June 05, 2000 12:00 PM

Just two days earlier, Yolanda and Raphael Tisdale had moved out of their Hollywood Hills house, so they weren’t home at noon on May 20 when Friends star Matthew Perry dropped in quite unexpectedly—by driving his green Porsche smack into their porch. “He successfully swerved to avoid an oncoming vehicle but lost control and ran off the road,” says Sgt. Paul Partridge of the LAPD. Once Perry had provided insurance information and satisfied the attending officer that there was no indication of drugs, alcohol or injuries—save Perry’s totaled Porsche, which had to be towed—police let the matter drop. This was fine with the Tisdales, whose house sits less than a quarter mile from Perry’s two-bedroom house. “I must say, to his credit, [Perry] called police and waited for them to arrive,” says Yolanda. “He did the right thing.”

That must have seemed small consolation to Perry, 30, whose life of late has been fraught with the sort of awkward moments more typically associated with Chandler Bing, his lovably anxious Friends character. The accident occurred the same day that Perry concluded a two-week stay at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “I went into the hospital to be treated for a serious stomach ailment, and fortunately I’m feeling much better,” Perry told PEOPLE on May 22.

His spokeswoman Lisa Kasteler had earlier said that Perry was suffering from “the flu” and dismissed rumors that his ill health was the result of a high-protein diet gone awry. A Friends crew member, who asked not to be identified, says that among show staffers the word is that Perry was suffering from pancreatitis, a potentially chronic inflammatory condition. Asked if Perry is indeed suffering from this ailment, Kasteler responded, “I don’t know.”

Some of the concern about Perry’s condition is fueled, no doubt, by his past dependency on the painkiller Vicodin, which the actor began taking following wisdom-tooth problems and injuries from a Jet Ski accident. In 1997, Perry checked himself into a drug rehab center to overcome his addiction, later saying, “I don’t think there’s anything in the world that I can’t face, having faced that.”

His ex-girlfriend Rene Ashton, 30, says that his recent hospital stay was not substance-related. “No drugs. No alcohol,” says Ashton, who still speaks often with the actor despite the December breakup of their yearlong romance. “Generally,” she added, “when Matthew finishes working on something—he works so hard at everything—he usually gets a cold or a little something. It’s a pattern with him.”

Ashton also shot down a tabloid report that he’d gone on an extreme, high-protein diet to shed the added weight that was obvious to anybody who tuned in to the season finale of Friends. Indeed, said a Friends crew member of Perry’s expanded girth, “he’s a nosher! He’s always grabbing something [at the service table].” Perry’s weight gain, which is in stark contrast to the 35 lbs. the 6-ft. actor dropped in ’97 when he shrank to 145 lbs., was the source of much chatter on the set. Says a TV production source: “Everybody was talking about how bloated, how puffy, Matt’s face was.”

None of this can be comfortable for Perry, who is sensitive about his weight. In 1998, when he weighed a sleek 165 lbs. and was being interviewed for People’s ’99 list of the world’s 50 Most Beautiful People, he described his appearance the previous year as “freakishly thin.” He mocked his less-than-chiseled appearance in the premier season of Friends, joking, “My face looked like a Spalding basketball.” The former No. 2-ranked junior tennis player in Ottawa, Perry said that he’d taken up Frisbee and wallyball (volleyball on a racquetball court) “to exercise so I don’t become a Mr. Fat Fatty.” He also said that he was beginning to recognize the need for a good diet.

Despite Perry’s recent travails, the outlook is bright for the actor, who is adored for his ready sense of humor and easy charm. The final episodes of Friends’ sixth season enhanced Perry’s stature as Chandler’s courtship of Monica took center stage. And the $750,000-per-episode, two-year contract recently signed by Perry and his all-for-one band of costars ranks among the most lucrative in television. Not bad for a guy who starred in several failed sitcoms before signing on to Friends at $10,000 an episode.

More important, Perry’s friends and family are offering a protective barricade while he recuperates from health and headline problems. “He’s on the mend,” says Friends costar Matt LeBlanc. Gregory Simpson, Perry’s former drama teacher at Ashbury College, a private boys’ school in Ottawa, adds, “When the crap hits the fan, Matthew knows how to deal with it.” To be sure, two days after his accident, Perry quipped in a statement, “Matthew is fine, and the porch was treated and released later in the day.” As for his health, Perry offers simply this: “I’m hanging out and recuperating with my family and want to say thanks to everyone for their concern and good wishes.”

Jill Smolowe

John Hannah, Mark Dagostino, Michael Fleeman, Julie Jordan, Pamela Warrick and Michelle Caruso in Los Angeles and Constance Droganes in Toronto

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