How David Schwimmer Ditched His Friends Persona
By Roxanne Sancto
With the premiere of the globally-known sitcom Friends in 1994, the show and its five protagonists quickly became household names.
People the world over started identifying with their favourite characters, referring to themselves as a “Monica” due to their obsessive cleaning methods, or calling friends out on being a total “Ross” thanks to their romantic notions always ending in disastrous relationship situations.
A large section of the female population began sporting layered bob-cuts christened “The Rachel” and young men insisted on putting Joey’s famous pick-up line ‘How you doin’?’ to the test at least once in their life-time. Needless to say, the characters on Friends and the actors portraying them shot to fame overnight and even now, twenty-two years later, they have managed to reel in a new generation of fans. But while Matt LeBlanc happily returned to his character in the spin-off Joey, other members of the Friends tribe were desperate to move on from the craze and struggled to shake off their character’s image. Most notably, David Schwimmer, aka Ross Geller.
Internet polls (and some personal discussion) make it clear that Ross Gellar was actually one of the least liked characters on Friends and, funnily enough, was directly followed by his sister, Monica. Though they were both loving and sensitive characters at heart, their fixations and self-centeredness became the central focus on the show and, especially in later seasons, their negative quirks were so strongly highlighted it became difficult to recognize all the positive attributes we initially liked about them.
Ross was a strange kind of goofy; the stereotypical geek who carries his nerdy awkwardness with great pride and usually manages to stand above his friends’ ridicule. But as soon as the Rachel palaver truly got going, he was reduced to nothing but a needy, painfully jealous toddler who’d probably still be pulling on his testicles to garner attention were it not deemed completely unacceptable for an adult. And once the writers and directors discovered his talent for shrill shrieks, it was pretty much over for Ross.
However, that didn’t stop Friends from reaching a whopping ten seasons and, unfortunately for Schwimmer, the show’s long run solidified his character. In an interview earlier this summer, he told The Hollywood Reporter:
“In our show I’m the same guy for 10 years, you can rely on me to be a certain way and you know me — or you think you know me.”
Following the end of Friends, and in what may have been an attempt to stay clear of TV roles that would trap him in a fictional persona for another decade, Schwimmer focused on the big screen instead. He went on to play the title role in Matt Mulhern’s Duane Hopwood, a supposed dramedy that focuses on the life of a spiralling, functional alcoholic whose reckless behaviour is jeopardizing his visitation rights with his young daughters.
Though the film in itself is an intimate portrayal of how divorce can reduce the role of a genuinely caring father to nothing short of a glorified babysitter, the role of Duane Hopwood didn’t do Schwimmer any favours in terms of separating himself from the image of a whiney, pathetic middle-aged man whose existence seems to depend on his love life and little else.
Critics praised this role as a “career-transforming performance” and yet it is hard not to see the similarities between Ross and Duane, both of whom are men who feel wronged by their loved ones and are unable to move on from the past. These resemblances aren’t just visible in the respective storylines, but also the characters’ body languages, specifically the famous, pleading puppy eyes.
Following his directorial debut with Run, Fatboy, Run, Schwimmer finally dipped his toe back into the world of TV again, at first with one-off appearances on shows like 30 Rock (where he appeared as Greenzo, NBC’s environmental mascot) and a cameo on Entourage, before joining his former Friends co-star Lisa Kudrow in four episodes of Web Therapy.
His role as Newell L. Miller, a sexually-traumatised stalker with daddy-issues, was surprisingly underrated. His calmly frantic demeanour as a patient who blames his therapist for pretty much everything that’s wrong with his life was refreshing, and even his high-pitched freak-outs failed to evoke memories of Geller’s sandwich.
But the role that really signified his second break-through in the TV world, the one that clearly stands out in comparison to any other roles he has taken on before, was that of Robert Kardashian in FX’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J Simpson. To Schwimmer, this was more than just a great career move; it was an opportunity to honour Robert Kardashian’s memory and allow the world to get to know a very private and tormented man. And he did so beautifully.
Unlike his ex-wife and daughters, Robert was quite removed from the public celebrity world. Having known Orenthal James Simpson for more than twenty years, Robert stood by his side as a loyal friend and a volunteer assistant on O.J’s legal team. His motives in the case were clear – he was there to support and offer guidance to a man he had spent many a family holiday with, a man who attended his own wedding. And all this, regardless of what the world believed him to be capable of. But as the trial wore on and evidence against O.J. became increasingly incriminating, Robert found his faith and loyalty put to the test and Schwimmer captured this conflicted, inner struggle in one of his most powerful performances to date.
With the insight Kris Jenner (neé Kardashian) offered him into their private lives at the time, Schwimmer knew how to translate his kind, arduous spirit in a manner that truly conveyed how torn Robert felt between his love for his friend and the doubts he carried in regards to his innocence. One only needs to turn to a rare interview with Robert Kardashian in 1996 to realize just how deeply Schwimmer immersed himself into this character.
This summer, Schwimmer gave us further proof of his talent in AMC’s Feed the Beast, a crime-drama set in the Bronx. As Tommy Moran, a former sommelier who has turned his profession into an addiction, David revisits a role similar to that of Duane Hopwood: a father desperately trying to rekindle some semblance of normalcy for his son TJ (Elijah Jacob), in the wake of his wife Rie’s (Christine Adams) tragic death.
When his long-term friend and top chef Dion (Jim Sturgess) is released from jail, he encourages Tommy to finally open up the Greek restaurant they’ve always dreamed of. It takes some convincing on Dion’s part, but Tommy eventually agrees to borrow the funds from his estranged father in order to get the ball rolling – only Tommy doesn’t really know what he’s getting into.
Running a kitchen and cooking up unique meals may be what drives Dion’s heart and soul, but his intentions for opening the restaurant aren’t just motivated by a love for his profession and his friend, but the strong hold the local mob has on him.
Feed the Beast is somewhat messy in that it tries to mix too many genres and storylines into its general plot, making it difficult to define what the show is really about. It feels as though director Clyde Phillips and the team of writers tried to pack too much trauma, mob-politics and spectacle into a show that is advertised primarily as a series detailing the ins and outs of the restaurant business, and the problems the owners face in setting it up in a neighbourhood in the throes of gentrification.
But while it is difficult to relate to characters such as Sturgess’ Dion, due to an exaggerated performance that comes across as caricaturesque, Schwimmer’s Tommy offers a down-to-earth and realistic depiction of a grieving father and the disconnection he feels with the world around him. The problematic relationship with his father Aidan (John Doman) and the troubles he faces with his son TJ (who hasn’t spoken since he witnessed his mother’s death) are the redeeming qualities this series desperately needed amidst its confusion of genres.
This only goes to show that David Schwimmer is so much more than the goofy palaeontologist we once knew him as.