September 10, 2001 12:00 PM

As Friends prepares for its eighth—and perhaps final—season, here are a few unsolicited plot suggestions: Marry off pampered Rachel to the hunkiest screen idol alive and throw a wedding in which the groom pledges to “split the difference on the thermostat.” Plight finicky Monica’s troth to a goofball actor, then send them on a honeymoon tour of roller-coaster parks. Ditzy Phoebe? Have her settle into marriage with a suave Frenchman who dotes on their young son while she pursues a movie career. Once hitched, have the Smug Marrieds hang out over games of dominos, poker and Taboo.

How could this stuff miss? Reality shows, after all, are hot, and what could be hotter than the real-life romantic antics of Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox Arquette Arquette and Lisa Kudrow? The marriages of Aniston (to Brad Pitt), Cox Arquette (to David Arquette) and Kudrow (to Michel Stern) seem only to have deepened the bonds between the three actresses who first met at auditions for the show in 1994. Not surprisingly, news that Friends might be ending is not going down easily. “It’s heartbreaking,” Aniston, 32, said last week. “If I think about it, it chokes me up to realize this will be over. It’s been a pretty intense eight years for this group of people. Major crossroads in our lives we were at together, so it’s very, very sad.” (NBC, meanwhile, is still hoping that the actors will sign on for a ninth season. “We would like the show to continue for as long as the cast wants to do it,” says NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker.)

To their credit, as their salaries reportedly have inflated to $750,000 per episode, the female Friends stars (and male stars Matthew Perry, David Schwimmer and Matt LeBlanc as well) have kept their egos in check and their loyalties in line. “No one seems jealous of any of the others,” says a source on the set. “The girls are all still friends.” They just have less time for each other offscreen, given their respective film and family obligations. “People do grow up,” says David Crane, the show’s co-creator. “Their lives and priorities shift.”

Ah, maturity. Time was when the Friends troika of leading ladies led lives that bore a closer resemblance to their TV personae. Gone are the days when they would wrap a midnight taping at the Warner Bros. Burbank lot, then head to the Smoke House restaurant for beers with LeBlanc, 34, Perry, 32, and Schwimmer, 34. Instead tapings now start three hours earlier, and the stars’ husbands often watch from the wings. If the shoot runs late, pizza is brought in for the cast, crew and studio audience. And when it’s over, it’s over. “They are just as close as ever,” says a frequent visitor to the set, “but now it’s ‘Work’s done and it’s my weekend and I’m going home to see Brad,’ or whatever.”

Which doesn’t mean they don’t gather together when they can. Cox Arquette says that during Friends’ taping season, they “hang out all the time” and lunch together daily, as has been their habit for seven years. “We try to stay in touch during hiatus and get together,” says Kudrow, 38. “But it gets tougher and tougher.” Several of Aniston’s costars turned out in February for her 32nd-birthday party at the Hollywood Star Lanes, where Pitt secured 10 roped-off lanes for the 40 guests. And when a Friends star recently went to scout a house, she arrived with the other five stars in tow. “It’s not just showing up for the big moments,” says Morgan Fairchild, who plays Chandler’s mother. “It’s also helping out in some of those more mundane things where you don’t really trust your own judgment.”

If growing up has meant growing apart, the Friends six-pack have worked hard to accommodate each other’s complicated thirtysomething-style lives. All have provided a net of support for Cox Arquette, 37, who suffered a miscarriage this spring (“She was very disappointed,” says stepfather Hunter Copeland) and whose 70-year-old father, Richard, is suffering from cancer. They also stood by Perry after his February disappearance into a drug and alcohol rehab center, though there was some strain stemming from whether he would resurface in time for the final season shoot on March 30. (He reemerged March 20 looking tan and healthy.) “It’s sort of like a close-knit family, where one child is sick and at the beginning everybody is very sympathetic,” says a show staffer. “But after a while, when that child is getting all the attention and everyone’s world seems to revolve around his needs, it’s very difficult. Remember, these guys have their own lives now: husbands to go home to; Lisa’s got her little boy.”

