Family Matters was one of those ‘90s sitcoms that fit nicely into the “feel-good” category of prime-time TV. Yet, it stood out from the rest. Although it featured an all-Black cast, which was unlike other family sitcoms in those days, it was relatable. The Winslows were down to earth, which is something that really resonated with both Black and White viewers. It’s pretty much the reason it was able to last nine successful seasons – not an easy feat!
What many people don’t know – or at least remember – is that Family Matters was actually a spin-off of another awesome ‘90s sitcom, Perfect Strangers. Remember them?. Family Matters aired from 1989 to 1998, meaning it’s been over three decades since its debut. So, it’s high time we look back at the show, its secrets, fun facts, and what its cast is up to today!
A Spin-Off of Perfect Strangers
The show Family Matters began with its matriarch, Harriette, a character who originated in the third season of Perfect Strangers. She was the elevator operator at the Chicago Chronicle, the (fictional) newspaper where Larry and Balki worked. Jo Marie Payton’s portrayal of Harriette worked wonders, and her beloved character stuck, prompting a new sitcom. In the end, Family Matters came out the victor, running a full season longer than Perfect Strangers.
Family Matters became one of the longest-running Black-focused sitcoms. By the end of the ninth and final season, the show became the second longest-running American sitcom focusing on a predominantly Black cast. The show that sits in the first place? The Jeffersons, which ran for a total of 11 seasons.
Urkel Was Based on a Real Person
The show’s co-creator, Michael Warren, named Urkel after his real-life friend, Steve Erkel. Warren later admitted to regretting the decision once he saw just how popular the character became. As Urkel’s popularity grew, so did the number of prank calls placed to his friend Steve.
The truth is Warren only intended for Urkel to be a one-off character – to appear in one episode. It’s hard to imagine the Winslow family without their nerdy neighbor, but Urkel was never supposed to be a regular on the show, let alone its main character. Urkel showed up about midway through the first season. The suspenders-wearing pre-teen became an instant hit, and his role was quickly beefed up to meet the audience’s demand.
Block Party vs. TGIF
At first, Family Matters belonged to ABC, but in 1997, CBS picked up both Family Matters and Step by Step in a $40 million deal. CBS then scheduled Family Matters (along with the shows Meego and Step By Step) in its new Friday lineup dubbed the CBS Block Party, which stood against ABC’s TGIF lineup, where the series originated.
At the time, Payton (Harriette) was reluctant to continue. She wanted to leave the show, feeling it had jumped the shark years ago. Her contract had even expired, but she agreed to stay for the first half of the last season for continuity’s sake. Partway through, her part was taken over by Judyann Elder.
The Beginning of the End
Now on CBS, Family Matters was only a modest success. It started losing its viewership. Near the end of the ninth season, the cast was informed that a tenth and final season was going to be filmed. Scripts and plot synopses were even written for the show.
But, after the holiday special season, CBS added the show Kids Say the Darndest Things to the lineup, replacing Family Matters’ 8/7c time slot. Family Matters was thus pushed back an hour and paired with Step by Step. That’s when the ratings for Family Matters fell even further. Eventually, the entire Block Party (except for Kids Say…) was canceled in spring 1998.
Urkel Was a Hot Commodity
The TV nerd was such a massive hit that the merchandising industry took note of it. Soon enough, he became a brand of his own, and there were Urkel posters, books, lunch boxes, clothing, trading cards, and dolls on store shelves.
In 1991, he could even be enjoyed over breakfast. That’s right, Ralston Cereal introduced an Urkel-branded breakfast cereal called Urkel-Os. Did you eat them? Unlike the other cast members, Urkel appeared in other shows, in character, as Urkel. He landed guest spots on Full House, Step by Step, and Meego. He was even mentioned, but not seen, on an episode of Boy Meets World.
The Cast Wasn’t Too Happy About It
When speaking with Vanity Fair, Jaleel White confessed that the sudden popularity of his character – and the fact that the show was now about him –caused tension on the set. His catchphrase, “Did I do that?” really works in this case. “Things were definitely strained in the early going. There’s no sense in hiding that,” he said.
