Imagine a Friends without the innumerable hilarious, relatable and unique characters. What made Friends run for a span of 10 seasons went beyond just the six central characters. The iconic show was about the people that surrounded them too. It was also about that cutesy apartment with a purple door, the twin recliners, the coffee mugs, the huge orange sofa reserved for the friends and that café that bore witness to it all – Central Perk.
And Central Perk wouldn't have found its absolute glory without its manager, Gunther. Forever adorning a tie and colourful shirts, Gunther was that solid professional who always stood guard to the beloved café. He even hired two of the friends when they were in need of work – Rachel, when she was struggling to find her footing in a world without the privileges that came with belonging to a rich family, and later Joey, when he struggled to make some extra money when his acting career came to a standstill.
Another aspect the man was known for was his unrequited love for Rachel, the woman of his dreams. Throughout the course of the show, the viewers were well-aware of his developing crush that was like an open secret. He kept his feelings largely to himself – at times, acting out in front of Ross, the man he perhaps knew Rachel would eventually go back to.
Despite his limited screen time, Gunther remained a memorable character, and that had a lot to do with the way actor James Michael Tyler breathed life into him. He never let his character become your regular grumpy manager – he was grumpy, yes but endearing, too. He was stern but forgiving. He was sarcastic but honest. His personality radiated a charm, a warmth that kept him alive in the minds of the viewers, even 17 years since the Friends finale. Technically speaking, Central Perk was because he was. When he appeared for a little while in Friends: The Reunion, airing earlier this year, you knew something was amiss – Tyler looked different, frail. But what he continued to generate was an air of familiarity and fondness.
Tyler passed away earlier on Sunday, at the age of 59. Through his legacy in the popular sitcom, we look back at some of the memories he has left behind as the man behind Central Perk.
Episode: The One With The Stain (Season 8, Episode 7)
Ross is attempting to learn Dutch when Gunther serves him some coffee. He immediately thanks him in Dutch with the help of his translation book. When Gunther responds back fluently in the language, Ross is left dumbfounded, not knowing what to say. That's when Gunther realizes that he actually doesn't know the language, prompting him to call him an 'ezel (donkey)' with his trademark 'only-for-Ross' frown. After a lot of research, when Ross finally understands the meaning of the word, he calls out Gunther, using the same comment on him. To that, Gunther, with absolute ease, retorts back in Dutch with a sentence Ross neither knows the meaning of, nor is he quick enough to grasp it all in one go. Check mate, much?
Episode: The One With The Tiny T-shirt (Season 3, Episode 19)
The episode begins with Gunther – wearing a club, one of the four suits of playing cards, designed vest – serving some coffee to a newly-single Rachel. In this moment, in a voiceover, he thinks about asking her out for a movie… as his 'lover' – a slightly shy but aspirational smirk forming on his face. He then shrugs it off thinking about the awkwardness of phrasing it like that as he tries to come up with a better way of finally acknowledging his feelings. That's when Mark, Rachel's colleague, enters the scene confessing his feelings for her instead. In a rare moment of absolute frustration, he stomps off to the back of the kitchen, only to break presumably what is a chunk of utensils and mugs. He returns, poker-faced, as everyone looks at him (having heard the sudden noise), when he retorts, "I dropped a cup."
Episode: The One With All The Kissing (Season 5, Episode 2)
When Rachel is reeling with her emotions being all over the place after Ross' marriage with Emily, Monica encourages her to start dating again. She, for a moment, even points out to Gunther, telling her to think about him. Gunther, who has his back to the group, hears this and smiles, thinking that he finally has his shot just as Rachel thinks about him, perhaps for the first time in five seasons. Unfortunately, that moment lasts barely a second as Monica points to another guy sitting in the café. Rachel agrees to reach out to him, locking in on a date, when Gunther grudgingly goes up to him and says, "Get Out" – with a placard reading, 'We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.'
Episode: The One With The Ball (Season 5, Episode 21)
Gunther's endearing persona comes out in full display when he decides to buy Mrs. Whiskerson, the cat Rachel bought for 1000 dollars. The feline is clearly giving her a hard time, leaving her with numerous scratches and sleepless nights, when Gunther offers to get her out of her way for a hefty 1500 dollars. When he visits Rachel to take the cat's velvet pillow, he silently hopes she'd keep coming to his place to pay visits to her. The fact that Gunther, who doesn't quite earn all that well, would take responsibility of the cat – that too with such a huge sum of money – just so Rachel isn't burdened, says a lot. The scene culminates with Gunther nudging Ross, asking whether the cat is "some kind of a snake or something" as Mrs. Whiskerson 'hisses'.
Episode: The One With Joey's New Girlfriend (Season 4, Episode 5)
In this episode, Pheobe is obsessed with her 'sexy voice.' After she catches a cold, her voice takes a nasal twinge, making her sound different but delightful. Wanting to capitalize more in that voice, she feels upset after recuperating. Seeing Gunther sneeze soon after, she kisses him in the hope of catching back the cold. Gunther, confused and guilty, then reaches out to an unperturbed Rachel apologizing for not stopping the kiss. In that moment, one can't help but feel sorry for the guy, who in his head, feels as if he's cheated on the love of his life.
Episode: The Last One, Part 1 (Season 10, Episode 18)
Right as Rachel is set to leave for Paris, Gunther finally musters up the courage to talk to her about his long-buried feelings. In a heartfelt moment, he tells her that he loves her – foreshadowing exactly what Ross has felt all this time. Rachel, in her turn, sweetly responds saying that she loves him too, but maybe not in the same way – something Gunther always knew about. He gives her a small smile, aware that what he just said wouldn't be enough to make her stay. And yet, there's something extremely heartwarming with the way Rachel tells him that she'd always think of him when she sees a man "with hair brighter than the sun." We would too, Rachel. We would too.