Actress Jo Marie Payton was the beloved matriarch Harriett Winslow on the iconic 90’s sitcom Family Matters. While Jaleel White’s Steve Urkel would eventually eclipse the Winslow’s as the show’s star, Payton always remained the series’ emotional core. That was until she was replaced in the show’s final season. Payton and the cast have been passionate about a reboot and revisiting the Winslow family, but she admits she has her reservations. Those in the know understand that Payton had a troubled history with the program. Let’s dive into her history on Family Matters and her thoughts on a potential reboot.
Family Matters was initially a spin-off centered around Payton’s character. She had been featured on the show Perfect Stranger for two seasons before the network decided that the world wanted to see what the Winslow family was like. The Chicago-based unit featured Payton as a happy mother of 3 who lived in her large house with her husband, sister, mother, and nephew. Eventually, their nerdy neighbor Steve became a break-out star after a few scene-stealing moments.
It is safe to say that Jaleel’s character taking centerstage was not well-received by everyone. Payton reportedly was very upset that the show designed as her spin-off and character vehicle had been handed over to the young star. Jaleel has spoken in-depth about not being welcomed onset or really embraced by the cast due to his popularity early on. While Payton never outright said she had issues with Jaleel, she did admit that his role taking off the way it day was jarring for everyone.
While she dismissed rumors that she had issues with her young co-star, she has admitted to growing restless with the show. Payton says she had decided to leave two years before she actually did. This decision was further enforced by other things going on in her life, including a divorce. Payton was bored with Harriett and craving something else. She would eventually leave halfway through the show’s last season only to be recast. Judyann Elder would step into the role until Family Matters ended.
The cast all recall the show being moved to CBS for its final season and how they knew it was the end. Reginald VelJohnson says it felt like a literal divorce between changing networks then swapping out co-stars. The children also said they struggled with the “new mom.” despite this, Payton says she never regrets leaving.
Payton also opened up about preferring her time on Perfect Strangers to Family Matters. This had a lot to do with the cast of Perfect Strangers being all adults. With the Family Matters cast, Payton had to wait around a lot of the kids to finish school, learn lines, and take breaks. She admits that she likes to work fast and hated spending all day on set because she wanted to get home to her daughter and husband. Despite this, Payton still says the kids were all really sweet, and she loved them all.
Payton has also talked about some tasteless jokes on the show that spoke to how tone-deaf their white writers and producers were. They made a joke about a character with a baboon heart named Uncle Cornelius. Payton says the joke was already uncomfortable because the actor was a dark-skinned man, but to make matters worst, she heard one of the producer’s whisper, “put a banana in his hand.”
With all that history, one can understand why Payton might not want to do a reunion, but she recently revealed she would under one condition. In the show’s 4th season, the youngest Winslow, Judy, went upstairs to her room and never came back down. Production never offered a real reason for this, only sighting that no one would notice the character was written off. Payton says this broke her heart, and if they did a reunion season, they would need to write Judy back in and explain where she went. It was reported at the time that the show was experiencing budget cuts and had little to do for the actress. They would go on to write new roles for children like Orlando Brown’s 3J, so it’s unclear why they could not just keep her on the program.