Two weeks ago, I had the unequaled privilege of speaking with Jo Marie Payton about her time as Harriette Winslow on Perfect Strangers. Jo Marie and I discussed her early career, working with her Perfect Strangers co-stars and producers, and the undying popularity of Family Matters. We spoke over Skype, and I have lightly edited the transcript and audio to hide how terrible an interviewer I am. Listen to it or read it–or both!
Casey: What I’ve been doing for the past couple of years–I’ve been doing review of Perfect Strangers in blog form. So I’ve seen at this point all the ones that you were in. And I just have to say, before I ask you any questions, I think you were one of the best, consistently funny parts of that show. I do think the show suffered when you, you know, went to Family Matters. So my first question: what is your understanding of who Harriette Winslow was in those two seasons of Perfect Strangers?
Jo Marie: Well, you know what, initially, when they were searching for Harriette, this is the story I was told. They were looking for somebody like Selma Diamond. You know, in our industry, we have a copycat mentality sometimes, and Selma Diamond was the little Jewish lady that was on Night Court, the little… whatever she did over there.
[Selma Diamond played bailiff Selma Hacker on the first two seasons of Night Court – Casey]
Anyway, they were looking for somebody like that, is what I was told. And they needed somebody that they thought had perfect timing. So Joel Zwick, who was our major director for Perfect Strangers and then Family Matters said “No, this lady”, him and Jim, oh god, I can’t think of Jim’s name right now. There were two producers, they said “No, this lady… we don’t know this lady, we don’t know her real name, we know we’ve worked with her on The New Odd Couple with Ron Glass and Demond Wilson, and her character was ‘Big Mona’.”
So, I was told that Miller-Boyett–Tom Miller and Bob Boyett–said go to–and we did it at Paramount–said go to Paramount, go to the archives, pull up the credits and find out what her name is. And that’s how they called me in. And I went in, and I had just left Miami, as a matter of fact I’m in Miami now. I had just left my Mom’s house with my young baby, and I told my mother, I said “Listen, I’m going to give this another five years, and then I’m just going to hang it up and I’m going to take one of these good jobs that everybody’s asking me”–because at that time I was sales administration manager for a wholesale touring company. But I had still been doing my career, you know, doing different things, but I told my mom, I said “I need something. I’ve got this baby, I need a house, and to come out of the apartment, and something’s got to pop in the next five years, or I’m going to take one of these good paying jobs that everybody keeps offering me that I keep turning down!”
And so I left that Sunday, I got–and I was sick–I had gotten sick from traveling, and I had a bad cold. And I got in that Monday to Los Angeles and my agent called and said “You have an interview at Warner Bros. in Culver City, that’s when we were at the, you know, at the studio, in Culver City. And I said “Okay…” And I didn’t feel good, but I went anyway. So when I left there, I asked her, I said, “You know, there were quite a few people in there. This was a recurring role and why you didn’t tell me” and she said “Well, I know you didn’t feel well and I didn’t want you to get false hopes and stuff, I just wanted you to go in there and do the best you could.” And she said “But they’ve already called back and asked you to come back again for producers and writers the next day.” I said “Oh! Okay,” you know. So I went back, and I only worked about 15 minutes from there, so I went back the next day. And when I went back the next day it was Tom Miller, Bob Boyett, Paula Roth, oh my god, Bill Bickley, Michael Warren, all the producers were there. And I read for them. There was one other lady, I forgot what her name was, there was one other black lady there, I don’t remember what her name was. And I auditioned and everything, I spoke to everyone, and then I left, and when I left, prior to my coming to Miami I had… my Mexican girl friend was sick. And she didn’t live far from there, so I went to see her. And my husband had picked up the baby, and about 9 o’clock I called him, because it was a late rehearsal. And I said “Is everything okay?” and he said “Yes,” he said, “but your agent’s been trying to reach you. You have some contracts, she had to negotiate your contract without you!” I said “What?” He said “She’s sitting over on Sunset Boulevard, you need to get over there right away and sign these contracts because you have to be at work tomorrow!” I said “What?!” So anyway…
I went in and I signed the contract and, oh my god, more money than I’ve ever seen–a week, you know!–and I said “Oh my God!” So anyway, she said “Well, this is the best I could do, I had to get it for you, they want you on set tomorrow.” So I went in there Wednesday, and she was Harriette Winslow for ten and a half years, you know. That was really crazy how that happened.
