James Michael Tyler: Actor who made millions laugh as Gunther on Friends

James Michael Tyler: Actor who made millions laugh as Gunther on Friends
‘Seventh friend’ found fame playing a coffee shop boss in the US sitcom

James Michael Tyler was the actor best known for his role as Gunther, the manager of the Central Perk coffee shop in the popular American situation comedy, Friends.

Tyler, who has died aged 59, was considered the “seventh friend” and renowned for his unrequited love for Rachel Green, played by Jennifer Aniston. Interviewed in 2002, Tyler spoke of the close friendships between the cast members and the pleasure of being on set: “It’s hard to get through the day sometimes because they forget, ‘OK we got to get to work now, let’s stop joking around’. But, yeah, we still have a lot of fun.”

Tyler was born in Mississippi in 1962. His father died when he was 10 years old. When his mother died a year later, he moved to Anderson, South Carolina, to live with his sister.

He was educated at TL Hanna High School, Anderson College and Clemson University, from which he graduated with a degree in geology in 1984. Whilst at university he had joined the Clemson Players, a student theatre company, discovering a passion for acting that would shape his future career.

Arriving in Los Angeles in 1988, Tyler took his first showbusiness role as a post-production assistant on Fat Man and Little Boy (1989), a film about the wartime use of nuclear weapons, directed by Roland Joffe and starring Paul Newman and John Cusack.

Tyler as Gunther in a scene with David Schwimmer, who played Ross Geller

Tyler joined the Friends show in 1994 for its second episode and went on to feature in some 150 episodes of the 236 broadcast. Initially cast in a non-speaking part, he soon found a starring role. “When he started as an extra on Friends his unique spirit caught our attention and we knew we had to turn him into a character,” said the show’s creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane. “It made Gunther’s unrequited love incredibly believable.”

An important part of Tyler’s signature style – his distinctive bleached-blond hair – came about as a result of a fortunate accident: a hairdresser friend had visited him on the day before his Friends audition and experimented with peroxide. The producer liked the look so much that it stuck.

Quizzed on ITV’s Good Morning Britain about his favourite ever line in the show, he swiftly replied with the quip he had delivered to Phoebe’s boyfriend, Robert, who had arrived at the coffee shop in revealing gym shorts: “Hey buddy, this is a family place. Put the mouse back in the house.”

Tyler revealed on TV that he had been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, urging male viewers to get checked

In May this year, Tyler had taken part in the Friends reunion, celebrating 25 years of the programme, and chose to appear by video link. He said afterwards: “I could not have imagined just a better experience. All these guys were fantastic and just a joy to work with. It felt very, very special.”

A month later he revealed on the NBC Today show that he had been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer in September 2018. With typical good humour he prefaced his bad news with the words, “I’m sorry to say that I’m not appearing today with you to announce that there’s going to be a Friends movie.” He went on to use the broadcast to campaign for early prostate cancer testing, urging male viewers to check with a doctor. “Next time you go in for a basic exam or your yearly check-up, please ask your doctor for a PSA [prostate-specific antigen] test,” he implored.

Learning of his passing, Ms Aniston said: “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.”

His manager, Toni Benson, said in tribute: “The world knew him as Gunther, the seventh ‘Friend’, but Michael’s loved ones knew him as an actor, musician, cancer-awareness advocate and loving husband. Michael loved live music, cheering on his Clemson Tigers, and would often find himself in fun and unplanned adventures … If you met him once you made a friend for life.”

Tyler is survived by his wife, Jennifer Carno, a production assistant, whom he married in 2017.

James Michael Tyler, actor, born 28 May 1962, died 24 October 2021