Controversial Friends Star Would Not Take The Role Now

Friends star Kathleen Turner played Chandler's gay father and drag queen but says she wouldn't take the role away from an LGBTQ+ actor today.

By Chris Snellgrove | Published

Friends Kathleen Turner

Over the course of 10 years, Friends had many guest stars, including Kathleen Turner, who controversially played the transgender dad to Chandler Bing. It was cringeworthy casting that many fans think has aged very poorly, and it turns out that Turner agrees with them. In a recent interview with The Guardian, the star said that “there was no question of casting a trans person or a drag queen” back then and that “it never crossed my mind that I was taking a role from someone,” and while she doesn’t regret taking the role because of the challenge it presented, it is not a role she would likely take today.

On Friends, Kathleen Turner played the character who was born Charles Bing, and he and his then-wife Nora told Chandler at a young age they would be getting divorced. This was also when the elder Bing came out as gay, and the impetus for their divorce was that he and his wife had an affair with the same pool boy. After the divorce, Charles Bing became a drag star in Las Vegas, who performed under the name Helena Handbasket. 

Part of what makes Kathleen Turner’s appearances on Friends confusing is how she was presented and how the other characters treated her. For example, the show often presented “Helena Handbasket” as a drag character, and Chandler’s friends continued to refer to her character as “Chandler’s father.” Series co-creator Marta Kauffman recently apologized for this, confirming the character’s trans status and apologizing for how the show treated her.

In many ways, the Friends co-creator’s thoughts on her creative decisions reflect a growing cultural knowledge and acceptance of transgender individuals. Kaufman admitted to not understanding at the time the importance of using the correct pronouns to refer to someone after they transition. The end result is plenty of transphobic jokes and misgendering dialogue that makes these old episodes very difficult to watch.

Friends Kathleen Turner
Kathleen Turner on Friends

And while Kathleen Turner says she wouldn’t play that Friends role if it was offered to her these days, she has few regrets about accepting the role in the ‘90s. She has said that she enjoyed the historic opportunity of the role and hoped that her portrayal of the character might be considered a form of social commentary. Instead, Helena Handbasket was mostly the butt of some jokes so bad you might wonder what the live studio audience (who constantly cackle like a gaggle of hyenas) was smoking.

While the interview with Kathleen Turner is fresh, it can also be considered part of the growing discourse about Friends after the show’s 2021 reunion special. While the general vibe of the special was to celebrate the actors and creators who made this series possible, the retrospective quality of the reunion had many fans going back and binge-watching the entire show. Considering that the show first began airing in 1994, those fans encountered more than a few examples of outdated or outright problematic jokes, including those directed at Helena Handbasket. 

However, Friends fans might be best off treating the show as Kathleen Turner did. She isn’t willing to let a bad character portrayal sully her memories of trying to do right by the drag and trans community. And instead of treating this role as something to run away from, Turner has treated it as the show’s fans should: an opportunity to learn more about the trans community and grow as human beings.