Who, by the way, is more than welcome on what one source calls the “totally kid-friendly” set. Three-year-old Julian regularly attends Friday-night tapings and can always find playmates among the crew’s kids in the toy-filled nursery. LeBlanc’s fiancée, model Melissa McKnight, 35, often brings her two kids; co-creator Marta Kauffman sometimes arrives with her three. “These days, when Lisa and I sit in the makeup chairs together, we don’t talk about what color lipstick we’re wearing anymore,” says Maggie Wheeler, 42, whose two children play while she shoots scenes as Chandler’s ex-girlfriend Janice. “Now we’re talking about preschools.” The family atmosphere, says Fairchild, “indicates that people have grown not only into their parts, but their lives—and that there is a real life.”

Tell that to Pitt and Aniston, who are still relishing their roles as over-the-moon newlyweds. In February, Pitt, 37, told a Tonight Show audience that he and Aniston use computer Webcams to see one another when they’re apart. On the Las Vegas set of Ocean’s 11, Pitt turned up late to a Thursday-night steak dinner with costars George Clooney and Julia Roberts so he could catch his wife on Friends. And in a gesture that produced a resounding gulp in married men everywhere, he famously filled Aniston’s Friends dressing room full of roses last Valentine’s Day, with the words I Love My Wife spelled out in petals on the wall.

“They set a terribly high bar,” says John Stockwell, the screenwriter on Aniston’s upcoming comedy, Rock Star, which opens Sept. 7. “When we see how Brad is around Jen, my wife goes, ‘Why can’t you be more like Brad?’ ”

For the couple, simply being Brad and Jennifer has required some “adjustments” since their marriage in July 2000, says Aniston. “It was dealing with doing something very intimate and trying to balance that publicly, which you don’t necessarily want to do but have no real choice. Family stuff as well.” The latter, at least, she was used to: Back in 1999 the whole Pitt clan—parents Jane, 61, and Bill, 60; siblings Julie, 32, and Doug, 34; their four young children; and grandmother Clara Hillhouse, 91—gathered at Pitt’s family’s home in Springfield, Mo., to give her the once-over. “She did great,” says Julie. “She was just so real.” And Brad? “There was definitely a huge difference” from the way her brother had behaved toward previous girlfriends.

Aniston has since become a favorite at Pitt gatherings (though the couple chose to spend Christmas together last year rather than make the trip to Springfield). “She’s like the missing link to complete the family,” says Julie. By contrast, Aniston’s parents, actor John, 68, and Nancy, 65, parted ways when she was 9. Aniston eventually reconciled with her father but split with her mother in 1996 when she spoke about her daughter on a television program. Aniston now says there is “no discussion” of a reconciliation, “but I’m sure that will eventually happen.”

As will having a family. On the upcoming season of Friends, Aniston’s Rachel will be dealing with her surprise pregnancy. In real life, Aniston—who her spokesman says is not pregnant—has spoken of wanting two, perhaps three, kids to help fill the $14 million, six-bedroom French Provincial-style Beverly Hills estate they bought in June, complete with a wine cellar, screening room and pool. As for Pitt’s stated desire for an even bigger family, “It doesn’t matter,” says Aniston, “unless he gets a mail-order bride to give him the rest.”

For the Arquettes, having kids would seem a given. Courteney is the youngest of four, and David, 30, is the pup of the five creative Arquette siblings, which include Rosanna and Patricia. Despite her miscarriage this spring, “the doctors have cleared her to try again,” says stepdad Copeland, and the couple are eager to conceive.