He was 12 when he joined the cast, and there was a division between him and the rest of the cast. However, time heals all wounds, and with over nine years and 215 episodes together, relationships got better. White said he still talks to some of the cast members to this day.
Drawing Inspiration From…
White revealed his inspiration for the character of Steve Urkel. White emulated comedic characters from that time period, like Pee-wee Herman, Ed Grimley, and Lewis from Revenge of the Nerds.
“I actually wanted the glasses with the tape in the middle,” he confessed. But his father procrastinated, and he didn’t get them. He was “really bummed about that, to be quite honest.” White said that because his inspirations were white, “the character came off being very authentic and original, like something nobody had ever seen.”
He Played a Bunch of Characters
As if Urkel’s catchphrase wasn’t enough, the producers understood how popular he was and decided to cram in as much Urkel as possible into any given episode. This ultimately led to White doing that Eddie Murphy thing where he played a variety of other characters.
White ended up playing the characters of Stefan Urquelle (Steve’s handsome alter-ego), cousins Cornelius Eugene and Myrtle Urkel (which was basically Urkel in drag), Albert Einstein, Bruce Lee, and even Elvis Presley. He also provided the voice of his Urkel-Bot, the robot he invented on the show.
Why Did Judy Leave?
In the fourth season, we saw Winslow’s youngest daughter, Judy, walk upstairs only to never return. Jaimee Foxworth, the actress who played Judy, never returned and was never mentioned again on the show. Rumors started circulating that it was because she had demanded more money.
In a 2009 episode of Life After, Foxworth’s mother/manager, Gwyn Foxx, revealed that wasn’t the case at all. She said she asked producers to give Judy more of an integral storyline. That’s when, according to Foxx, producers told her Judy would get more camera time “when pigs fly,” and she was then written out of the show.
Two Judys, Two Harriettes
In the pilot episode of Family Matters, Judy Winslow was portrayed by a different actress entirely: Valerie Jones. By then, Jones’ acting credits consisted of two episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (even then, she played two completely different roles).
As we mentioned earlier, there were two Harriettes, too. Judyann Elder took over for the remainder of the final season. Payton confirmed that she left because she “just wanted something else to do, just to energize me a little bit more, on the creative side.”
Rejecting the Rumors
Although she had wanted to leave earlier, she stuck around. “I really didn’t want to come back,” Payton admitted. She had just done her jazz album “and all,” and they agreed that she would come back just to kick off the move to CBS and the last season.
Her contract stipulated that she could “option out,” and she did exactly that. As for the rumors about her leaving because of Urkel, it was painful for Payton to hear “because it made me look like this scandalous person, that was jealous of this kid.”
Baby Ritchie Was Played by Twins
These days, pretty much anyone understands that whenever you see a baby in a major role on a show or sitcom, chances are there are two of them, aka twins. If you’re curious, it’s because of California state regulations that stipulate how many hours child actors are allowed to work.
So, just as they had done on Full House – where Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen were credited as a single individual, “Mary Kate Ashley Olsen,” for the first seven seasons — the twin babies who played Richie were credited as one person, “Joseph Julius Wright.”
His “Tragic Auditioning Story”
That’s right, Jaleel White had been cast as one of the Huxtable kids on The Cosby Show, Rudy. Well, at least he thought he had been at the time. “Yep, that’s why the character was named Rudy,” White explained to Vanity Fair, “it was intended to be a boy.”
He refers to it now as his “tragic auditioning story.” According to White, they were all packed up and ready to head to New York for the series. His agent even told his parents that they should start looking for places to live out there. But then…
Make Us Laugh
Next thing he knows, there was one more audition for the part of Rudy, and it was apparently a formality at the network. A little girl comes walking in, and White says to himself, at eight years old, “Who’s she?” That’s when they told him that she was auditioning for the role of Rudy, too.
“Oh, it’s not as much of a formality as I thought,” he recalled thinking. He said it was his first time walking into a room of 30 people staring at him, basically saying, “OK, make me laugh.”
They All Went Home Crying
White described how they were in such a hurry to start filming that they literally came and picked the kids one by one right in front of them. He remembered how Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Tempest Bledsoe – and all those who weren’t chosen – went home crying.
