The Big Picture
- Jo Marie Payton left Family Matters due to various frustrations with the show, including the increasing dominance of the Steve Urkel character.
- Payton was angered by the decision to eliminate the youngest daughter, Judy Winslow, and the lack of a proper explanation.
- Payton left the show in its final season due to unhappiness and a desire for new opportunities, and her departure marked the end of the show’s success.
Family Matters was the longest running series on ABC’s Friday Night TGIF block. For nine seasons, the wacky stories of the Winslow family and their pesky next door neighbor, Steve Urkel (Jaleel White), made Family Matters one of the highest rated shows of the 90s. The series was not without its hard times, from a cast frustrated by Urkel’s dominance over the plots, to one of the characters being completely written out as if she never existed. By the end of Season 8, the show was falling on hard times, as it was bought by CBS, along with Step by Step, in a failed attempt by the network to create their own TGIF-like lineup.
Season 9 would be the last for Family Matters, but not all of its cast would make it quite to the end. During the last season, Jo Marie Payton, who had played the Winslow matriarch, Harriette, going back to day one, and even before, when the character first appeared in Perfect Strangers, suddenly disappeared. This wasn’t like Judy Winslow (Jaimee Foxworth), who just vanished to never be spoken of again. Rather, just as oddly, Payton, after almost a decade, was recast, with another actress, Judyann Elder, playing Harriette for the final nine episodes. So, why did Payton leave when the series was already so close to the end?
The Winslow family deals with various misadventures, many of them caused by their pesky next-door neighbor, ultra-nerd Steve Urkel.
- Release Date
- September 22, 1989
- William Bickley, Michael Warren
‘Family Matters’ Only Exists Because of Harriette Winslow
One of TGIF’s earliest series was Perfect Strangers, an Odd Couple-like show about a bizarre fish-out-of water European man named Balki Bartokomous (Bronson Pinchot) and his typical American cousin Larry Appleton (Mark Linn-Baker). The pair work at a newspaper called The Chicago Chronicle. It was at this newspaper that Balki interacted with an elevator operator named Harriette Winslow. Played by Payton, Harriette was one of the most loved parts of the show. Her husband, Carl (Reginald VelJohnson), appeared on the series from time to time as well. Harriette was so liked that in 1989, a spinoff with Harriette and Carl was ordered called Family Matters.
Family Matters followed the Winslow family in their home life. There was son Eddie (Darius McCrary) and daughter Laura (Kellie Shanygne Williams), and for the first four seasons, a youngest daughter named Judy, along with a few other family members who lived with them as well. It was a light and easy wholesome show with a loving family. Every episode, something small would happen, like the kids having trouble with school, or a bigger issue, like Harriette losing her job. No matter what happened though, the family got through it together, coming together, talking it out, learning a lesson, and then ending the episode with a hug as the audience clapped.
Much of that resolution came from Harriette. She was always there as the strong wife and mother to make it all better. She didn’t have awkward quirks or act mean or have a catchphrase. She was a person. The routine worked well for everyone involved, and then halfway through Season 1, a new character named Steve Urkel was introduced in what was supposed to be a small role. The show would never be the same.
Jo Marie Payton Was Frustrated by Several Behind-the-Scenes Moments
Family Matters may have grown in popularity after Steve Urkel became the focal point, but the cast wasn’t happy to see the attention turned from what the show was supposed to be to something else. On E! True Hollywood Story, Payton talked about handling the news that Steve Urkel would be the star of the show:
“And we said ‘Okay.’ We weren’t happy about it. I think along the way it got to be a little resentful but it was just an adjustment that we had to make.”
Though the cast mostly got along and accepted the new direction, it wasn’t the end of the drama. Urkel so overtook every corner of the show, that after Season 4, the bizarre and controversial decision was made to eliminate the youngest daughter, Judy Winslow. She wasn’t killed off or recast or sent away to boarding school for the next five years. Nope, she just disappeared as if she never existed, never to be talked about again. It infuriated Payton, who talked about her reaction to show runners with People:
“I said, You guys need to tell me something that is not only creative, but also politically correct to straighten out this situation because there’s nowhere in the world a family … You gave me three kids, you took away my baby. If you had taken away my oldest child, we could have always come up with [various excuses in the episodes] that she was at the mall or with her friends. You took away my baby, and when I asked you, ‘Why did you take away my baby girl?,’ you said, ‘Nobody would notice.’ I said, ‘You know what, when we’re walking down the street, nobody’s gonna notice you because they’re not going to ask you, they’re going to ask me what happened to Judy.'”
While Payton and the rest of the cast grew used to the absence of Judy Winslow’s character, there were still issues with the Urkel character, and Jaleel White, the growing boy behind the big glasses. By Season 9, that growing boy was a grown man in his 20s. In one of Payton’s last episodes, he even tried to fight the TV mom, as she told Entertainment Tonight:
“There was one time he actually wanted to physically fight me. [There was a scene where] I said we can’t do that, standards and practices will not let that pass, it’s not gonna happen. He wanted to do it anyway… He was so mad, he started kicking and screaming and stuff. He said something about, ‘She must want to melee.’ I said, ‘What’s a melee?’ He said, ‘a fight.’ I turned around — if he wanna fight, I would. . . Darius [McCrary] grabbed me. I was gonna whip his behind.”
Jo Marie Payton Leaves ‘Family Matters’
Family Matters was limping along during what would turn out to be its final season. The plots were getting more preposterous and audiences had moved on from Urkel. He just wasn’t as funny as an uber nerd man like he was when he was a kid and teenager. The show had started to become a parody of itself, and now that it was on CBS, things only got worse. Payton decided to get out. In a 2017 cast reunion interview with Entertainment Weekly, she talked about why she left:
“I actually made the decision to leave the show two years before I left. I was unhappy about a lot of things; I was going through a divorce, I wasn’t happy on the show — it didn’t mean I did not want to perform as an actress or an artist. The way I explain it is that, when you’re a baker, you don’t always want to bake cakes or cookies; you want to bake pies, you want to bake bread. I wanted to do something else. I don’t regret that I left.”
For the final nine episodes of Family Matters, Harriette Winslow would be played by Judyann Elder, a veteran TV actress then best known for her recurring role on Martin. She was good enough in the role, but she had an impossible task of getting viewers to care about a character who they knew was not the real thing. It was the final nail in the coffin for a show already on its last leg.
In the Entertainment Weekly Reunion, Payton’s on screen husband, Reginald VelJohnson, talked about what the transition was like:
“It was hard for me after nine years of doing something with one person. It’s like getting a divorce and then marrying somebody else. It was weird.”
Darius McCrary, who played Payton’s son Eddie for over eight years struggled with the change as well. He said:
“No disrespect to Judyann … but I felt like my mom was gone, you know? I did my job as an actor, but there were just so many things that had gone on behind the scenes that the audience wasn’t privy to that had kind of already shut it down.”
It’s not so strange that a TV character would be recast. It’s happened many times before. But it was very odd for it to happen so late in a series. Still, no matter that Jo Marie Payton left, she remains close with the cast of Family Matters today, twenty-five years after it left the airwaves.