Matt LeBlanc back with Episodes

Matt LeBlanc. Pic: Comp

Matt LeBlanc. Pic: Comp

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IT’S hard to believe it’s been 10 years since Friends came to an end with the premiere of its final ever episode. That’s right, ten whole years since the gang went for one last coffee together at Central Perk.

But given that we can still watch repeats of the phenomenally successful American sitcom practically any night of the week, it’s clear there’s still a lot of love out there for Joey, Chandler, Ross, Monica, Phoebe and Rachel.

When Friends wrapped up in 2004, the cast all went off to do their own thing, with varying degrees of success.

Matt LeBlanc, who played nice-but-dim ladies man Joey Tribbiani in the series, went on to star in spin-off show Joey, which, to put it kindly, was a bit of a flop.

Joey, which saw the much-loved Friends character move from New York to Los Angeles to pursue his acting career, lasted just two series before it was binned in 2006.

But the Massachusetts-born actor got his career back on track with Episodes, the acclaimed BBC Two comedy, which returns for a third series tomorrow night.

LeBlanc even won his first Golden Globe for his work in the first series, although you get the impression that he’s so chilled out, he doesn’t mind if any project he’s involved in is a hit or not - just as long as he has a laugh doing it.

“The phone’s not ringing off the hook, but that’s OK by me,” the 46-year-old reveals about his career. “I feel very fortunate – work to me has become a kind of hobby.

“I was a part of something that gave me financial independence,” he continues. “The rent is paid, so now it’s about projects that turn me on. Working three months a year on [Episodes], that’s enough. But I’m kind of spoilt when it comes to comedy.

“I was on Friends, which was one of the funniest things on television. When I read a comedy and don’t laugh, I think it’s probably not that funny, so I feel a little jaded that way.”

While his profile has fallen since Freinds ended a decade ago, he is still capable of grabbing headlines – most recently when the tabloids ran an unflattering photograph of him on a night out in London.

“They said I’m going bald,” he says. “It was like, ‘Awesome, you gotta write something bad’.

“It’s like, ‘Come on, you can’t say something nice?’ But I guess it’s dirty laundry, right? That’s what people want to read about.”

As one of the most recognisable faces on TV, the ever-affable LeBlanc knows what it’s like to be blinded by the glare of the paparazzi press, but he isn’t one to moan too much about the intrusion into his private life.

“It’ll never change, so you just deal with it,” he says.

Nor does he mind fans greeting him with Joey’s catchphrase, ‘How you doin’?’

“I made a lot of money on that show, and laughed my ass off all day long,” he says.

Indeed, LeBlanc could comfortably live off his Friends earnings for the rest of his days. By the end of the show’s run, he and co-stars Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Courteney Cox-Arquette, David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston were raking in a cool million dollars per episode.

But he says, “It’s not like I’m lugging for a living. I enjoy acting.”

LeBlanc says he did have some doubts about signing up for TV comedy again in Episodes, but the move clearly paid off, as evidenced by both the aforementioned Golden Globe award and impressive viewing figures.

He jokes that he took the lead role in Episodes – which is written by Friends’ creator David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik – to stop it going to his one of his former Friends co-stars.

“To get to work with David again and Jeffrey was too good an opportunity. I was almost like, ‘Gosh, if I don’t say yes, they’ll go to Schwimmer. I can’t let him have it!’”

In the series he plays an egotistical, manipulative version of himself – along the lines of Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in The Trip – and he clearly has a lot of fun taking the mickey out of his image.

“I’m not afraid if people think Matt LeBlanc in Episodes is who I am,” he insists. “My friends and family know who I am.”

Episodes also stars British actors Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig as Sean and Beverly, a husband and wife who have decamped to LA to write scripts for a LeBlanc sitcom.

Not much is off limits. In the first series, Matt slept with Beverly. In series two, he had a one-night stand with an obsessed fan and an affair with his network executive’s wife. And tomorrow, in the first episode of the third series, we see him arrested for drink driving with his (fictional) kids in the back seat of his car.

The real-life dad-of-one refuses to reveal how many of his real traits are reflected in his Episodes character, only saying that he prefers to “leave it as a mystery.”

The actor – who starred in a series of commercials, including one for Heinz tomato ketchup, and took acting classes in New York before he got his big break – doesn’t believe his life would be any less complete if he hadn’t found fame on Friends.

“I’m a pretty happy, easy-going guy,” he says. “I’d be happy doing whatever I’m doing.

“As long as you have your health...”

• Episodes returns to BBC Two tomorrow, 10pm