Today, White says, “It was amazing. Obviously, I’m grateful that things worked out the way they did; I think it put a little more money in my pocket.” Like they say, it was a blessing in disguise. Or you can even say that when one door closes, another one opens.
White also shed when he met with celebrity medium Tyler Henry. He remembered actress Michelle Thomas, who played Myra on Family Matters as Urkel’s girlfriend. She died in 1998 at the age of 30.
Taking Their Roles Seriously
Reginald VelJohnson and Payton took their roles as Carl and Harriette Winslow seriously and tried to make sure that they were portrayed positively and authentically. Both actors made sure that the show’s writers didn’t include any material that would be considered stereotypically Black.
That included anything that related to their skin or weight (as Carl was on the chubby side). But there was one joke about another character, named Uncle Cornelius, that almost made it into the script. The cast recalled the moment on a special celebrating the show’s 30th anniversary…
The Producers’ Racist Joke
As Payton recalled, they were given a script, and when she read it for the first time, she didn’t say anything to anybody. She figured they would just rewrite it. But then all the extras came in, and they performed the scene to time it up for everybody.
That’s when Uncle Cornelius came in. Jaleel White, as Urkel, said his line: “Hi, Uncle Cornelius. How’s the baboon heart? Don’t let me catch you hanging from the chandelier.” The camera was then to land on Uncle Cornelius, who was “this very, very dark-skinned man.”
Keeping Their Integrity
Payton was so upset by the remark. She even heard some of the producers laughing. Payton heard one of the producers say, “Put a banana in his hand.” She then spoke with VelJohnson (or Reggie, as she called him) about the line.
She told him, “Reggie, you need to go and straighten this out because I’m about to tear the ceiling off the place. Go and straighten it out.” And that’s exactly what he did. Thankfully, the actors had enough pull, as well as integrity, to take a stand!
The Episode Jaleel White Wrote
The first episode in which White played the role of Steve’s alter ego, Stefan, was set in Paris and at Disney World. According to White, it meant a lot because “Black shows didn’t get a chance to do those types of things back then.” He also recalled the episode featuring NBA star Larry Johnson who played his sneaker commercial character, Grandmama.
That was actually White’s first time writing. He wrote that episode and proudly titled it “Grandmama.” White also looked back fondly on an emotional scene he filmed with Williams during a second season episode where Steve and Laura pretend to be married for a school project.
The Emotional Moment
White recalled a crying scene where Urkel was waiting on Laura’s hand and foot. He had an apron on, and Laura said to him, “Steve, go home. Get out. Please. Don’t ever come back.” White revealed that they never intended it to be a crying scene, but the two of them just started tearing up.
At the moment, it just happened. White remembered saying to her, “Loving you, Laura, is like reaching for a star. You know you’ll never touch it, but you keep trying.” That’s when they both started bawling right there in front of the audience. He said they walked off the set really feeling like authentic actors.
Family Really Does Matter
With a show called Family Matters, the two words had real meaning and not just on screen but behind the scenes as well. “We were their parents when we were there,” Payton said. “My daughter was four years old when I started working on this show. I spent more time with them than I did with my daughters.”
VelJohnson shared the same sentiment: “What was wonderful about it was that they had their support, they had their parents.” He said that each of the kids on the show had somebody who brought them to the set and “essentially help make them who they are. I appreciate that.”
People Who Really Love Each Other
Payton, VelJohnson, and the rest of the cast shared meaningful family stories from the set. When they filmed the show, the cast members would spend a lot of their down-time with each other. For instance, Kellie Shayngye Williams, who played Laura, was originally from Washington D.C. but spent most of her weekends at Hopkins’ home (she played Rachel).
They would go to concerts and even take vacations together. Williams says their bond genuinely came across on screen, which is something the audiences picked up on – seeing “people that really love each other.”
Like a Real Family
“When Jo talks to me on the show, I really consider her my mother,” Williams said. Darius McCrary, who played Eddie, chimed in, adding that their parents didn’t have a problem with them “being reprimanded or disciplined if we needed it” by their TV families.
