09/13/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT
With the end of Friends and the premiere of his own spinoff, the preordained hit Joey, Matt LeBlanc unexpectedly finds himself the one seasoned old pro on the set—the guy with the answers and the experience. "On Friends, I don't think you could have ever said anybody was Mom or Dad with those six cast members," says Kevin Bright, executive producer of both NBC series. "But Matt is definitely Dad on this show." LeBlanc was the one who officially welcomed the cast to the set and the one who helped Drea de Matteo, now presumed dead on The Sopranos and reborn in the sitcom world as Joey's tacky-adorable big sister, adjust to the pace of shooting a half-hour show. "Matt took me by the hand and walked me through the entire process," she says. He also had a good tip about handling fame: "He was really insistent that I get a house with a gate on it."
For a patriarch, though, the 37-year-old star is still pretty easygoing. When wife Melissa, 39, stops by with their 7-month-old daughter Marina, "he shows the baby off," says Bright. "He says, This is my daughter. Squeeze her, hold her, watch her for a while, will ya? She's yours now.' "
Joey is his alone. The happy ensemble that was Friends, says LeBlanc, "was the greatest 10 years of my life.... But you know, that chapter's closed now, and this one opens up." In the episodes filmed so far, says Bright, LeBlanc—still playing lovable lunkhead Joey Tribbiani, now transplanted to Los Angeles to pursue his acting career—appears in virtually every scene. On Friends, "I know he normally would have been expecting to get back to his dressing room for a good hour's break while we worked with Jennifer and David and Courteney and Lisa and Matthew Perry," says Bright. "Now, that moment never comes. Where at the end of the week of Friends he had a lot of energy left, I think now he feels a lot more tired."
And since the arrival of Marina at the conclusion of Friends' run, LeBlanc has seemed particularly eager to wrap up most long days on the set and return to his home in Los Angeles. Before, "Matt was always the guy who wanted to stay around and never go home," says Bright. "His life now is centered on his family."
LeBlanc's household also includes stepson Tyler, 14, and stepdaughter Jacquelyn, 10, the children of model Melissa, whom he wed in 2003. They're "beautiful," says LeBlanc. "They've really helped me to keep my feet firmly on the ground. And life is good. I can't complain. I feel like I'm the luckiest guy here."
Tom Gliatto. Julie Jordan, Amy Bonawitz and Sean Daly in Los Angeles