And I continued working on my job. I think I stayed there, like, three to six months, something like that. I know I stayed there, because I didn’t want to just cut out, you know, and like I said, I was sales manager. They let me take my work home, the computer home, and then I had an assistant at the job, and they were all elated, everybody, my boss and everybody, which I still talk to today. They were so elated, and they knew I was in the business. Although, I almost left that job a couple of times, and my boss said, “You know what? We’ll work around it.” And they did!
Casey: From what I can tell, just looking online, for ABC in 1987–for their weeknight primetime blocks–you were just one of three black actresses on ABC that year. Was that significant for you?
Jo Marie: I didn’t know that until I read it in your notes! I said “Oh my god!” Isn’t that something? I’ll have to put that on my resume. My bio, that’s where I need to put it. Isn’t that amazing? And I said “Oh, wow!” So anyway, thank you for that! But, you know, I didn’t know it at the time. I was just working. So it had to be Phylicia Rashad–was this ABC you’re talking about or just talking about networks?
Casey: Yeah, the other ones on ABC were Robin Givens and Kimberly Russell, and they were both on Head of the Class.
Jo Marie: Okay, then, okay, okay. When you mentioned that, I said “Okay.” That’s why, when the season started, I was the rep. I don’t know, I guess that’s why I was the rep for ABC. We went to Canada, and ABC had one rep, NBC had one rep, and CBS. It was myself from ABC, Howard Rollins, I think from CBS, because he was doing In the Heat of the Night, and it was Nicolette Sheridan, I think it was, was doing a show after Dallas or something, the one after that.
And they flew us in to Canada, and put us up at this beautiful hotel, and we were the only one representative from each one of the networks. And when we went into the studio the next day they had these huge pictures on the sides of the wall, and I said “Oh my god!”, you know. It was magnificent, so I kind of knew I was special then.
Casey: I looked through all the shows, on Wikipedia, and even when you take into account CBS and NBC, there were only a dozen black actresses at that time, and a third of them were on The Cosby Show.
Jo Marie: Wow, isn’t that amazing! I’m so glad you told me that! That’s real interesting. Yeah.
Anyway, I do know – I think it was back in 1977 – I do remember, I think I was the only black actress in Hollywood at that time that had two contracts. I was on a holding contract for ABC for a project the whole year. The whole year, every week they paid me a check to have to sit, so they could try to find me a project. And that was after I had done, I think, the old… Redd Foxx had a variety show after Sanford & Son called The Redd Foxx Variety Show. And Blye-Einstein, who were the casting people in… oh my goodness, what was the city outside of Bel Air, out near the valley? anyway, but they were out there, and they needed a jazz singer. And I sang, but I wasn’t like a singer singer, you know, I was an actress that can sing, that can carry a tune, that’s what I say. I went out, and I didn’t have any music or resume, the same way I got into my first equity show. No music, you know, no bio, no resume, I just went in there and sang. I had an agent, though, in Los Angeles. They told me to sing a song, you know, I didn’t have any music or whatever, and they said “What do you want to sing?” and I said “Ain’t nobody’s business if I do” They said “okay, let’s hear it.”
If I should take a notion
To jump into the ocean
Ain’t nobody’s business if I do
They said “That’s enough, we’re just over at CBS.” I went on to CBS to work with Redd Foxx, Slappy White, Prince Spencer, Gerald Wilson’s band. It was a phenomenal group of people. And I was Georgia Brown the jazz singer! And I did, like, instead of one episode, I did six episodes.