McCrary recalled a time when his TV family pushed him to finish school. They were not happy that he was possibly not going to finish his studies. They weren’t having it, as McCrary remembered. “They were like, ‘No, not on our watch.’” It’s clear that they were very much like a real family.
Growing Up on the Show
Bryton McClure (now known as Bryton James), who played Richie, was all of three years old when he joined the show. He basically grew up on the show. Shawn Harrison, who played Eddie’s best friend Waldo, also relied on the TV family, especially after the death of his own mother.
His mother died not long after he joined the series, midway through the second season. “His mother was so wonderful,” Payton recalled. She baked them pies and the cast “loved her to death.” They then fell in love with Harrison as one of their own.
It Takes a Village
Harrison didn’t have siblings, so losing his mother was especially difficult for him. That’s why he was particularly appreciative of the love he got from the cast, who embraced him. Payton remembered 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.
“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 said. McCrary summed it up best. He said: “What you felt was that unit, that village.”
When Louis Armstrong Introduced the Show
Can you close your eyes and hear the Family Matters theme song? We can just hear As Days Go By in our heads, the beloved song that played in the opening credits. Well, did you know that the original theme music was Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World?
Armstrong’s song was switched early on, though, after the fifth episode of the series’ first season. Armstrong was still heard, however, in the pilot episode once the show started being played in syndication in 1993. Warner Bros. began distributing the show in off-network syndication.
It’s Back On the Air
By the seventh season, the producers decided to switch things up. Eventually, Family Matters went without an opening theme and without credits. The names of the cast, creators, and crew ran during each episode’s teaser scene.
Back to the syndication, most TV stations stopped playing the show by around 2002, but there were some stations in larger markets, like Florida and New York, that continued to air Family Matters until as recently as 2005 and 2006. The series returned to TBS after 17 years, in 2020. The show is also apparently available on Hulu.
Christmas in Carolina
Kellie Shanygne Williams and Darius McCrary are coming together in a new Christmas film called Christmas in Carolina, and they play siblings again. When she read the script, she and the producers automatically knew to invite McCrary because “obviously people like seeing us together and we have great chemistry,” said Williams.
Working together again came naturally to McCrary: “It’s like riding a bike. We had a really good time. We just fall back into it. The chemistry is always there.” Shawn Harrison was also involved in the film.
Happily Ever After?
Jaleel White has a podcast called Ever After, where he takes his listeners inside the lives of former child actors and how they were able to transition into adulthood (or not). Though some child stars struggled with the fame and pressure that comes with showbiz (think of Britney Spears and Macaulay Culkin), the main purpose of his show is to shine a light on the entertainers who have persevered in the industry.
“Something that’s just always kind of irked me about the business, about show business, is that there are far more success stories than there are hard-luck stories,” White stated. “But the hard-luck stories sell better.”
One of His Regrets
White shared a challenge he faced after Family Matters went off the air in 1998. When the show wrapped, he was in college, and his letters of recommendation for UCLA and USC came from Bill Cosby and Leslie Moonves (a producer of Family Matters and the former executive of Warner Bros. Television).
White said his mother found those letters in her garage. “And the letters of recommendation are just, ironically, more important than the degree at this point.” He said that what he didn’t know was that he should have been demanding “put pilot deals” from Moonves instead of focusing on college.
An Unfortunate Lesson
But he was naïve, young, and well-intentioned, as he put it. He said he was honored to receive those letters of recommendation, but if he wanted to continue working with Warner Bros. uninterrupted, after Moonves’ departure, he needed to have a business connection to them on the books – something that stated he was going to get paid no matter what.
White refers to it now as “an unfortunate lesson” for someone who contributed so much to that studio. So far, White’s guests on his podcast have included Keke Palmer, Haley Joel Osment, and Raven-Symoné.
A Possible Reunion?
While White has considered the idea of a Family Matters reunion for his own podcast, does he see a TV revival of the sitcom with its original cast? “I’ve hinted at it. There’s something I would really love to do,” he said. “That’s what makes our business unique, as much as it can be satisfying for us, I’m making it for you.”
He added that he’s still developing and crafting his vision for what can be done. When it’s ready to be shared, it will hopefully be as welcomed as any of the other reboots.
So what’s the cast of Family Matters up to now?
