HOLLYWOOD -- Actor Matt LeBlanc, a member of the ensemble troupe of TV's new 'Friends' series, could become the X generation's Tom Cruise. In 'Friends,' slotted between NBC's hit series 'Mad About You' and 'Seinfeld,' LeBlanc plays a struggling actor who hangs out in a New York City coffee house. If 'Friends' isn't high drama or as funny as, say 'Home Improvement,' it does deal with X generation angst: dating, jobs, career goals and relationships. Affable, easygoing and thoughtful, the handsome LeBlanc welcomes his role as Joey, if for no other reason than he isn't playing a likable dumbbell for a change. 'Joey is a guy more in tune with his surroundings than roles I've played in the past,' LeBlanc said recently. 'He's more intelligent, which for me is a lot more fun to play. 'It's not as hard as doing a dumb guy. It's difficult playing not- so-bright characters because you have to unlearn things you've taken for granted. 'Believe me, I've played some numbskulls in 'The Top of the Heap' and 'Vinnie and Bobby,' both for Fox. 'Writers usually project dumb guys as endearing, and that's one quality I made sure stayed in my performances. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were the kind of endearing dumb guys audiences really like. They were charming.' In 'Friends' Joey has a roommate, played by Matthew Perry. They live across the corridor from a pair of attractive generation X females played by Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston.
'I don't think I was ever like Joey when I began acting,' LeBlanc said. 'I was never one to hang out in coffee houses and that sort of environment. I'd just as soon make a pot of coffee at home and sit there. 'There is something to be said for hanging out like Joey does. It has to do with an artist's mentality.' LeBlanc, a native of Newton, Mass., moved to New York when he was 18 to study acting for two years, supporting himself with TV commercials. He also was a short-order cook and worked behind a deli counter. He is square-jawed with black hair and penetrating dark brown eyes. He looks good in tank tops. By any standard, the 27-year-old bachelor qualifies as a hunk. LeBlanc, whose mother was born in Italy, makes his feature film debut in 'Lookin' Italian,' playing the son of a murdered Mafia hit man, scheduled for release later this year. He played Robert Conrad's son in the TV movie 'Anything to Survive,' the story of a shipwrecked family on the Alaskan coast. 'Joey, like me is an Italian-American,' he said. 'We share the same compassion for our fellow man. We try to do the right thing. That sort of goes with an Italian background. 'The best part of working in this series is Abe Burrows, who directed and produced 'Cheers' for so many years. I've really learned so much from him about working in this format. 'The creators and writers of the show are the same guys who did 'Dream On.' Situation comedies are tricky. Like doing a play every week. 'This is my fourth series. The first was 'TV 101,' which was canceled after 13 weeks. 'Top of the Heap' was canceled after seven. 'Vinnie and Bobby,' was canceled after seven episodes too. It was a spin-off of a spin-off of 'Married With children.' Very weird. 'It's very humbling to work in three shows that go down the tubes one after the other. But like anything else, you never let the dream die. 'You gotta hope the fourth time is a charm with 'Friends.' I feel like those first three series were practice for this one. 'Friends' has really good vibes going for it, like a highly paid, intimate repertory company. 'We're signed for 13 episodes and the network and Warner Bros. are really behind us.' After his experience with the trio of failures, LeBlanc was considerably cheered with his assignment in a remake of the '50s classic 'Reform School Girls' as a TV movie. 'It was a big change of pace for me,' he said. 'I played a mean, nasty guy. First time I've had a chance to play a heavy. 'They say it takes 10 years to become an overnight success. And I've been plugging away for eight years. 'Friends' is the best exposure to a mass audience I've had. We'll see what happens. 'When I left college early I became a carpenter in Massachusetts. I moved to Florida and swung a hammer down there too. 'I got tired of it and decided to see what I could do in the creative arts. 'I'd like eventually to get into feature films and work with really creative people. I'm here for the duration, man.'