Matthew Perry Relished the 'Challenge' of Dramatic Parts — and Even Hoped to Play a Villain (Exclusive)

'The West Wing' star Richard Schiff tells PEOPLE he enjoyed watching Perry stretch his acting muscles during long days on set, all while keeping his "great sense of humor"

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'The West Wing's' Richard Schiff and 'Friends' star Matthew Perry.

Richard Schiff looks back fondly on his time working with Matthew Perry on the set of The West Wing.

In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, Schiff, 68, recalls the late actor's unflagging commitment to playing Republican attorney Joe Quincy on the political drama. In just a few episodes of Aaron Sorkin's series, Perry's performance earned him two Emmy nominations in 2003 and 2004.

Related: Matthew Perry's Lasting Legacy: How He Won Our Hearts and Found a Mission Helping Others with Addiction

Schiff recalls Perry being “funny” but “serious” about the work, adding he was “touched by how important” the role meant to him.

“He [Matthew] was very, very much into doing well and meeting the challenge of working in something so different from the Friends set, which was just an alleyway or two down the way from The West Wing set,” Schiff says.

Schiff continues, “We were on our 14th hour on The West Wing, and I joked with him. I was like, ‘How many hours a day do you work on Friends?’ And he said, ‘Well, all in, just the acting, about 11 hours.’ And I said, ‘A day?’ ‘No.’ He goes, ‘No, for the week.’ And we were three hours past that on our first day together. So he just had a great sense of humor.”

<p>ALAMAY</p> 'The West Wing' castmembers Amy Stewart, Matthew Perry, Richard Schiff and Milo O'Shea in season 5.


'The West Wing' castmembers Amy Stewart, Matthew Perry, Richard Schiff and Milo O'Shea in season 5.

Perry’s performance on The West Wing apparently impressed Sorkin enough for the actor to snag the role of Matt Albie on Sorkin’s next TV project Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which ran from 2006 to 2007.

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“He succeeded in impressing the creators of the powers that be, and I think he [Matthew] wanted more of that,” Schiff says.

With a caveat the he is just “conjecturing,” Schiff notes, “I think he was interested in doing, you don't want to say more ‘serious’ work or more ‘difficult’ work … but I think he wanted a different kind of challenge in this next phase of his life and West Wing was a good sampling of what that would've been.”

Related: John Stamos Recalls Matthew Perry's Kind Gesture on Friends Set 20 Years Ago: 'I Never Forgot That'

In a joint statement, Michelle and Robert King, creators of The Good Wife and The Good Fight, shows in which Perry also appeared, told PEOPLE they remembered Perry as being “plenty funny” but “deadly serious” about his craft.

“He wanted to play a villain, because he wanted to stretch himself as an actor. He took his work, but not himself, very seriously," they said in the statement. "But off the set, he was anything but villainous. Kind, menschy, honest about his issues.”

<p>ALAMAY</p> Matthew Perry in 'The West Wing.'


Matthew Perry in 'The West Wing.'

Perry died at age 54 in his home in the Los Angeles area on Saturday after an apparent drowning.

"We are heartbroken by the tragic loss of our beloved son and brother," his family said in an exclusive statement to PEOPLE on Sunday. "Matthew brought so much joy to the world, both as an actor and a friend. You all meant so much to him and we appreciate the tremendous outpouring of love."

Related: Matthew Perry's Close Friend Shares His 'Compassionate' and 'Relatable' Side the Public Didn't See (Exclusive)

His Friends costars Jennifer AnistonCourteney CoxLisa KudrowMatt LeBlanc and David Schwimmer issued a joint statement exclusively to PEOPLE on Monday.

"We are all so utterly devastated by the loss of Matthew. We were more than just cast mates. We are a family," the statement read. "There is so much to say, but right now we’re going to take a moment to grieve and process this unfathomable loss."

Perry's real-life friends and former costars continued, "In time we will say more, as and when we are able. For now, our thoughts and our love are with Matty’s family, his friends, and everyone who loved him around the world."

<p> Gregg DeGuire/FilmMagic</p> Matthew Perry at the GQ Men Of The Year Party in West Hollywood, California in November 2022.

Gregg DeGuire/FilmMagic

Matthew Perry at the GQ Men Of The Year Party in West Hollywood, California in November 2022.

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As for Schiff, the “heartbroken” actor will remember Perry for his many admirable qualities — his talent and humor, among them — and as a man who was “very into exploring life without the influence of alcohol and drugs.”

“He really was genuinely nice,” Schiff says of Perry's legacy, adding, “I would say that, look, people treat you how they want to be treated. And he treated me certainly with respect, with a lot of kindness, with curiosity and with a sense of humor. And those are the things he'd want to be remembered for.”

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