LaReeca Rucker has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and her work has appeared in newspapers across the nation. She spent a decade as a features writer and multimedia journalist with The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, where she was also a USA TODAY contributor. She is a freelance journalist and support journalism instructor in the University of Mississippi's Meek School of Journalism and New Media in Oxford, Mississippi.

Mississippi native grateful for Gunther role on 'Friends': Winona native James Michael Tyler talks coffee

LaReeca Rucker:
The Clarion-Ledger

It seems hard to believe, but Sept. 22, 2014, will mark the 20th anniversary of "Friends," a show that aired 10 years on NBC featuring characters we grew to love.

There was Rachel, Ross, Monica, Chandler, Joe, Phoebe and let's not forget Gunther, the guy who owned the coffee shop where the friends hung out.

What you may not realize is that James Michael Tyler, the guy who played Gunther, is a Mississippi native.

Born in Winona on May, 28, 1962, Tyler describes his formative years in the state and childhood as a "Mayberry upbringing."

"I would get up at dawn in Mississippi," he said. "I would disappear for the entire day, and come back home when the street lights came on. I was raised at a time when things were simple and safe."

"We had a house over the pond, and I remember a lot of fishing, long hot summers and just good people," he said, calling from his Los Angeles home. "It was just a simple, small town life. I have really fond memories of growing up there."

At age 11, life became more complicated when Tyler's father, a retired Air Force captain pilot during World War II and Montgomery County sheriff for a term in the 1950s, died in car accident, and his mother, a homemaker, passed away of breast cancer.

"I was very fortunate to have a lot of close family, sisters and brothers," he said. "My sister took me in and raised me like a son. She was married. She was 10 years older."

Tyler moved to South Carolina to live with his sister when starting junior high.

He attended Anderson University a few years, then Clemson University, where he earned a degree in geology.

"Mississippi is where I got my interest in that," he said. "Where I lived in Winona, they had gravel companies. They would come and dump the gravel, and I guess the quarry where they got the rocks was kind of between Winona and Greenwood in the Hill Country.

"I remember spending days and days looking through the gravel and seeing fossils. I would bring my fossils in for show and tell. I developed an interest in where they came from and how the land got the way it was. I started reading about the Mississippi River Delta and finding out that the river actually created all that."

He also searched for arrowheads.

"I think every kid who grew up in a rural area wanted to try to find arrowheads," he said. We would go on weekend hunts up to Duck Hill and find tons of beautiful arrowheads."

Tyler also had an interest in music that was influenced by his family. Almost every member could play a musical instrument, and his uncle, Clayton Tyler, even made a name for himself in the South doing it.

"He would do those traveling shows around the South in the 1920s," Tyler said. "He played with Jimmie Rodgers, one of the forefathers of that old-style country down there."

Tyler said Clayton Tyler was also a songwriter and photographer who took pictures of fiddlers and folk artists in Hill Country. Some have been recorded in the Mississippi State Archives.

"At one time, he had a photography studio in Winona," he said. "I love photography to this day because he was kind of the eccentric one in my dad's family. He had all these artistic endeavors at a time when there wasn't much money in doing that and pursuing it.

"He did some amazing work. I know he put out a record in the mid-1970s. I had a copy at one point, and it broke. When he passed away, we kind of lost track of the things he had."

Tyler said the creativity of his uncle influenced his own creative ventures. He later shifted his interest to acting and earned a master of fine arts degree from the University of Georgia.

"I was fascinated with kind of being someone else," he said. "After I graduated, I had one job offer from Exxon to monitor oil rigs in the Gulf."

Instead, he headed west to Los Angeles in 1988.

"I had $200 in my pocket, not knowing anyone here," he said. "I found a small apartment and got a job giving out samples in grocery stores."

After learning he could make $55 a day doing extra work on a new show called "Friends," the newlywed showed up to audition after hearing they were looking for someone with coffee experience.

He was asked if he knew how to operate a cappuccino machine and told that he would be referred to as "coffee guy."

"That's what I was the first year and a half," he said.

Then, Marta Kauffman, one of the executive producers, asked if he had any acting experience.

"I said, "Actually, I do have a master's degree in fine arts," Tyler said. "She turned and walked away.

"The next week, she said, 'You have a longer dialogue. We've given you a character name, and that name is Gunther.' She said 'You have a word. You say "yes" in response to the Ross character.'

"Apparently, just looking right for that post in the coffee shop, they kept asking me back, they gradually created the obsession that my character had with Jennifer's character, and they sustained that for 10 years."

Tyler said landing the role was 10 percent preparation and 90 percent luck.

"I'm very grateful that it happened like that," he said. "I had the really weird white hair, which was not natural. That was done before I went on the show. The day before, a friend who was experimenting on people's hair asked, if I wouldn't mind him bleaching my hair. I said, 'Why not. There's not that much anyway.' So I went in with that weird bleached hair. That was probably a unique image for 1994 in a coffee shop in New York."

Tyler said "Friends" taught him so much about how quality television is made.

"It was like a university of 10 years," he said. "Everyone who worked on that production was the best — from the wardrobe department to the crew, writers and business side of it. It ran like a well-oiled machine."

Tyler still has relatives in Mississippi who are proud of his success. Clinton resident Larry Allen, 65, said he has a few memories of Tyler as a kid.

"I guess I was about 15 when he was born," he said. "He has a brother, Tommy, who is my age, and a brother, Johnny, who is a few years older than I am. He has twin sisters, Linda and Brenda, who are a couple or so years younger than I am. He was probably 7 when I graduated from college."

Allen said Tyler's dad, Dewitt Tyler, was a combat Army Air Corps Pilot in World War II "and looked a good bit like Clark Gable."

"His mom, Aunt Sue, was my mother's younger sister, and was a very attractive and sweet lady," he said.

Allen didn't know his cousin was on Friends until the series had aired several years.

"I was very pleased for him, and apparently he had quite a fan following," he said. "I suspect, and it is a pure guess, that it was probably difficult for him losing both his mother at father at such a young age, so I certainly admire what he has done."

Tyler said now he's branching off into writing, working on an animated feature script about cats that he hopes kids and adults can enjoy.

He's still acting. He recently completed work on a BBC production, but can't discuss the details.

He's also returned to his musical roots. He plays piano, sax, clarinet and has a music studio in his Los Angeles home one mile from Hollywood Boulevard.

"I've always aspired to score a film or TV movie," he said. "If there's anything I'd like to achieve it's to score or produce music. That for me is like taking a walk. It interests me, grounds me and I lose track of time. Mississippi gave me that."


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