June 16, 1997 12:00 PM

WHEN NBC TROTTED OUT ITS stars to help present the fall lineup to advertisers and the press last month in New York City, Matthew Perry was his usual breezy, delightfully flip self, much like Chandler Bing, the role he plays on Friends. But Perry was too light on his feet. In a gray suit that hung like something borrowed from David Byrne, he looked frightfully thin. At a reception afterward at Lincoln Center, guests whispered, “He’s so tiny,” though the actor, 27, is about 6 feet tall. As fans lined up to be photographed with the affable Perry, one excited woman was overheard telling a friend, “I’m having my photo taken with the scrawny Chandler Bing.”

That same day, the actor himself alluded to his slender appearance, increasingly noticeable since the February release of his romantic comedy Fools Rush In. “I was just working too much,” he said, plausibly, during a promotional cyberchat. A new Perry film, Edwards and Hunt, a buddy comedy with Chris Farley is due next month.

Now, though, it seems the problem is more serious than too much success. Last week, Perry checked himself into rehab, reportedly at the Hazelden Foundation in Center City, Minn. His publicist Lisa Kasteler said the actor was in “the early stages of chemical dependency” on a prescription painkiller. Abuse of such drugs can indeed cause dramatic weight loss, says Jim Stillwell, executive director of the Pasadena, Calif.-based Impact Drug & Alcohol Treatment Center. “If you’re taking more than you should,” he says, “you just lose your appetite.”

Those close to Perry were unwilling to speculate about how he came to be battling this demon. But NBC execs were confident he would be back in time to start shooting the new Friends season in August. “We support him,” says a network source. “We intend to be in business with him for a long time.”

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