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Kudrow shifts focus to family

Actress says goodbye to her role of Phoebe Buffay.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

She's the graduate of an exclusive college, and her big dream was to go into medical research. This doesn't sound anything like Phoebe Buffay. But that is Lisa Kudrow. There are lots of surprises in her past. But the biggest surprise for Lisa is the life she lives today.

Lisa Kudrow: "I was not a class clown type. I would do it when it was appropriate -- take a play production class or write sketches. At slumber parties I was a riot -- those were my gigs.”

She's the somewhat musical, somewhat spaced-out member of the gang.

And for Lisa Kudrow, playing Phoebe Buffay has been quite a ride.

Matt Lauer: “Can you describe at all what it was like to take that ride? That initial kind of launch?”

Kudrow: “To me it felt a lot like being on a roller coaster and making that climb. I've spent a lot of time bracing myself for the drop. And there really hasn't been a drop for the show, or for me personally.”

Acting was a surprising choice
Still, it's been an unusual trip to the top for Lisa. For a long time, being an actress was the last thing on her mind. Her dad was a neurologist in L.A. -- and Lisa wanted to follow in his footsteps.

Lauer: “So what was your view on acting as you were a young girl?”

Kudrow: “Oh, I didn't think much of it. I thought, you know, actors are riff-raff.”

Lauer: “Didn't you say you thought they were dumb?”

Kudrow: “Yeah.I thought they were dumb. I'd see them on talk shows. I'd read the stories about marriages breaking up. And I just thought: ‘Wow I don't want to be part of that group.’”

Lisa went to Vassar and majored in biology. But she acted in school plays, and started to get the bug.

Kudrow: “I would just get these feelings of yeah, I could do that acting. I could do comedic acting. You'd be good -- alright, stop! Just like this little argument in my head. Alright, stop. Go back to school and be a person you could have some respect for.”

After she graduated from Vassar in 1985, a friend of her brother, comedian Jon Lovitz, pushed Lisa to join the famous L.A. comic troupe, the Groundlings. They accepted her after two auditions, and Lisa Kudrow's acting career was officially underway.

Her big TV break came four years later: the role of Ursula, the waitress, on "Mad About You." That led to what was supposed to be her biggest break: a job with a new sitcom called "Frazier."

Lauer: “You actually were offered the role of Roz on ‘Frasier.’"

Kudrow: “Right.”

Lauer: “Got the part and then they changed their minds.”

Kudrow: “Yeah, yeah, I was fired before they shot the pilot.”

Lauer: “They said you were great. But they always say that though. But we're going in a different direction with the character.”

Kudrow: “Yeah, right. That's what I was told. Yeah, it's alright. But I was really disappointed. And yet it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”

Because just a year later, she read for a role in another new show, then titled "Friends Like Us." This time, she got the part for real.

But Lisa was still playing Ursula on "Mad About You." So, in a TV first, writers made the characters twin sisters.

Along with success in "Friends," Lisa's also done a string of well-received movies, including the comedy hits "Analyze This" and "Romi & Michele's High School Reunion."

Not bad for someone who wanted to be a scientist. Maybe thanks to that non-showbiz background, 40-year-old Lisa seems to have a good handle on dealing with fame and Hollywood.

Career after 'Friends'
Her private life with her husband -- ad executive Michael Stern -- and their son Julian, stays private. She says they will be her main focus now.

Lauer: “What are your hopes for the first year after ‘Friends’?”

Kudrow: “My hopes are to be doing that great independent film here or there, so that I also have time to be involved as a parent in my son's school.”

Lauer: “So now it's been actress and mom, and you want it to be mom and actress?”

Kudrow: “Uh-huh.”

Lisa also has her own TV production company -- called "Is Or Isn't Entertainment." But "Friends," she knows, will always be a big part of her life -- no matter what she does from here on out.

Lauer: “Do you see a time where people will hear your name and they'll say, ‘Oh, she's the one who was fabulous in x movie or y movie?’ And not immediately say Phoebe from ‘Friends’?”

Kudrow: “No, I think it's pretty much going to be ‘Friends’ that defines my career.”

Lauer: “And you’re OK with that?”

Kudrow: “Sure. Why not? Nothing to be ashamed of. It's a great thing.”

The moments Lisa says she'll always remember from her "Friends" career, are those wonderful songs she got to sing.

Lauer: “Is there a particular Phoebe song that after ten years still sticks in your mind?”

Kudrow: “Yeah, there's a few of them.”

Lauer: “Tell me one.”

Kudrow: "One of them?"

Lauer: “Give me one.”

Kudrow: “'The cow in the meadow goes moo. Oh, the cow in the meadow goes moo.' Oh no that's not it! Wait, oh yeah that's it! I'm sorry!”

Lauer: “How does it go from there? 'Wel,l the cow in the meadow goes moo. The cow in the meadow goes moo...'"

Kudrow: “Then the farmer knocks him on the head and chops him up and that's how we get hamburger. I like that one.”

Lauer: “So you hum that to your son? Is that the one?”

Kudrow: “I did sing it to him once. And he was alright.”

Lauer: “Had nightmares for three weeks.”