Family Matters mom Jo Marie Payton addresses early exit: 'I don't regret that I left'
Plus, the cast recalls their ‘emotional’ series finale
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When Family Matters, which ran on ABC for eight seasons as part of TGIF, made the jump to CBS for its ninth, and ultimately final, season, it was a bittersweet moment.
“The last episode was really emotional, I think, for all of us,” Darius McCrary, who played Eddie Winslow, tells EW for the show’s recent cast reunion. “We pretty much knew that once the show had switched networks from ABC to CBS that it was a wrap. … If it was in today’s game, it would have been a different story because of social media. There was a voice that the audience just didn’t have back then.”
After 215 episodes, Jaleel White’s Steve Urkel finally got the girl he had been pining for all those years, Kellie Shanygne Williams’ Laura Winslow. Upon his return from outer space — where NASA sent him to test his anti-gravity invention, which throws a satellite off course, causing it to collide with the spaceship, the crew of which Urkel then has to save (DRAMA!) — he and Laura are finally engaged.
“I remember the last episode very vividly. Very vividly, actually,” White recalls. “What I remember most is I ‘one-taked’ the show. … It was like every scene I nailed it to the best of my ability. And then, I just remembered at the end of the show it was Kellie and Darius there and we’re about to go out to say bye to the audience and that’s when I broke. That’s when the tears started running.”
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“I was there on intros,” Williams remembers. “I already knew that I would miss seeing you guys. I knew that my life would be different. … I just remember experiencing the tremendous loss. I spent probably 42 weeks a year at Telma [Hopkins’] house during the weekends. She was like my other mother, [and] Jo Marie. These people are family, and to not have that same amount of time and energy with them was difficult for a long time.”
“It feels like a divorce,” Jo Marie Payton explains.
Interestingly, Reginald VelJohnson used the same word to describe his experience of working with a new actress when Payton decided to leave the series halfway through the final season, making her final appearance in the Dec. 19, 1997 episode — her 200th. (Judyann Elder took over the role for the last nine episodes.)
“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,” VelJohnson, who played family patriarch Carl, says. “It was weird.”
“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,” McCrary explains of the unique situation.
If Payton had her way, though, she would’ve been gone a couple years earlier.
“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,” Payton reveals. “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.”
All nine seasons of Family Matters — plus other ABC comedies and TGIF titles including Full House, Step by Step, and Home Improvement — available now on Hulu.