Life after Family Matters has been kind to him. He reprised his role as Steve Urkel for the animated series Scooby-Doo and Guess Who? He also has more recent acting credits, including appearances on Historical Roasts, Raven’s Home, and the 2018 film The 15:17 to Paris.
White has a daughter named Samaya with his ex-girlfriend Bridget Hardy. The 44-year-old was born in Culver City, California, as the only child of a dentist and homemaker who later became his manager. It was on the advice of his preschool teacher that White began acting like a child. He started out at three years old on TV commercials. One of his most notable commercials was for Jell-O pudding pops, alongside Bill Cosby.
Appearing in all nine seasons as Carl Winslow, the Chicago policeman and devoted father, Reginald VelJohnson was the patriarch and one of the pillars of the show. He was rightfully regarded as a positive image of a Black father in America.
His role as Carl was praised and is still mentioned as one of the best fictional fathers in television history. After the final season, the now 68-year-old delved into theater work and performed cameos in various films and TV shows over the past two decades. He was cast as the voice of God in the animated series Lazor Wulf, VelJohnson and recently scored roles in the movies 3Below: Tales of Arcadia, Funny Story, The Prayer Box, and Avengers: Endgame.
Jo Marie Payton
Like her on-screen husband, Payton became an iconic fictional mother in sitcom history and an integral component in the show’s success. After Family Matters, Payton stayed active in television and film. She lent her voice to the character of Suga Mama Proud on the animated Disney show The Proud Family.
In 2005, she also earned an NAACP Image Award nomination for her Outstanding Performance. Her most recent film is 2020’s Conundrum: Secrets Among Friends, where she played Ms. Dumas. The 70-year-old plays the character of Lorraine on Mann & Wife.
Kellie Shanygne Jackson
44-year-old Kellie Shanygne Williams is largely remembered for being Laura, the disinterested love interest of Urkel, whom she got engaged to in the final season. After the show wrapped up, Williams appeared in the ABC show What About Joan for two seasons.
She also briefly filled in as a host on the Style Network program Clean House. In 2011, Williams decided to quit acting. She started focusing on her work at the Kellie Williams Program, which is a social initiative she developed for young people, giving them the chance to create and produce their own TV shows.
Telma Louise Hopkins
Hopkins was a seasoned actor when she was cast as Rachel Baines-Crawford, Harriet’s widowed younger sister. An established singer, she had done vocals for the pop group Tony Orlando and Dawn. Since her time on the show, Hopkins has racked up what looks like the most impressive film and TV resume of her cast-mates.
She was in the film Running Out of Time, as well as the series Dead to Me, The Loud House, and Family Reunion. The 72-year-old also landed recurring roles in comedies such as the popular Are We There Yet? and Lab Rats.
Harrison has had a handful of roles since his time on Family Matters, but playing Waldo was his biggest and best. His acting credits have been few and far between over the years, but he has continued to pop up on the small screen with appearances as Peaches on the sitcom Girlfriends, Eve and Moesha.
He also tried his hand at voice acting. He lent his voice as a character on the animated children’s show Legion of Superheroes. At the moment, he’s involved with the film Uncle Ed’s Bucket List. He’s now 46 years old.
Jaimee Monae Foxworth
The now 40-year-old played Judy for the show’s first four seasons before getting ousted. Foxworth then formed the R&B group S.H.E. with her two sisters. They released their debut album, 3’s a Charm, in 1997 through Shaquille O’Neal’s T.W.IsM. Records.
Seven years after getting the boot, she popped up in a film project, but not the kind for young eyes. In 2000, under the name Crave, Foxworth began working in adult films. By 2008, she was seen on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. Those days are behind her, though. Now, she’s raising her son and working on writing a book about being a child star.
Baby Richie grew up to be a full-grown adult actor. Bryton McClure now goes by Bryton James, and he is an established actor. He took on the role of Luka in The Vampire Diaries. He also voiced Cyborg in DC Super Friends. Many will remember him from his regular role as Devon Hamilton in The Young and the Restless.
He’s been on the soap opera for 14 years, appearing in 832 episodes! He even earned himself a Daytime Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series in 2019.