Anyone who’s seen the pilot episode of Friends is familiar with Paul the Wine Guy (John Allen Nelson), whose last name we never learn, and whose nickname sticks because he’s a sommelier at the same restaurant as Monica Geller (Courteney Cox). He’s also notorious for lying to Monica about not having had sex since his divorce to trick her into sleeping with him.
“I thought, What a lark,” John Allen Nelson told BuzzFeed News about his character when he first read the script. “What a cad, to bed a beautiful woman that way. That’s pretty sneaky.”
The first and only time viewers are exposed to Paul on the show is in the pilot, titled “The One Where Monica Gets a Roommate,” which aired on Sept. 22, 1994. The episode opens with Monica, Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry), and Joey Tribbiani (Matthew LeBlanc) sitting on the famous orange couch in Central Perk, and Monica says she’s going out later with “some guy.” When Paul comes to her apartment to pick her up that night, all of her friends realize it’s not just a casual date. “It’s Paul the Wine Guy!” as Ross Geller (David Schwimmer) exclaims. “Hi Paul! Hey Paul! The Wine Guy!” They all chime in. And then Chandler jokes, “I’m sorry I didn’t catch your name. Paul was it?”
The date goes so well that Paul makes a comment about how he’d like to eventually go on a fifth date with Monica. He goes on to tell her that his wife cheated on him and left him two years prior, and ever since, he hasn’t been able to sexually perform. “So, you think you still might want that fifth date?” he asks, to which Monica sympathetically replies, “Yeah, yeah I do.” They end up sleeping together after their first date, and the following morning Paul runs into Joey, Chandler, and Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston) when he leaves the apartment. “Morning Paul! Hello Paul! Paul, is it?” the three of them take turns teasing.
Unfortunately for Monica, Paul wasn’t telling the truth, which she learns when she confides in Franny, another coworker, who says she was the first person Paul had sex with since his divorce, leaving Monica annoyed and angry. Viewers never see Paul onscreen again, but at the end of the episode, Ross discovers a watch on the floor of Monica’s living room. She recognizes it as Paul’s, and in a poetic fit of glory she stomps on it and breaks it, the same thing Paul told her he did after he found out his ex-wife was cheating on him.
“I’m sure that it was a cheapo imitation,” Nelson joked about his character’s taste in watches. “I’m sure it was a $10 Rolex.”
Although the episode of Friends includes bigger storylines than Paul — Rachel leaves her fiancé, Barry, at the altar, and moves in with Monica in New York City, and Ross grapples with his recent divorce — he is cemented in Friends history as one of the worst guys Monica dated on the show.
Nelson was offered the role after auditioning for another Warner Brothers–produced show and coming in second for the lead role. According to him, it was a coveted role in a high-profile series that lasted a number of years. He came close but wasn’t officially chosen, so the studio asked him to act as Paul the Wine Guy.
“It was one of those wonderful sort of misadventures where you stumble onto a set never having done comedy before and not having a clue what was expected of me, and literally walking into the presence of these six young actors that were so unbelievably talented,” Nelson said. “It’s a comedy and yet, I didn’t have to be funny. It’s up to everyone else to be funny. It was one of those things where you really revel in the people who you’re working with.”
Nelson hasn’t watched the Friends pilot since it premiered nearly a quarter-century ago, nor did he keep up with the series regularly over the years (save for catching a few episodes here and there). But he still remembers what it was like to be on set and film the first episode of this beloved series.
“When you come in as a one-off, it’s a lot of fun, especially when something takes off like that,” Nelson said. “Television is such a cutthroat industry and it’s so hard to keep shows on the air, so when something can transcend that, it’s because it’s either groundbreaking or the combination of writing and actors is so stellar that people can’t get enough.”
The cast took one week to rehearse before taping the episode in front of an audience, and Nelson remembers everyone being incredibly committed to making every single detail work. They were all nervous about whether their jokes were funny or not because they wanted the show to be a success, so they spent a lot of time workshopping their lines and brainstorming with each other. But in the midst of this uncertainty, Nelson had confidence in the future of Friends, considering he would hear the same joke dozens of times over and would still laugh every time.
“It was so clear to me that it was working, simply because when you find yourself laughing day after day at the same stuff, it’s working,” he said. “Through the course of the week, you’re seeing these scenes playing out over and over again, and yet finding new ways of doing it, but they were that good. The actors were that compelling that they truly had you in stitches constantly.”
Beyond the preparation on set, there was a general environment of inclusion and comradery on the show, according to Nelson. The cast invited him to join their daily routine of eating lunch together, bonding, and talking about the show. Out of the six main cast members, Nelson said he connected the most with David Schwimmer because they continued to see each other around town at industry events, describing the actor who played Ross as “remarkably present.”
Television director and Hollywood legend James Burrows, who directed many of the Friends episodes, also had a lasting impact on Nelson’s experience on the set. The actor has fond memories of watching Burrows bear witness to Schwimmer, Aniston, Cox, Kudrow, Perry, and LeBlanc perform together. According to Nelson, Burrows laughed uncontrollably during rehearsals and the taping of the pilot.
“His whole body would convulse at times in these twitches when they would do something new and innovative and hysterical. He took such enjoyment in what he was helping to create,” Nelson said. “You knew it was something special if this industry veteran is having that reaction day after day after day.”
In the 23 years since the episode aired, Nelson has gone on to appear in shows like 24, Grey's Anatomy, CSI: Miami, and Castle. Most recently, he plays Silas Bunch, Rebecca Bunch’s dad, on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. And yet, he’s still recognized by Friends fans and is on the receiving end of jokes about Paul the Wine Guy from the people in his life.
One of Nelson’s fraternity brothers who owns a winery jokingly sends him texts from time to time, referring to his old friend as “Paul!” Over the summer, his 7-year-old’s guitar instructor recognized him from the show.
“He came into the lesson last month and he goes, ‘Paul the Wine Guy!’” Nelson said, laughing. “He had just seen the pilot episode that weekend and he’s in his mid-twenties. A whole other generation of people are finding the show now, because today you can binge-watch anything.”
It’s difficult to conceive what this fictional character would be up to today since we only briefly knew him. But Nelson joked that he imagines Paul is relaxing on a beach somewhere with a lady friend — or more specifically, “his sugar mama” — with a new alcoholic interest.
“He’s Paul the Tequila Guy now,” Nelson said. “Wine just wasn’t doing it anymore. He got into high-end tequila.”