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The Untold Story of Matt Leblanc

After his ''Friends'' spin-off was cancelled in 2006, Matt LeBlanc took a year off ... which tuned into four. Now the star of ''Episodes'' finally talks openly about his self-imposed exile (hint: it involved cutting his own hair)

Here are some things you should know about having lunch with Matt LeBlanc: You will eat at a sleepy Italian restaurant in the Valley instead of an overly trendy Hollywood tapas bar, as he generally likes to fly under the radar. You will be treated to free wine from the one other table of patrons and free tiramisu from the owner, as he generally cannot fly under the radar. In between the funny lines that will tumble out of his mouth, some intriguing ones will sneak out too. (There's a reason he gave himself haircuts during his self-imposed Hollywood exile.) The subject of Friends? Fire away. In fact, he'll light up when discussing it, almost as much as when he talks about his violin-playing daughter.

Or fast cars. Or how that hot girl he encountered on a New York street more than 20 years ago inadvertently changed the course of his life.

And after you and he finish breaking bread (rather, after you finish; he's on a low-carb kick), you will realize that a lot more than a pair of quotation marks separates Matt LeBlanc from ''Matt LeBlanc.''

''Matt LeBlanc'' is the high-wattage attraction of Showtime's Episodes (season 2 premieres July 1 at 10:30 p.m.), which follows a charming British husband-and-wife producing team, Sean (Stephen Mangan) and Beverly Lincoln (Tamsin Greig), who move to L.A. to adapt their highbrow prep-school-set comedy Lyman's Boys for a U.S. audience. The duo are told to make a teensy tweak, though: The esteemed British actor (Richard Griffiths) who starred as the sixtysomething headmaster will have to be replaced by Matt LeBlanc, the ex--Friends star in need of a comeback. (''For the erudite, verbally dexterous headmaster of an elite boys' academy, you're suggesting...Joey?'' Sean asks incredulously.) Then the network strong-arms the producers into changing the headmaster to a hockey coach, and the show's name becomes Pucks! The onscreen Matt — a showier, sharkier version of the real-life actor — is self-aware enough to realize that Pucks! sucks, but he's otherwise occupied in a losing battle against his id. To top it off, by the end of season 1 he's slept with Beverly and brawled with Sean, which surely will complicate production on their just-greenlit, now-crappy show.

LeBlanc isn't the only celebrity currently starring as himself on a comedy series, but his high jinks are uniquely entertaining, partly because we find ourselves guessing at how much of his real life is encrypted into the show, and partly because he's sending up the perks/pitfalls of having been one-sixth of NBC's shiny-happy sextet. (If only the real LeBlanc had a signature ''How You Smellin''' cologne.) With good word of mouth and a Golden Globe for LeBlanc, Episodes is turning out to be a savvy career move, his anti-Ed moment. But the role he was born to play wasn't his idea, as you'll find out in a few paragraphs. ''If you were to ask me, 'Do I think my life is worthy of a character on a TV show?' I would say no,'' says LeBlanc, 44. ''Pretty normal guy. I burp. I fart. I have hair coming out of my ears now. Just like everybody else.'' He pauses and perfectly deadpans, ''You're not gonna print any of that, though, right?''

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