Matt LeBlanc’s excellent Interview to Mirror on his self imposed exile after Friends and his daughter’s devastating brain condition.
Pretty much every hour of every day in most countries around the world actor Matt LeBlanc ’s face is on the television, thanks to the global success of Friends. It’s easy to think he has never been away. But at the peak of his fame, at a time when he was one of the world’s highest-paid actors, Matt went into self-imposed exile, hiding from the public eye for five years. A string of personal crises saw the actor, loved around the world as Joey Tribbiani and famously paid $1million – £690,000 – per Friends episode, retreat to his Californian cattle ranch. He shunned the limelight to deal with the turmoil of his collapsed marriage and his daughter’s devastating brain condition. He even cut his hair – which was dyed to hide his grey during his Friends years – into a mohawk to stop him from being tempted to go out.
Matt, 48, says: “For years and years, I barely left the house. I was burnt out. I wanted to not have a schedule, not be somewhere. I was in a position to do that. My agent was bummed. Most actors call their agents and say, ‘What’s going on?’. I’d call mine and say, ‘Please lose my number for a few years’. It was a very dark time. I almost had a nervous breakdown.”
Matt was this week unveiled as a new host of the BBC’s Top Gear. And his life bears striking similarities to that of his co-star Chris Evans, 49. Both come from working class backgrounds then soared to fame in the mid 1990s and made millions in the next 10 years.
Along the way they both had plenty of women and wild times. Not the best background for a new BBC Top Gear presenter… last year Matt even confessed he’d been caught drink driving, saying: “Twice, I think. When I was young and stupid. I wasn’t driving fast, just crooked.”
And then there were all the women – actresses, models, sportwomen, strippers and porn stars, Matt was Friends to them all.
But much like Chris Evans until he met wife Natasha Shishmanian, the relationships collapsed and he stepped out of the spotlight.
Matt’s lost years began in 2006 after the Friends spin-off show Joey flopped – despite earning £20 million for two series.
Around the same time his baby daughter Marina was diagnosed with cortical dysplasia, a condition which affects the brain, bones and motor skills. Sufferers can find it hard to walk and are prone to seizures.
His marriage to British model Melissa McKnight also broke down amid stories of his infidelity. Only a year before he’d issued a public apology to her after he drunkenly groped a naked stripper in a nightclub.
He said: “The stripper was all over me, took off her top and wanted to perform a private dance.
“She was in my face, pushing her breasts into me and grabbing my hands to go all over her body.
“If I had been sober perhaps I would have acted quicker but I was drunk.”
He added: “I know I was wrong.”
But it was his daughter’s illness which concerned him most at the time.
He said: “My daughter was diagnosed with a problem with her head. It was a very dark period. But I got through it. Don’t they say what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger?”
Matt got through the tough times by devoting all his time to Marina. He realised there was a problem when his little girl kept tumbling on to her left side as she crawled.
When she was 11 months old doctors made their diagnosis and warned that the disease had also affected Marina’s vocal chords, which could hinder her ability to talk.
In a very un-Hollywood move, Matt did not hire a lawyer to negotiate his 2006 divorce from Melissa after three years of marriage. The couple, who remained amicable, have joint custody of their daughter who spends alternate weeks with each parent.
Fortunately Marina, now 11, outgrew her medical condition. And although numerous celebrities, including Kiefer Sutherland and Oprah Winfrey, have homes nearby Matt’s ranch he rarely socialises with the star set and prefers to hosting week-long sleepovers for his daughter and her friends.
He says: “We make breakfast, go horseback riding, hiking, I really try to offset this computer age kid thing that’s going on now with as much time outside.
“Spending time with her is the best thing I’ve ever done. We have a great bond and it’s the best thing in my life.”
Marina’s privileged upbringing is a far cry from Matt’s own childhood. His parents split when he was a baby and he grew up in a flat in Newton, near Boston, Massachusetts.
Matt was a latch-key kid because his mum Patricia worked long hours to pay the bills. He did not meet his father Paul until he was eight years old and the pair do not speak after he sold stories alleging Matt would “make out” with fellow Friends star Jennifer Aniston while she was married to Brad Pitt. The stories were fiercely denied.
But both father and son share a seemingly insatiable appetite for the opposite sex. Matt may have only been married once, but dad Paul, now believed to be living in Florida, has wed multiple times.
Matt said: “My dad has been married eight, nine, 10 times. He was a ladies’ man. Now he’s old. I don’t talk to him.”
After serving an apprenticeship as a carpenter, Matt decided to move to New York to try modelling. “I realised that I didn’t want to be pounding nails in the snow in New England all my life. I wanted an inside job, where you got to work in the warm. That was the ambition.”
His move into acting came as a direct result of eyeing up a girl. “I was walking to the subway and I turned around to check out her arse. She turned around and checked out mine. We both burst out laughing and got talking.
“She was a young actress on the way to an audition and she invited LeBlanc along, and then to a meeting with her manager. ‘I said, “Oh, OK. But when are we going back to your place?” ’
The manager asked him to read for a commercial and signed him on the spot. Matt went on to appear in TV ads for Heinz ketchup, Levi’s 501 jeans, Doritos and Coca-Cola. But it wasn’t lucrative work and he had eleven dollars to his name when he auditioned for Friends.
It transformed his life and Matt bought his mum a house and a Mercedes – he’s now worth in excess of £40million.
And with his Friends success, his attraction to the opposite sex sky rocketed too
There was a three year fling in the nineties with Playboy playmate Tonya Poole.
She kissed and told: “Girls flocked to him. He’s very charming and drop-dead handsome. Matt wasn’t into kinky sex, just straight sex and lots of it.”
And the girls kept coming…model and athlete Gabrielle Reece, a 17 year-old Kate Hudson, actresses Minnie Driver and Symba Smith, adult star Jenna Jameson.
He was enticed back in to the public eye in 2011 when Friends co-creator David Crane rang to invite to star in a new series called Episodes. In the British-made comedy he plays an exaggerated version of himself but, given that the writers have known him for years, some scenes sail very close to home.
Matt says: “There’s a scene where I talk about my need to sabotage my own happiness and another where I have the inability to appreciate the consequences of my actions.
“Sometimes I think, ‘Hmm, that must be another made up thing’. He’s a little bit more emotionally damaged than I am. But in truth I’m learning a lot about myself.”
Now, he’s taking on the challenge of the new Top Gear, and the polar opposite of his boorish predecessor Jeremy Clarkson. With his megawatt smile, self-deprecating humour and silver fox looks, Matt will no doubt lure female viewers back to the show.
But there is only one girl in his heart. “I remember when my daughter, Marina, was born. The second I laid eyes on her, I was in love, and I had never felt that way before. I couldn’t believe it. I knew from that moment there was nothing that would ever stop me from loving her – even if she crashed my Ferrari.”
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