Kathleen Turner played Chandler Bing’s parent on four episodes of the ‘90s sitcom Friends, a role she now says she would turn down today. The actress appeared on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live this week and was asked to reflect on the role.
"At the time, one of the co-creators of Friends, we were doing a show based on Tallulah Bankhead, and he came up to see the show in San Francisco and came backstage and said ‘you have to play Chandler's dad,’” she told host Andy Cohen. “I thought, ‘OK, a woman playing a man playing a woman. I haven’t done that.’ So I said ‘yes.’”
The character is a drag queen who performs under the name “Helena Handbasket.” She was originally an unseen character until the 2001 episode “The One with Chandler's Dad,” in which Monica (Courteney Cox) takes Chandler (Matthew Perry) to see Helena’s show in Las Vegas.
Although Helena never appears out of drag, the script was unclear as to the character’s sexual orientation and gender identity, and it seems as though the creators either didn’t know the difference between a drag performer and a transgender person or didn’t care. What’s more, the main characters frequently use male pronouns for the character and treat her with disdain and disgust.
Showrunner Marta Kauffman has since said the character was meant to be trans.
“I think we didn’t have the knowledge about transgender people back then, so I’m not sure if we used the appropriate terms,” she told USA Today earlier this year. “I don’t know if I would have known those terms back then.”
Of course, trans people existed in 2001, as did LGBTQ+ advocacy groups like GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign. Depicting a character with sensitivity and appropriate terminology would only have required asking a few questions and listening to the answers.
Turner told Cohen she’d turn the role down today. “Of course, I wouldn’t do it now,” she said, “because there would be real people able to do it."
When the episodes aired in 2001, there were no prominent openly trans actors on television. Friends was among many shows that regularly employed hacky homophobic and transphobic humor, and Turner has acknowledged that the show is hard to watch today.
“I don’t think it’s aged well,” she said in 2018. “It was a 30-minute sitcom. It became a phenomenon, but no one ever took it seriously as a social comment.”
She has also recalled that executives asked her to tone down her trademark dark humor in her portrayal of the character, which she based on real people she saw at actual gay bars. One executive asked her, “Could you just be nicer?” to which she responded, “Oh yeah, right. TV.”
The cast of Friends is currently working on a reunion special for HBO. Details are scant, but it’s reported to be an unscripted show that would likely see the cast discussing the show, rather than returning to the characters in a full reboot.