Matt LeBlanc on 'Episodes,' how much he made from 'Friends,' and why there will never be a reunion

LOS ANGELES — For Matt LeBlanc, Joey Tribbiani is in the rear-view mirror. 

Twenty-three years after being cast as the lovable lunkhead on NBC’s smash sitcom Friends, LeBlanc, 50, is a much richer man who shuns the Hollywood lifestyle, preferring riding dirt bikes on his California cattle ranch to hobnobbing at parties. After Friends spinoff Joey proved an embarrassing flop, he took several years off, but is now busier than ever: Co-hosting BBC’s Top Gear, starring in CBS sitcom Man With a Plan (returning in early 2018), and promoting the final season of Showtime’s showbiz satire Episodes (due Sunday, 10 ET/PT, after an interminable 2½-year break), in which he gamely plays a fictionalized version of himself. USA TODAY chatted with LeBlanc over lunch last week. Highlights:

On playing Episodes’ “Matt LeBlanc”

“In the beginning, I looked at it as, ‘How close is this to me?’ And then I stopped doing that, and I said, ‘This is a character.’ And I would start pitching things.” (Says co-creator David Crane, also behind Friends: “He’s incredibly charming, he does horrible things to people he really cares about. Every time life seems to be going his way, he does something crazily self-destructive, and then manages to charm his way out of it.”) Fake Matt, LeBlanc says, has been “very consistent; he’s grown (only) in the sense that I don’t think he sweats the small things as much. He’s more accepting of his own flaws by the fifth season.”

Why there will never be a Friends reunion (sorry, guys)

“I made a lot of money, a f—ing lot of money” on Friends. How much? “Over $100 million. We still make money on it.” And “my accountant would love” a reunion. But “that show was about a finite period of time, between finishing school and getting married, when your friends are your family. To go back and revisit that … all those characters have moved on. In the finale, everybody went their separate ways: Phoebe got married, Monica and Chandler got married, Ross and Rachel got married. Joey’s in California. What’s the story?”

On his unglamorous lifestyle

I’m not very Hollywood. … I don’t go to the theater, I don’t read plays, I don’t go to movies that much. When I’m not working, I go outside, I go to the woods, I go to the mountains, I explore” his Santa Barbara cattle ranch, where he keeps cars and dirt bikes to ride on his motocross track. “I never set out to be the consummate actor. I’m not an actor-y guy. Everyone in my family, aunts and uncles, has some kind of tool in their hand; this is where I come from.” When he told his mother he wanted to pursue acting after dropping out of college, the Newton, Mass.-born LeBlanc says she responded,  “What do you know about acting?” “Nothing,” he said. “I want to learn.”

The trouble with Joey

The two-season Friends replacement was a disappointment, after NBC set sky-high expectations. Even promoting it was a battle: “When we did Joey, that was like pushing a ball uphill. One person cannot do what six people could do. That was a tough time for me. My daughter (now 13) had some health issues, my marriage kind of fell apart. It was a tricky thing, (amid) a big regime change at the network.” (If he could have a redo, he says, he’d have waited a year and tried to entice Crane to return.)

Why he went back to another network sitcom

Episodes was “about three months’ work every 18 months. I had gone from doing nothing and was ready to go back to work. But it wasn’t enough. I read a bunch of scripts that were out there that were (about) recently divorced dads, back on the dating scene. And I thought, ‘That’s a situation where the kids would be pawns in a dating environment. What about a guy who’s married and has kids?’ The concept I had in mind was Everybody Loves Raymond meets Mad About You. It’s not so much about the kids.  It’s an adult show, it’s about parenting for parents.”  But he’s not pleased with CBS for benching it from the fall lineup: “What about the audience we built? I want to be a team player, but I feel like the network doesn’t have my back.”

On his stint as a ‘presenter’ for BBC’s ‘Top Gear’

“I’m an actor, not a presenter, so it was really odd for me in the beginning to get my head around. So the solution I came up with is I’ll just act like a presenter. I can bend my persona to fit any of the films. My goal is to try to make Top Gear a show that someone who’s not necessarily into cars can enjoy,” even though “you don’t want to alienate the gearhead.” To film a segment on vintage racing cars, “I had to go get a racing license in the UK, so now I’m officially a racing driver.”

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