And they liked the character, and so what they did was they took the character and put her and Redd together as a couple. He was Alphonze and I was Victoria. So they did seven episodes of that, I’m saying pre-pilot, you know, for another situation comedy. They fell in love with that, and that’s when ABC said “Okay, let’s do a holding contract.” They did a holding contract for me, but at the same time I had gotten a deal from Paramount to do The Plant Family, a pilot that Jimmy Burrows directed. Jimmy Burrows, from Taxi and Will & Grace and all of that, actually directed my first international pilot, you know. Normal Alden was up for an Academy Award that year, and Joyce van Patten was in it, I was third lead and I helped to sing the theme song also for that show. Jesse White, the Maytag man, was in there, and it was great.
So anyway, I had that contract, and I had the ABC contract, and what happened was they came in the same day. And my agent said “Oh my god. The one with Normal Alden who’s up for Academy Award is being directed over at Paramount. It stands a chance of getting picked up. The ABC is a holding deal, what are we gonna do?” Well, I didn’t know, I had only been there two years, I said “I don’t know.” “So what do you feel like?” I said “I don’t know.”
So my agent said “Well, you know what? We’re going to sign the Paramount deal, it’s a bigger deal than the holding contract that you may not get anything out of. They already want you.” So she signed that deal, oh my god, when she signed that deal, ABC hit the ceiling! They said “No! She can’t do that! You know, you guys have already promised that she would sign the deal” and, oh, I can’t think of it, the big guy, he was kingpin over all the networks, but for ABC, I’m trying to think of his name, his name was Fine or something like that. He said “Calm down.” He said “This young lady, she doesn’t know this, just leave her alone.” He called me and he said “Listen. Go to Vegas or something, just take a break, you know you anybody in Vegas?” I said “I have family.” “Go out there and take a break and we’ll work it out.” So what they did was, they both of them made me sign the contract. But the ABC contract, they broke down some of the money on it, because they couldn’t get a compromise on it. And they stepped into second position. But they still wanted the deal, and I had the deal for twelve months, and they sent me a check every week for twelve months, just to stay in place.
Then The Plant Family didn’t go. It wasn’t a go. And after the twelve months, I was looking, and they were looking, and after it ran out, I said “Oh god, I gotta get a job.” I said “But who’s going to hire me?” I remember crying, I said “Who’s going to hire me?” People are seeing me on TV every week, they saw me on the Redd Foxx Show and I do these other things, like The Carol Burnett, on The Merv Griffin Show, I was jumping back and forth on different things. And I said “Who’s going to hire me, oh my god, nobody’s going to hire me. They’re going to know me, know I’m an actress, they know I’m going to leave the job”, you know. And I know I was smart as hell, but I said, “I don’t think they’re going to take me.”
So I saw this ad in the papers said “We need this terrific attitude, this-that-and-the-other blah blah blah blah, can type 65 words a minute and so on so on so on.” And I said “Well, hell, that’s me, I can’t type 65 words a minute, but all the other stuff they need, that’s me.” So I went in for the job and I actually got it! I was sneaking out of–I had a girl friend–and I was sneaking in and out to do my auditions. Sometimes as far as Culver City all the way to North Hollywood! I was flying in my ‘57 Chevrolet that a friend of mine gave me, you know.
And one day the elevator was broken, and we were on the third floor, and I was a lot heavier than what I am now. And I shot out of there and God was with me. I got every light. But in one hour I left from Culver City, twenty-something miles, to get out of my car and go do the audition, get back in my car, get all the way back. But by the time I got back to my job, I was huffing and puffing and I was breathing so hard I felt I was to have a heart attack. I just had to stop for a minute and catch my heart and breathe. So when I got upstairs, I said “Oh, I can’t do this anymore, I just can’t. I just need to tell these people, you know, what I do, and what’s happening.” So I went in and knocked on my boss’s door. His name was Rob Underhill, beautiful, beautiful gentleman, English, used to work on the QE2 cruiseliner. And I said “Rob, I need to talk with you.” And he said “Come on in, sweetheart, what’s the matter?” And I said “Well, I just left from here and went all the way to North Hollywood, and came back, and the elevator was broke, and I just feel like I’m about to die right now.” And he said “Well why did you do all that?” I said “Well, because I’m in show business.” He said “We already know that!”
