Central Perk remains one of the most memorable hangouts in TV history. And while the famed orange couch was a fixture throughout the series, observant fans will note the changing artwork hanging in the cafe’s background — bright pop-art depictions of a steaming coffee cup, the Statue of Liberty and various other subjects were frequently seen.
The artist behind these paintings, Burton Morris, spoke with TODAY in honor of his recent exhibit in New York, “The Art of Friends.”
Morris was connected with the show during its first season, when David Schwimmer wore a T-shirt bearing one of his designs in the third episode.
“It was just a stroke of luck that David Schwimmer wore the T-shirt on the show,” Morris said. “What's crazy is that I got a call from a friend, who said, ‘Hey, some guy's wearing your shirt on some show called “Friends.”’ And I'd never heard of the show before.”
Morris called his sister, who was living in California, and asked her to watch the episode when it aired on the West Coast three hours later and confirm that the illustration of a baseball player was indeed his. The next day, he called Warner Bros. and was able to reach one of the show’s executive producers, Kevin S. Bright.
“He said, ‘Oh, I know that T-shirt. I love that art.’ And he asked me, am I ever coming out to Los Angeles?” Morris said.
As luck would have it, Morris was planning a trip from his native Pittsburgh to LA two weeks later, and was invited to visit the show’s set and meet the cast.
“At that time, I didn't know who any of these actors or actresses were,” he said. “And they were so nice. And we're all the same age. So I'm like, ‘Good luck, Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox and David Schwimmer. I hope it goes well.’”
Over a dozen of Morris’ works were featured over the show’s 10-season run, starting with a vibrant 4-foot-by-4-foot painting of a toaster.
“Every season, I would get calls from the set designers and, you know, Kevin himself to say, ‘Hey, what do you have this year?’”
As “Friends” grew in popularity, Morris’ career took off too.
“I was having shows all over Europe and Asia," he said. "And people all over would say, ‘Wow, you're the artist from the show “Friends."' I would never dream that TV could be a way to get my name out there like that."
Morris says he’s met the cast a number of times over the years, and was invited by Bright to attend some of the tapings.
“The cast signed a coffee cup painting of mine to me as a thank-you gift,” he recalled. “Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston came to my show in 2002. And they ended up acquiring some works of mine. What was nice, over the years, all the cast members have something of mine.”
“It was fascinating to me to watch these people I'd just met who I didn't know who they were become household names,” he added.
As “Friends” has caught on with new viewers, thanks to reruns and Netflix, Morris has enjoyed seeing his work embraced by young fans — including his own children.
“My daughter, Ava, who's 10 years old, watches some of these shows,” he said. “I know she might be a little young for it, but she loves it. It's, like, her favorite show.”
He added, “My 5-year-old daughter, Bella, actually can do Matt LeBlanc's ‘How you doin'?’ and all that. So it's kind of funny to me to watch this. But, you know, they're like, ‘Oh, there's Daddy's “Popcorn.”’ And, ‘There's Daddy's “Gumball.”’ It's incredible. It's a great feeling. And I'm happy that it hit 25 years, because most TV shows never do that, and this is one incredible show.”
"The Art of Friends" is on view at Taglialatella Galleries through Oct. 16.