Matthew Perry's GAY TANGO

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So, any chance ol' Chandler is not just Friends but family? Matthew Perry talks about the sitcom's gay sensibility and the love dance in Three to Tango, his new romantic comedy about mistaken sexual identity

Talk about gay-friendly! If gaydar actually existed, Matthew Perry would have to be considered the equivalent of a B-2 stealth bomber, flying in under the radar, scrambling the signals, unapologetically heterosexual and yet eagerly accepting roles in which the joke is that he's a straight guy who comes across as gay. A mere eight episodes into the first season of his hit series, Friends, Perry's Chandler was at first taken aback to learn that one of his coworkers assumed he was gay--not, as that other sitcom paragon of hetero fastidiousness, Jerry Seinfeld, would say, that there's anything wrong with that. "I just have to know, OK. Is it my hair?" Chandler grilled his fellow friends.

"Yes, Chandler," deadpanned Rachel (Jennifer Aniston). "That's exactly what it is. It's your hair."

"Yeah," chimed in Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), "you have homosexual hair."

But by episode's end Chandler was less concerned that his coworker thought he was gay than that she and another coworker didn't think he was enough of a stud to score with the office's hot gay hunk.

Not that there's anything remotely androgynous about Perry, 30, who has quipped his way through six seasons of Friends now. Neat, neurotic, hapless in love--don't count on his current romance with Courteney Cox Arquette's Monica to run smoothly--his TV alter ego, for all his ironic detachment, wears his unequivocally straight heart on his sleeve.

"Originally Chandler was just supposed to be the wise guy who delivered one-liners," says David Crane, the show's openly gay cocreator, "but as time has gone on, we've realized Matthew's got enormous emotional range, so we've given Chandler this incredible romantic arc, where you care for him and root for him."

Before Chandler bedded Monica, though, many of the show's gay fans were convinced that Chandler's true soul mate just might be his roomie, Joey (Matt LeBlanc)--the ever-squabbling Chandler and Joey seemed to be just about as close as two straight guys could be.

"But we never considered going that way," Crane insists. "The stuff he plays with Joey, where they are like a couple--it's much more fun if they're two straight guys behaving like a couple than if it's about a man who could be in a romantic relationship with another man."

The comic possibilities of straight-gay confusion seem to have made an impact on Perry the actor. In his just-released romantic comedy, Three to Tango, he dives even deeper into the comedy of sexual-orientation errors. The premise: Perry plays ambitious Chicago architect Oscar Novak, whose newest client, a tycoon played by Dylan McDermott, mistakenly assumes Oscar's gay and asks him to keep tabs on his mistress, Amy, played by Party of Five's Neve Campbell. Amy, in turn, is only too happy to unburden herself to the new gay guy in her life. Naturally Oscar falls in love, but if he comes out as straight, he risks losing the biggest commission of his career--not to mention the girl. For once, heterosexual love becomes the love that dare not speak its name. In the process, explains the movie's first-time film director, Damon Santostefano, "Matthew's character learns a tiny bit about what it is to be gay, and he also learns how to be a better friend and a better lover to a woman."

The movie's pratfalls are as much physical as emotional--which is fine with Perry, who calls its mix of sex and slapstick a "a nice middle ground" between his first starring feature, 1997's Fools Rush In--a more straightforward romance costarring Salma Hayek--and the film he just completed, The Whole Nine Yards, a broad farce in which Perry, as a suburban dentist, dukes it out with mobster-next-door Bruce Willis.

"I love romantic comedy," testifies Perry in an interview with The Advocate at his gated, contemporary home in L. …