He said “But please tell me you’re not going to quit.” I said “Well I may have to!” So he said “Well sit down and let’s talk a little bit. Tell me about it.” So I told him about my family and my career. And he was the vice president of sales, so he said “You know what? Yes, let’s try it out! Let’s see, let’s work around it.” So I did, you know, and then my other boss was the president of the company and we were a wholesale touring company, selling the Olson’s European tours, and there was nobody in the world that had a better tour than Harvey Olson. They were, you know, pricey tours, and Travel World was up there with him. I was working for a company like that. We worked it out, you know, I started out as, like, you know, the assistant, and all, and then the gentleman whose job I took was Bob Barton’s, and his father was the CEO and president of Parker Brothers toys, and he went to Dartmouth. And they gave me his position when he left! And I said “Oh my god! I don’t have a college degree, but I got good people skills”, okay?
I remember, I’m telling you, I didn’t even think I’d go back into all of this, but I’m going to tell you anyway, then I’ll stop and let you ask me another question. They left to go on a–there was a lawsuit or something came in–and they all left town. They said “Jo can handle it. She’s an actress, she can handle it.” And I did, you know, and then I started singing for them, every time my shows would come on, everybody would meet in the lunchroom and they’d have a TV there. And they really supported me. So I was there for seven and a half years, and when I got Family Matters, they genuinely and truly were elated with it. But I did almost quit two times. My boss said “Don’t quit,” and then the next time I did kind of walk out and say “Well, you know, I really can’t do it.” And then the other president of another department came to ask me to go to lunch. I went to lunch, and she said, “You know, it’s not the same thing.” It was Henny Osgrove, I never will forget it. She said “I need to talk with you, can we have lunch?” and I said “yes.” And because it was that kind of travel company, you know I had put together potlucks and all that stuff because it was so many different people from different nationalities and different countries and things, you know. And the sales reps, I knew all the sales reps and tour guides and stuff like that.
She said, “You know what, since you left it just… ooh, please consider coming back, we’ll put you wherever you want.” I said “Well, can I go on the phones, then, so I can take a break?” and all this kind of stuff. “Can I get some seminars?” because I had like 250 seminars a year and I had to take the breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and all the meals, and the wines. My boss taught me how to do all this stuff! And I was doing the payroll for all the sales reps around the country. The only hotels we did was the Ritz-Carltons and the, whatever, the finest hotels in that city, that’s what we used. And it was very testy for me, but in order for me to be able to do, you know, continue my acting, I just had to make myself very valuable to them, and I did, and they wind up giving me the key to two buildings, you know, we had two buildings side by side, and giving me the combination and all, and trusting me. And they said “You know what, just get it done whenever you can get it done” and that’s what I did. I took my work home, and it was a lot! But you know what, when I look back at it now, it all paid off. It paid off very well, because I was able to continue my career. I was able to leave that job the way I wanted to leave it, in good spirits and in good shape and everything and all with those people. And we’re still friends today, whenever I see some of them. And I just always wanted it to be a win-win situation, and it was. And my continuing to work like that put me in a position to max out my pension before I was old enough to take it. It was good.
Oh, I gotta tell you one other thing, though. I’m gonna give you a little bit more trivia, because I give it to everybody. When Redd and I did the Alphonze and Victoria skit on his show–on the variety show–those characters, when Redd and Della Reese were doing The Royal Family? Those were the same characters, and the same character names that Redd Foxx and I created in 1977. And before Redd did it, he contacted me and asked me if I would do the show with him, The Royal Family.
