued her judgment. "She's always had a certain inner wisdom and perspective," says David Schwimmer, who plays Ross. "She's not daunted or intimidated."

Why was Kudrow blamed for almost closing down the show? She has suspicions. "When you hunt down press leaks, you find it was an agent, manager or attorney who thinks that if there's going to be negative press, they'd rather attach it to someone else's client." She figures a rep for one of her castmates preferred that Kudrow be viewed as the demanding one.

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Because of her airhead characters, some people underestimate Kudrow. "She has a fantastic brain, but she's entirely convincing playing a stupid person," says Lucky Numbers director Nora Ephron. "A lot of intelligent actresses can't play dumb. Lisa is brilliant at it."

Matthew Perry also finds Kudrow "very smart, and amazing with love-life advice. I tell her about problems with women I'm dating, and she always says, 'You've got to get out!' I'll probably be single the rest of my life because she's always telling me to get out" of relationships.

Kudrow grew up in an upper-middle-class Jewish family in Tarzana, Calif., a studious bookworm with a sometimes inexplicable need to be noticed. In fourth grade, she volunteered to perform scenes from Fiddler on the Roof for her class. Rather than sing Matchmaker, Matchmaker -- she found Tevye's daughters "boring and not funny" -- she acted out the crazy dream sequence, playing both the dead grandmother and the butcher's dead wife. "I then suggested that I do the act for all the other classes, and my teacher said OK. So I played the record, brought my bag of costumes. I don't know where I got the gumption."

As a child, Kudrow was "precocious and more sophisticated than her friends," says her sister Helene Sherman, 45. "She was a sponge. Whatever you'd teach her, she'd absorb. She had total recall. She listened to this talking record of Alice in Wonderland and then recited the entire album. We died laughing."

By her teens, Kudrow had stifled her acting urges. After getting a bachelor's degree in biology, she joined her dad's staff and even got a research credit on his study about whether you're more likely to have cluster headaches if you're left-handed. The short answer is no, but Kudrow can explain the complicated study in detail. "I worked with my dad eight years, and he taught me everything. He'd say, 'You know more about headache than most doctors.' "

While she was still working for her dad, her brother's friend Jon Lovitz, the actor, encouraged her to try out for the Groundlings, an improvisational troupe. Eventually, she became a part-time improv teacher. The hardest part wasn't the comedy, she says. It was dealing with "mean, disruptive" would-be comic actors. "They decided I was a bad teacher and turned on me."

She landed a few guest sitcom parts, then was hired to play Frasier's fiery radio producer, Roz. Thrilled, she quit her job in her dad's office. But when rehearsals started, something was off in Kudrow's performance. "I knew it wasn't working. I could feel it all slipping away, and I was panicking, which only made things worse." Rather than humiliate her in person, producers fired her with a phone call. She appreciated that. "It leaves you your dignity. You can hang up and start crying." She was replaced on the pilot by Peri Gilpin.

"That was painful for all of us," says her sister Helene. "In our family, when one person stubs her toe, we all say 'ouch.' My mother had a huge stomachache over that." Naturally, Lisa questioned her abilities. Her mother told her, "If things don't work out, you can always go to medical school." Of course, things did work out. Within months, she was hired to play ditzy waitress Ursula on Mad About You. A year later, in 1994, she landed Friends.

By then, Kudrow was dating Stern and collecting insights into the "maturity" of Europeans. "He's from a continent so much older than this country. [Americans] are like adolescents. We have mood swings. We're hyperfocused, worried about how we're behaving or whether we're making the most of ourselves. The French are thinking about what they'll do on their six weeks of vacation."

She recommends that American women try foreign affairs. "European men dive right into what we'd call a 'relationship.' A European man can say 'I love you' in one night and mean it. American men are so cautious."

Stern has a playful attitude about his wife's celebrity. She knows she needs amusing anecdotes for talk shows. But there's only so much you can say about diapering your baby. "My husband tells me, 'Lie! Lie about me. Say something interesting!' " So far, she says, she's resisted.

Kudrow, herself, is a student of stardom. She thinks she knows why people were fascinated by the Brad Pitt-Jennifer Aniston wedding: "When two people are that extraordinarily attractive, everyone's interested in how things work between them." She calls the wedding "elegant, tasteful and not overdone."

As Friends' oldest actor, and only parent, Kudrow thinks she may bore the others with talk about her son: "They act interested, but they're all good actors." Schwimmer says the interest is genuine: "We love Julian. I can't wait for all six of us to have kids. Then we'll all be aunts and uncles."

Kudrow is considering another baby. And in a youth-obsessed town, she insists she's excited about aging. Even when she was young, she says, a part of her always felt 35. "Now I feel like the 40s are the place to be."

She can't imagine doing Friends at 40, but she does hope for a long film career. Recently, Shirley MacLaine passed along advice she got from Bette Davis. "She told me, 'Make sure you're a character actress, because you'll work forever.' " Kudrow, who can certainly play the dead grandmother in Fiddler, smiles. "I hope that's true."

Jeffrey Zaslow is an advice columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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Friends meets Survivor

Picture the tribal meetings. The alliances. The pretty people in swimsuits. As CBS plots its new edition of Survivor, to air in January, consider the monstrous ratings that would result if the characters from America's No. 1 sitcom were stranded together.

Kudrow, who "got really angry when Richard won" on the original Survivor, can imagine a show titled Survivor: Friends No More. "First, you vote off people who can't help you survive, so Rachel [Jennifer Aniston] would definitely go first." Matthew Perry disagrees. He assumes his own Chandler character would be dumped first: "He'd put everybody down in a sarcastic manner and they'd say, 'Get out!' " Perry and Kudrow figure Monica (Courteney Cox Arquette) would be the final survivor. "She knows how to be sneaky," Kudrow says. Says Perry: "She'd do this brother-sister alliance thing with Ross [David Schwimmer] until she was the winner." Schwimmer argues Ross would win. "He knows Robinson Crusoe by heart." As for Kudrow's ditzy Phoebe: "Eventually, we'd eat her." Actually, Kudrow says, she'd rather see a real-life Celebrity Survivor. "Each celebrity can bring only one assistant. You'd see actors telling their assistants, 'OK, we've got to spear fish now. Not that pole, that pole! No, not like that! Make it sharper!' That, I'd watch."

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