On Everybody Loves Raymond, it was Marie and Frank Barone (Doris Roberts and Peter Boyle). The kids on The Cosby Show had Russell and Anna Huxtable (Earle Hyman and Clarice Taylor). ABC’s Modern Family is ruled over by Jay Pritchett (Ed O’Neill). And, of course, there are the Golden Girls.
Grandparents may not always be the focus of a TV series — excluding Sophia, Dorothy, Rose, and Blanche, of course — but that doesn’t mean they’re not an important part of the family. In fact, on Family Matters, Rosetta LeNoire’s Estelle, or Mother Winslow as she was affectionately known, was “the anchor,” according to Kellie Shanygne Williams, who played her granddaughter Laura.
“She was our foundation,” Williams says of LeNoire, who died in 2002, four years after the show wrapped. When EW reunited the cast of the show, which ran for nine seasons (eight as part of ABC’s TGIF lineup before moving to CBS for its ninth and final year), one of the first topics of discussion was the late actress, who Telma Hopkins had to help convince to take the role.
“I met Rosetta on Gimme a Break! She played Nell Carter’s mom, and when [producers] Bob Boyett and Tom Miller called me in about Family Matters, they mentioned that they were looking for a mother for the show, and I said, ‘I have the perfect person for you.’ … They called her, and she turned them down,” Hopkins reveals. “She’d had a tough time on Gimme a Break!, and so she wasn’t sure that she wanted to do any more television because she was getting up in age.”
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But after a quick phone call, Hopkins got LeNoire to change her mind. “I said, ‘Rosetta, I know that you thought you wanted to retire, but if you ever were to take a job for people that are gonna take care of you, this is the job.’ And she called them back and she took it.”
Not only did she say yes, she appeared in 157 of the comedy’s 215 episodes.
“Every series has a set leader; it can be a director, it can be a star,” series co-creator and producer Bill Bickley says. “But it’s an emotional foundation that an actor brings to a set, and Rosetta had that. Who she was made everybody want to be better. It made everybody want to be more professional. So Rosetta was really the emotional foundation of the show.”
“She was like the queen,” recalls her TV son Reginald VelJohnson. “And you always treated her with respect — or extra respect.”
“She was hard on me, though,” Darius McCrary, who played her grandson Eddie, reflects. “I’m grateful for it, looking back.”
“Well, you have to. You needed it. He was the worst,” VelJohnson jokes.
“She didn’t bother me,” Jaleel White, who played Steve Urkel, says. But he still abides by one professional rule she imparted on him all those years ago. “In honor of Rosetta LeNoire, I will not step on a set to this day eating food because of her. She would knock it out of my hand,” he adds. “‘You don’t come to this stage eating any food.'”
See LeNoire ruling over the Winslow family on Hulu, where all nine seasons of Family Matters — plus other ABC comedies and TGIF titles including Full House, Step by Step, and Home Improvement — are now available.