And I think at that time I had just finished doing, like, six Silver Spoons with Ricky Schroeder; that’s how I knew Joel Zwick and Jim Geoghan, and all of those. And I couldn’t do it, because something else was coming up. I couldn’t do that with him, and I tell everybody, I say–those two characters, if you go back and find any of that footage on the old Redd Foxx Show, you will see Redd Foxx and I doing Alphonse and Victoria. And there was a gentleman that wrote a book about Redd Foxx, and he had another actress’ name there, and I contacted him. When I saw that excerpt from his book, I contacted him, and I told him that that was me. I said “And if you want to, I can have the contracts pulled up and you can see it, it actually was me.” And when he thought about it and he saw my face, he said “Oh my god” he said “oh, Ms. Payton, I am so sorry. That was you. I am so sorry, I apologize. I hope there won’t be any legalities.” I said “No,” I said “But I just wanted you to know it.” Because he had done books and everything on it.
Casey: I’ve read some old interviews with you about your time on Family Matters, and I definitely get the strong sense that you and the other castmembers were kind of a family behind the scenes. And I’m wondering: how does that compare to working with the other Perfect Strangers cast?
Jo Marie: Well, you know something, I got in, and I loved my Family Matters cast. As a matter of fact I just talked with Kellie last week–that’s Laura–I just talked with her last week, and I talk to Reggie all the time. They were my family, but, you know something, my working experience with Family Matters was totally different than it was with Perfect Strangers. Mainly because working with Bronnie–that’s Bronson Pinchot–and Mark, and those. They were all adults, so we didn’t have to make adjustments in time, you know, for their schooling and all that kind of thing, you know what I’m saying? It was just different then, and they were so professional. I mean, Mark Linn-Baker, Bronson Pinchot, and it was Melanie Wilson, and what’s the other little cute blonde girl, I forgot her name–Rebeca. Rebeca. Ooh, I don’t know where Rebeca is, she’s the only one I haven’t seen anywhere. They were wonderful to work with, but I’m telling you I was amazed at the chemistry between Mark Linn-Baker and Bronson Pinchot. Because they were so sharp, and their timing was so good, well, I knew I wasn’t a spring chicken either. But I enjoyed working with them because we would get in and out, and Joel Zwick is the fastest-directing director I know. He studies, he knows exactly what shots he wants to get, he knows, he allows you the space to do what you want to do in the short time that you have to do it because that show was, what, 22, 23 minutes long, something like that. He allows you the creative space to do what it is you feel like you need to do because he’s already done his homework, so he knows where the camera shots are. We had an incredible crew.
But I have really–I worked the longest on Family Matters, and I loved them the dearest, but the experience–the working experience–I enjoyed more because it was all adults. I didn’t have those lag times, you know, in between schooling and have to wait until the kids finished school and stuff like that. Because Kellie and Darius were 11 years old when we started the show, going on 12 or something like that. Jaleel was 10, because he’s a year behind them–that’s Urkel.* And then the others were smaller than that! You know, where there’s lots of time with the counselor, you know, and Tom and Bob, bless their souls, and Bill and Michael were very strict about rules being, you know, adhered to and all. And so we kind of worked around them, but they were the nicest, sweetest kids, and I loved them. But anybody that knows me, they know I always talk fast, I walk fast, I do everything fast. I didn’t want to spend all day there, because I had my daughter and my husband I wanted to get home with. Sometimes that kind of, you know, got–I don’t want to say “got in the way”–but that is the biggest difference when I went into Perfect Strangers. And also my part was smaller, you know. I’d just go into work and shoot out. I was in and out! In and out, and that was it.
Casey: I really enjoyed the times when you and Belita Moreno got to play off of each other, got to squabble with each other. What was it like working with her?
Jo Marie: Ooh! That’s my girl! Oh my god, she was like my sister. She was like my sister from another mother. Okay? And Belita Moreno, when I saw that–and I contacted Belita a couple times when she was doing The George Lopez Show. Belita–I will always remember her til the end of time because she was the one that gave me an experience that–I was just flabbergasted and I still use it til today. She took me to Bed Bath & Beyond on a lunch break, and I’ve been crazy ever since.
