Warner Bros.
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Dateline NBC
updated 5/5/2004 8:49:08 PM ET 2004-05-06T00:49:08

He was "Friend's" first breakout star. But for those who knew David Schwimmer way back when, that was no surprise. He always was serious, talented and driven to succeed. He founded a theater company when he was still a kid in college. So what's he going do now that he's a multimillionaire TV superstar without a show? Anything he wants.

David Schwimmer: “For some reason, there's no fear. I'm not at all afraid. I'm more excited than anything. I mean, it's just been a great run, you know. And I think all of us feel like it's just-- we've reached our time to move on. “

He played the geek who, somehow, got the girl. For David Schwimmer, playing the romantically-challenged Ross Geller wasn't exactly a stretch. And the producers knew it. He was the first of the “Friends” to be cast. 

Katie Couric: “Your character, Ross, was the first one really written as part of the ensemble with you in mind as a lovable neurotic geek. What did you say? Gee, I'm so flattered.”

Schwimmer: “Yeah, I was like, that’s me."

Couric: “You had no problems with that?”

Schwimmer: “No. There was definitely part of me that identified with that aspect of the character, the neurotic kind of lovable loser. And if you see pictures of me in high school especially, you know, 12, 13, 14-years-old, I mean, you will completely understand why.”

Couric: “It's hard for me to believe because I look at you now. You know, you look very GQ, you've got product in your hair, you look very stylish.”

Schwimmer: “Well, it's about 35 surgeries. Like I had a baby face, like, you know, no hair on my chest or any-- but for some reason I had like a little mustache. You know, I was like, this is great. Braces, head gear, mustache, overweight, you know. I was a lady killer.”

Couric: “You were a total stud.”

Schwimmer: “Even the camera guy's laughing. Laugh away. Laugh it up.“

David might have found it funny, if he hadn't been growing up in a mecca of physical perfection -- Beverly Hills, Calif. His parents were both lawyers. His mom even handled Roseanne’s first divorce.

A detour into acting
After high school, David almost followed in the family's footsteps until he enrolled in a summer acting program at Northwestern University outside Chicago.

Couric: “Do you ever regret not being a lawyer?”

Schwimmer: “Not for a moment.”

Couric: “You know, there are not many people out there who say, gee, I wish I had become a lawyer."

Schwimmer: “Well, I got to play one on TV.”

That was in 1994, on a very short-lived comedy called "Monty," starring another sitcom icon, Henry Winkler. But the six years David spent trying to make it big in show business were anything but happy days. 

Couric: “You made a lot of attempts to break into Hollywood that were not so successful. I mean, at some point, were you like, ugh, you know, I just need to pack my bags and hit the road?"

Schwimmer: “No. I never thought about quitting. I needed to take a break every now and then. You know, when I came out after graduating from Northwestern, I thought, well, I'll come out. In three months, I'll be making millions of dollars as a movie star. Like I really believed that.”

Couric: “You did?”

Schwimmer: “Absolutely. I was—“

Couric: “What were you smoking?”

Schwimmer: “Well, no -- like when I graduated Northwestern, I was, you know, I was at the top of my game, you know, and I was like, well, yeah, I was the man along with my colleagues in the theater company. We were it. You know, so I thought, yeah, I'll come out to L.A. I'll take that city." 

But the city was taking it's toll on him. And after "Monty" went belly up, David had sworn off sitcoms.  

Couric: “And in fact, when the role of Ross came up, you were like, no thanks."

Schwimmer: “Yeah, exactly. I was like, I'm never doing this again. So I went back to Chicago to do theater and while I was there, I got the call about, you know, from my agent who said, well, I know you don't want to do another TV show, but there's a show. And she used this key word that got me, which was she used, it's an ensemble show, like your theater company. It's an ensemble. Just take a look. And I was like, all right. I'll take a look." 

After that ensemble had proven itself as a must-see-TV mainstay, it had bargaining power. But early on, Schwimmer was the first cast member to emerge as a star on his own, with movies, magazines and a chance at big money.  

Schwimmer: “It was made clear to me that I could go back in and renegotiate for a higher salary than some of the other actors on the show. And it was at that point that I just thought, well, that's ridiculous because all of us are showing up for the same amount of work, for the same amount -- everyone's giving 100 percent. There's no-- it's an ensemble show. And we all decided, look, let's just be paid equally, no matter what. Let's all try to get as much as we can, but we're all here doing the same amount of work and we're all equals. So let's do this together."

Using the litigious laurels he gleaned from his parents, David led the way as the cast of "Friends" ultimately negotiated a deal for $1 million per episode -- each. After all, that's what friends are for.

Schwimmer: “We were like six pieces of a puzzle that just felt like, okay, this works. And that is just chance.”

But, as they like to say in Hollywood, what he really wants to do is direct. David's already been at the helm for nine episodes of "Friends," a smattering of independent films, and rumor has it he's already signed on to direct an episode of the "Friends" spin-off "Joey" for his pal, Matt LeBlanc. Of course, at 37, he won't rule out taking another acting gig, if the right one comes along.

Couric: “Do you worry about always being type-cast as Ross?”

Schwimmer: “Sure.”

Couric: “Do you ever think you should call up Henry Winkler and say—“

Schwimmer: “You know, I think of Henry. Then I think, you know, Woody Harrelson on ‘Cheers,’ after that, he did one movie, ‘Natural Born Killers,’ in which he played, you know, a psychotic murderer that just allowed people to imagine him in another light. And I think for some people, it's just the opportunity to demonstrate range.”

Couric: “Are you itching to play a psychotic killer? It would be nice to play somebody polar opposite.”

Schwimmer: “Yeah.”

Couric: “You know, who wasn't lovable, neurotic and geeky, but who was, I don't know.”

Schwimmer: “Psychotic, lovable and geeky.”

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