By Michelle Tauber
February 09, 2004 12:00 PM

As dinner parties go, the one held at a Beverly Hills mansion on Jan. 19 had a lot going for it: a warm host, great company and fine wine. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the host was Jennifer Aniston, the setting was the $13.5 million home she shares with husband Brad Pitt, the guests were the cast and executive producers of Friends, and the wine—bottles of Haut-Brion—was vintage, bought during the show’s first 1994-95 season. The intimate gathering, held just four days before the taping of the Friends series’ finale, “was a great evening,” says producer David Crane. (And a catered one: The famously kitchen-klutzy Aniston “did not cook,” he adds with a laugh.) Reminiscing over the wine that producer Kevin S. Bright had saved from season 1, Bright says, “It was closure for us.”

And with that, Friends‘ tightly knit friends—Aniston, Courteney Cox Arquette, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer—headed into their last week on the job, capped off with the Jan. 23 final taping on Stage 24 at the Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank. There, after 10 seasons, dozens of hairstyles, gallons of lattes and a decade’s worth of emotional ups and downs, the cast bid a teary farewell to Friends. “It’s going to be extremely hard to not be a part of this show that I’ve grown up doing,” says Cox. “I don’t know what it’ll be like not doing it.” So reluctant was the cast to say goodbye that one form of closure would hardly do. Instead they settled for three: dinner at the Pitts; dinner at II Sole, a favorite cast hangout in West Hollywood, three days later; and a pull-out-the-stops wrap party on Jan. 24. “The party was beautiful and sweet,” says Aniston. “And sad.”

That was nothing compared to shooting the finale, which airs May 6 on NBC. As the audience of 250 family and friends applauded during the opening theme song, “the tears were flowing and the entire cast had to go back and have their makeup redone before starting,” says frequent guest star Maggie Wheeler, who played Janice, Chandler’s nasally ex. “The energy in the place was just incredible.”

In fact, the entire day had been pulsing, beginning with a message to series creators Crane and Marta Kauffman, courtesy of five sky-writing jets: Thank you Marta and David—Love, the writers. A few hours after the writing had faded, the six cast members huddled backstage before the taping commenced, just as they have for a decade. “That’s one thing that has stayed consistent for 10 years, is that nobody knows what goes on in that huddle,” says Bright. “Nobody gets near it—I don’t think you’re allowed to be within eyesight.”

Emotions continued to run high throughout the taping, which invoked a high school graduation vibe: The cast and crew took turns signing specially created Friends yearbooks, and Cox’s husband, David Arquette, filmed everything with a video camera. When his wife repeatedly flubbed a line at one point, “Matthew Perry said, ‘Somebody is gonna get fired,’ ” says Wheeler. “The whole place cracked up.”

Yet by the time Bright, who directed the episode, yelled, “That’s our show!” the tears were flowing as freely as the coffee at Central Perk. “I walked out to the cast and immediately started crying,” he says, “and they were already there.” Although Aniston had been tagged as the Friend Most Likely to Need a Hanky, Crane says the tears were widespread: “There were no rocks,” he says. “We were all pretty porous.”

The weepiness is understandable. Strangers when they were thrown together for the Friends pilot, the cast soon formed an exceptionally close bond that has seen them through major real-life changes and their collective rise to megastar status. At the show’s wrap party, which drew 1,000 guests to L.A.’s Park Plaza Hotel on Jan. 24, the sextet honored their roots by reenacting the original pilot’s inaugural scene. “Nobody knew they were going to do it, and it blew everyone away,” says Crane. The bash, which featured cocktails with names like Smelly Cat and Ugly Naked Guy, also boasted music by Sheryl Crow and the Rembrandts, who performed—what else?—the Friends theme song. The revelers included Pitt, who had skipped the final taping the day before in hopes of keeping the ending a surprise until May. Says Crane: “He said, ‘Don’t tell me anything!’ ”

Sorry, Brad, but let’s face it: You don’t have to read the espresso grounds to know how it’s going to end. Yet beyond the suspense of whether Ross will finally wind up with Rachel and whether Monica and Chandler will finally become parents—what do you think?—the bigger questions loom: What will happen to Central Perk’s couch, Joey’s recliner, Monica’s peephole frame? Although the cast grabbed a few mementos from the set, “everything’s going to be preserved for posterity,” says Bright—with most props destined for a probable Warner Bros. museum.

There were pricier keepsakes to be had as well, with the producers giving the cast baubles from Neil Lane (diamond earrings for the women; cufflinks for the men). In return, the cast gave the producers “beautiful” inscribed Cartier watches, says Kauffman.

Such extravagant parting gifts would have seemed unfathomable in the first season of Friends, when the cast earned roughly $20,000 each per episode and the show’s backstage atmosphere was marked by a college-dorm vibe. “There was a funky little greenroom with some broken-down couches,” says Wheeler, who joined the show in season 1. “Everybody played poker and smoked cigarettes all day.” Yet from the beginning, says Elliott Gould, a.k.a. Monica and Ross’s dad, “there was a wonderful feeling of team play.”

That unity endured, guiding the cast through the much-publicized salary negotiations that led to their individual $1 million-per-episode paydays. On the set, “you saw genuine affection, and it wasn’t cliquish,” says Tom Selleck, who guest-starred as Monica’s boyfriend. “It wasn’t anything but a genuine union.”

And one the cast plans to maintain after the show’s demise. “We’ll keep seeing each other,” says Perry. “We love each other.” Still, a certain distancing is inevitable as they pursue separate paths. “That group is so close—I really think it’ll knock the wind out of their sails,” says Cox’s mother, Courteney Copeland. “It’s going to be more of an adjustment than they realize.”

Especially given the looming life changes on the horizon: Cox and Arquette are expecting their first child in July, just as Cox’s alter ego prepares for motherhood via adoption. “You can’t help that I’ve become Monica a little, and Monica has become me a little,” she says. “I think we’ll both be pretty damn good moms.”

Likewise, Aniston has made no secret of the fact that she and Pitt are ready to start a family. “I’m looking forward to meeting my future grandson or granddaughter,” says her father, actor John Aniston.

While Kudrow, Perry and Schwimmer are all focusing on new career ventures, it is Matt LeBlanc—who is expecting a child with wife Melissa McKnight in a few weeks—who is taking the biggest risk. Come next fall, his NBC spinoff, Joey, will air in Friends‘ old time slot. A script is being finalized, and “Joey will move to L.A.,” says Bright, who will also produce Joey. “What the concept is really about, very simply, is starting over.” So can we expect Joey’s old friends to drop by? “I’m certainly not opposed to it,” says Schwimmer. “We’re all really thrilled for him.”

And so, as the cast embarks on life after Friends, saying goodbye to Stage 24—now officially renamed the Friends stage—remains difficult. How would they like the show to be remembered? “As being funny,” says Perry. “As being just the nicest place to be.”

Mission accomplished. As Perry’s alter ego Chandler might say, Could we be any sadder to see them go?

Michelle Tauber. Julie Jordan, Sean Daly, Todd Gold, Maureen Harrington, Oliver Jones, William Keck, Kwala Mandel, Dana Meltzer, Monica Rizzo and Brenda Rodriguez in L.A.