I didn’t know–being a poor girl and not being able to buy things like that, come on, at that time Bed Bath & Beyond was even more fabulous than it is now. It’s gotten, you know, kind of commercial but at that time it was the place to go outside of Brooks, Macy’s and all of that. Bed Bath & Beyond had it going on! So she took me there one day and we were–I was in my money then, you know. And she took me there and I lost my mind. I was there last week! I will always remember Belita for that. We would laugh a whole lot, waiting on our scene to come up, after our scene’s finished, we’d be practicing what we were going to do, or whatever. She was the funniest, sweetest, sweetest person. The same way she was on George Lopez and crazy, she was crazy (laughing). When I think about it–when I think about Belita, I have to laugh, but she was so little and short. She was amazing. She was amazing. I should try to contact her, because I loved her so much. I loved her, and even though when I left the show and I would run into her, I loved her so much. She was a sweetheart.
Casey: There was one episode of Perfect Strangers in your second year there where you and Reginald VelJohnson appear together. How long had the two of you been working together? Were they already developing Family Matters?
Jo Marie: No, listen, I didn’t even know Reggie, I had never seen Die Hard, I had no idea who he was. I know at the end of the first season [season 3 – Casey] Tom and Bob told me that–they called me in on a meeting. And when they called me in, they told me that they were going to–they were thinking about spinning off the character into a situation comedy–a family–giving me a family, putting it all together, and, you know, spin it off. So I said “Oh my god!” I was all excited, of course, and I went home, I stood on hiatus, and I said “Oh my god, they’re going to spin off this character!” you know, “And they’re going to find me a husband” and stuff. So when I went in the second season [season 4 – Casey], it hadn’t happened, you know, I didn’t see it. Well, nobody came to me about it. But just before the second season was over with, they called me in. And when they called me in, I said “Oh god, this is going to be my pink slip,” I said, because they didn’t mention anything else during the season, you know. It was just before Reggie came on to do that episode. I said “They’re going to give me my pink slip.” And they said “No, we’re spinning the character off, so we’re going to bring in–and we’re going to start auditioning now–your husband.” Oh my god, there were quite a few men that came in there. I remember, god I’m trying to think of his name now, he played Muhammad Ali–no, he played… Elijah Muhammad, whatever. He said–Al Freeman, Jr.! Al Freeman, Jr.–and I heard he said “I’ll pay my own ticket just to go in there and audition with this lady.” I had a group of really wonderful men that came in!
But that Reginald VelJohnson… When Reggie came in, and we did it, it was instant. And so when he walked out the door, and they said “Jo, we need you to come back in.” So I came in–because I was having coffee, or something–and I said “Who is it?” And so, they said “You know who it is, don’t you?” And I said “Yes I do.” I said “It’s Mr. Die Hard, it’s Reginald VelJohnson.” They said “Oh! That’s it!” He said: that energy, that chemistry–today people call it “that Harriette Winslow and Carl Winslow energy, we need that kind of juice,” that’s what they call it. But he was absolutely wonderful. I can honestly say–saying let God strike me–Reggie and I never had an argument. From that day to this day we have never had an argument. And I remember Reggie, when he, when we first–the pilot, when we were doing the pilot, and I said “Reggie, you need to stand right there.” And he said “Where?” I said “You need to stand on your mark.” He said “Where’s my mark?” I said “Well my color’s green, this is your color.” He said “Oh oh oh oh.” So Reggie will tell people today–and he’s done it in so many interviews, “I didn’t even know where my mark was, Jo taught me how to hit my mark.” (laughing)
But we became very good friends, and I don’t know if you know it, but we did a Lifetime special again about three years ago. [The Flight Before Christmas, 2015 – Casey] And when we did the special, we were called in because they were looking for a couple that was running this bed and breakfast. And somebody suggested “Say, why don’t we call Reggie and Jo Marie, Carl and Harriette, and let them run the bed and breakfast?” And they did, and it was wonderful. And Mayim Bialik, who played Blossom, and Ryan McPartlin, they were the main characters. And we had such a great time with them, but I think they had a better time with us. And Mayim said “Oh my god, you know we can’t let you guys get out. We have to take a picture! Can we take a picture with Carl and Harriette?” We took a picture and I think it went viral! My face all over the place! It’s all over the place. But it was great.
