Variety has confirmed that James Michael Tyler—who quietly became an iconic part of TV history with his performance as the lovably lovelorn Central Perk barista Gunther on Friends—has died. Tyler revealed earlier this year that he had been diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer in 2018, which at that point had already spread to his bones. Tyler was 59.
Tyler was born in Mississippi in 1962, but he moved to South Carolina after his parents died while he was still young. While attending Clemson University, he began working with a student theater group and developed an interest in acting, which led to him getting a Master Of Fine Arts degree from the University Of Georgia. After that, he moved to Los Angeles and started working on a way to break into the entertainment industry.
One of his very first gigs ended up completely defining his career, though, when he began appearing as the bleached-blonde barista in the background of Friends’ Central Perk. The character rarely ever did anything other than serve coffee to unnamed extras at first, simply establishing some consistency for the Central Perk set, but as the show went on, Tyler’s character eventually got a name—Gunther—and a more pronounced role.
Though Gunther wasn’t usually involved in any storylines (save for Rachel’s disastrous career at the coffee shop), and you could count the number of times he actually left Central Perk on one hand, he could always be counted on for the occasional little barb thrown in the direction of the Friends crew—particularly David Schwimmer’s Ross, whose will-they/won’t-they relationship with Rachel consistently got in the way of Gunther’s eternally unrequited love for her.
All in all, Tyler appeared in 150 episodes of Friends, enough to make him as much of a core cast member as anyone else, but (like the core Friends cast, oddly enough) he never found much consistent TV success after the show ended. He popped up on Scrubs, Just Shoot Me, and Sabrina The Teenage Witch, and he played himself on Matt LeBlanc’s meta comedy Episodes.
Earlier this year, a recording of Tyler reading Stephan Kalinich’s poem “If You Knew” was released as a video to raise awareness for the Prostate Cancer Foundation.