David and “Cece” (the childhood nickname he calls her) have weathered more challenges than most young couples. When they first met on the Scream set in ’96, the electricity was apparent. But Courteney kept her distance, perhaps fearing David’s wild streak, which once included heroin abuse. When they shot Scream 2 a year later, she provided comfort while his mother was dying of breast cancer. In February tragedy struck again when David’s father, Lewis, died of congestive heart failure at age 65. Now Courteney, whom one friend affectionately calls “Daddy’s little girl,” is helping her Florida-based father cope with an advanced case of liver cancer.

Apart from acting, keen-eyed Courteney has a knack for buying and renovating houses. (The couple live in a new $10 million beachfront retreat in Malibu.) To date, she has worked on five and sold four at a tidy profit. “She’s great with decor,” says Realtor Scott Sandler, who brokered the sales. “She has a great sense of what flows and what doesn’t.” Pre-David, says Sandler, Cox had a “shabby chic, country, slipcover, sea grass kind of feel.” But as David has taken to accompanying her to flea markets and antique stores, she has gotten “a little hipper, more into leopard.” In Sandler’s view, David has both “added his feeling” to Courteney’s art and given her “a sense of life and fun.”

Friends and family heatedly deny recurrent suggestions that the Arquettes’ marriage is unraveling. “What we hear inside the family is that Courteney and David are doing quite well,” says Jim Cox, Courteney’s uncle. The pair, both of whose parents divorced, do not hide the fact that they see a therapist for “preventative counseling.” A friend says they have sought counseling “since before they were married, just to make sure things are going to work fine.” Photographer Michael Tammaro, a friend of both, says, “The love is real. It’s not a Hollywood story. It’s just a pure, honest friendship.”

Likewise with Kudrow and Stern, 43, who knew each other long before they got involved. “Lisa had a French roommate years ago who was dating Michel,” a friend says. Years later they ran into each other at an L.A. barbecue and “realized they had feelings for each other,” says the friend. Married since ’95, the pair have “a wonderful, very friendly marriage,” says director Don Roos. “It’s a kind of very ordinary American family.” (Except, perhaps, that Stern speaks only French to Julian.) At their home in Southern California, Kudrow bakes lemon squares while Stern, who recently sold his stake in his ad agency, plays golf and contemplates his next career move. “It’s completely relaxing,” says producer-screenwriter Robin Schiff, a close pal. When the three of them get together, she says, “our idea of a perfect evening is getting take-out food and playing dominos.”

Lisa and Michel’s family orientation is apparent. Stern’s family sometimes pops in from France. Many Sundays the couple have dinner with Kudrow’s parents, Lee, a neurologist, and Nedra, a travel agent, whom Schiff describes as very involved grandparents. “Lisa really has a strong family background,” says Schiff. “She always understood that was a huge component of life.”

Beyond her tight-knit circle, Kudrow guards her privacy fiercely. “Lisa’s totally standoffish,” says a Friends crew member. “She always has been.” But a booming film career has put new pressures on the home life she treasures. At the October premiere of Lucky Numbers, Kudrow looked pained as she talked about the shoot that took place in Pennsylvania. “I have a rule that if I am going to be gone two weeks or more, that I bring [Julian],” she said. “But it was cold and flu season, and I wasn’t eager to put him on a plane.”

With the show entering its twilight, the three girl-Friends seem to stand a good chance of maintaining their bonds once their day jobs end. Each new relationship, after all, has only served to expand the golden circle. Arquette and Stern are frequent visitors to the Friends set, as is Pitt, who often plays video games with Schwimmer or talks cars with LeBlanc. Now if only some of the couples’ wedded bliss would rub off on their male counterparts. “Each of the three girls is really happily married,” says Elliot Gould, who plays Ross and Monica’s dad on the show. “The guys, well…women are generally more intelligent than men, so I could only hope the guys do as well as the women.”

Jill Smolowe

Pamela Warrick, Mark Dagostino, Michelle Caruso, Robyn Flans, Julie Jordan, Elizabeth Leonard, Lyndon Stambler and Cynthia Wang in Los Angeles

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