For millions of TV fans, no matter hard he tries, David Schwimmer will always be Ross Geller from “Friends” — just check the comments section under any Schwimmer-featured YouTube video.
Schwimmer has tried very hard to shake that typecasting. With the exception of a few cameos, he steered clear of television for years after the hit Must-See TV sitcom “Friends” went off the air in 2004 — In a 2009 “Entourage” episode he played a caricature version of himself turning down other sitcoms in pursuit of something “fresh” — instead opting for infrequent film roles.
Schwimmer returned to TV in earnest this year, but his recent success has seen him showing a more serious side. The upcoming AMC series "Feed the Beast," where Schwimmer plays a grieving sommelier trying to start a restaurant in the Bronx, is his latest attempt at true drama, following an acclaimed turn as lawyer Robert Kardashian in FX's "The People v. O.J. Simpson" earlier this year. The new role could help Schwimmer further reestablish his career outside of the “Friends” shadow in a way he has struggled to do in comparison with some of his “Friends” co-stars.
Schwimmer said his serious streak is not part of any master plan. “There was no conscious [decision that] ‘I am doing dramatic work now,’” Schwimmer told International Business Times. “It’s just what happened.”
Schwimmer’s new boss on “Feed the Beast,” executive producer Clyde Phillips, who previously worked on Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” and “Dexter,” said the actor’s range is nothing new.
“I think it’s a tool he has always had in his toolbox,” Phillips told IBT. “I think he is an actor first, even in a comedic role.”
There was certainly some room for drama over the course of Schwimmer’s decade on “Friends,” where he played a spastic, neurotic paleontologist in New York City with a knack for awkward moments, such as his famous "Pivot" rant. His character struggled with divorce, heartbreak, grief and the growing pains of a young professional in the big city. However, as with many actors who play the same character for several years, many viewers started to believe Schwimmer was not doing all that much acting to portray Ross. He had been typecast.
Even Phillips had his doubts when an executive called to suggest Schwimmer for the role in “Feed the Beast.” In fact, it took Schwimmer’s other recent drama series to convince him.
“I’d seen him and loved him in [the HBO miniseries] ‘Band of Brothers.’ I loved it and he was amazing and he played a great role, so I knew he had the chops,” said Phillips. “They sent me ‘O.J.,’ which I watched and I said, ‘OK, I get it. I’d love to meet him,’ because I wasn’t sure yet. I saw that and I saw how great he was in that. So I met with him.”
Phillips was a quick convert. He said Schwimmer’s range allows him to handle the dark comedy in the show without sacrificing the emotional weight of the series — Schwimmer plays an alcoholic and a widower, struggling to jumpstart a restaurant with his recently-out-of-prison chef friend Dion (Jim Sturgess) while facing pressure from the Polish mafia and the challenges of life as a newly single father.
“He’s got this kind of demeanor and this gravitas, as well as the best comic timing in show business. So, he can play both halves of that role,” said Phillips. "He’s a dream. He’s such an intelligent actor and an intelligent guy."
Many of Schwimmer’s former co-stars have gone on to high-profile careers post "Friends." Jennifer Aniston is a bona fide film star, while Matt LeBlanc, Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Matthew Perry have all landed on other, at least moderately successful, series. Meanwhile, Schwimmer has struggled to find a new identity — it's not insignificant that his most commercially successful project since “Friends” is voice-over work in the “Madagascar” animated film franchise.
Part of that is by choice, and with $20 million a year still rolling in from "Friends" royalties after making as much as $1 million per episode during the show's 10-year run, Schwimmer can afford to choose. He has devoted much of his time to passion projects as a director or in the theater and he has also at times been reluctant to embrace the “Friends” brand — Schwimmer does not like to discuss the show in interviews and is also rumored to have delayed cast reunions. But it cannot be denied that Schwimmer has struggled to shake the Ross-sized chip on his shoulder.
“The People v. O.J. Simpson” felt like a move toward a new direction and “Feed the Beast” feels like yet another step on that path to a possible rebranding as a more serious actor. Schwimmer, however, said he is just taking on the projects that speak to him.
“From the outside, I could see [how it would look like that], but it is purely coincidence,” he promised.
"Feed the Beast" premieres June 5 on AMC. Watch the trailer below: