'What you felt was that unit, that village'

By Gerrad Hall
September 29, 2017 at 03:15 PM EDT

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On a show called Family Matters, those two words really had to mean something, not just on screen, but behind the scenes as well.

“We were their parents when we were there,” says Jo Marie Payton, who played Winslow family matriarch, Harriette. “My daughter was 4 years old when I started working this show. I spent more time with them than I did with my daughters.”

“What was wonderful about it was that they had their support, they had their parents,” TV dad Reginald VelJohnson, who played Carl, elaborates. “Every one of them had somebody that brought them to the set and made them who they are. I appreciate that.”

From that set, Payton, VelJohnson & Co. told meaningful family stories about the Winslows, Harriette’s widowed, live-in sister Rachel (Telma Hopkins) and her young son Richie (Bryton James), and, of course, their nerdy next-door neighbor Steve Urkel. They were a staple of ABC’s TGIF lineup for eight years before moving to CBS for the show’s ninth and final season, racking up an impressive 215 episodes. (Payton left the series after her 200th episode; she was replaced by Judyann Elder.) When they weren’t filming the show, cast members often spent their off-time with each other (Kellie Shayngye Williams, originally from Washington D.C., spent most weekends at Hopkins’ home), attending concerts, even taking vacations together.

Ramona Rosales for EW

Williams, who played the Winslow’s eldest daughter Laura, says the bond genuinely came across on screen and audiences got to see “people that really love each other.”

“When Jo talks to me on the show, I really consider her my mother,” she explains. “So you’re actually really looking at somebody who’s having an experience with someone they have a really great relationship with. No matter who you are, you feel that.”

“And our parents didn’t have a problem with us being reprimanded or disciplined if we needed it by our [TV] family,” Darius McCrary adds, recalling a time when the Family Matters family pushed him to finish school. “They were not happy [I was possibly not going to finish school]. They weren’t having it,” McCrary says. “They were like, ‘No, not on our watch.'”

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“We were growing up during the time we were on that show,” James, who was all of 3 years old when he joined the series, says. “That was our young life, developing and growing and figuring out who we were during that time on the show, and we had you guys as the moms and dads and uncles and Aunt Harriette’s and grandma.”

Shawn Harrison, who played the best friend Waldo to Darius McCrary’s Eddie Winslow, especially relied on that TV family following the death of his own mother not long after he joined the series midway through its second season.

VIDEO: The Family Matters cast gets emotional over “raising” costar Shawn Harrison

“His mother was so wonderful. She was always baking us peach cobblers and pies and all these different things and we loved her to death. But, shortly after that, Shawn lost his mother. And, I always said that I believe she did that to warm our hearts, that she brought Shawn to the set for us to raise. And, we fell in love with him like he was one of our own, and we knew that he didn’t have a brother or sister. So, we embraced him,” Payton recalls of the emotional time. “I remember coming through the set one day… he was in the kitchen by himself… and I said, ‘Shawn, what’s the matter?’ He was crying. I know he missed his mother, but we were all there for him.”

“There was no break for me between my mom passing and having to come and stick with the schedule that they already had lined up,” Harrison says. “But, everybody, cast, crew, everyone, was very, very supportive, very understanding of the very trying and difficult time that I was going through. So, I appreciate all the love and support that you guys all extended to me during those years.”

McCrary may have summed it up best: “What you felt was that unit, that village.”

To see more of the TV family, check out all nine seasons of Family Matters — plus other ABC comedies and TGIF titles including Full HouseStep by Step, and Home Improvement — available now on Hulu.

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