And then the first time I ever went to Broadway, because my first union was equity, I had an equity card before all the rest, because I was touring with Robert Guillaume, that played Benson, and a whole bunch of other really wonderful people. But, when I actually stood on a Broadway stage, it was maybe four or five years? No, no, it was longer than that. After Family Matters had ended, and we got a request from the city of New York, because they were doing something on home whatever, and all, and family, and stuff like that, and they asked for Reggie and I. They said “We would love to have Reginald VelJohnson and Jo Marie, for the real Harriette, to come and be the host emcees for the program.” And then they called in Stephanie Mills because she was on Broadway doing Purlie, and she had done the song “Home”.**
So they wanted “Home” and they wanted that family feel. I want you to know: that entire venue–standing room only–came, and those people, so amazed, said, that people called and said “We just want to see them back together.” I almost cried. Reggie and I were standing backstage and we just lost our breath. He said “Do you believe this?” Then the gentleman came and said “Those people bought tickets because they said they just wanted to see you and Harriette back together.” I said “Oh my god.” And then when we finished hosting, we went back and we just hugged and said “Is this amazing or what? This show has been off the air how long?” Oh my god, it was incredible.
Casey: What was it like leaving Perfect Strangers? Did you feel a strong connection to that show was being broken?
Jo Marie: No. I never felt like it. Let me tell you why. I don’t want to cry. I loved Tom Miller and Bob Boyett so much. I respected them so much. I liked Bill and Michael also, but I had a special feel for Tom and Bob, because they–I feel like they cuddled me, you know and I feel like they generally cared about me. And Tom–which I never will forget it–Tom Miller, when we did the pilot for Family Matters, and I think we were, like, three or four shows inside of it, but they were always very, very nice to me, and accommodating, and they made sure, you know, I had a nice dressing room.
They didn’t treat me like I was African-American or whatever, they just treated me right. But I think one of the biggest compliments I got that somebody told me Tom Miller said, “You know what, I just love her, because when she what she does, regardless of how much material you give her, she’ll come in and do two lines like it’s the end of a hundred.” I said “What?” They said Tom said, “Whenever you hit that stage or hit those cameras or whatever, your monologue could have been, or whatever you had, could have been a hundred lines long, you only got two lines and you’ll just zap ‘em,” you know. And said that he loved that about me.
But, when we actually did, I think we had done, like, the pilot and a few episodes, Tom Miller called me one Saturday morning. I will never forget it as long as I live. He said “Hi, honey, it’s Tom.” I said “Hi.” He said “I’m not a phone person, I don’t talk on the phone, but I wanted to talk with you.” So he says “Well, you know you’re never coming back to Perfect Strangers, right?” And I said, “Yeah, Tom” because they had given me a deal, a guarantee. They did the pilot and a guarantee of half of all the shows of Perfect Strangers if Family Matters didn’t work out. Well, Family Matters worked out. So Tom had said “You know you’re never coming back, right?” And I said “Yes”. He said “Well that’s why I wanted to talk with you. I just wanted to tell you to always stop and smell the roses, and stay as wonderful as you are, and all these–because you’re getting ready to take a ride now.” And I see he was trying to, you know, really just comfort me and let me know to just out there and do what I do. And I remember somebody told me, even with Reggie, with our chemistry and everything, even if we had, like, banter, said “You can’t be mean to her, because you can’t–it can’t come off mean because people like her, she’s strong, you know.” And they said “But you can’t be mean to her, then it makes your character not look right.” But then, you know, I felt like the entire time that they were there, and then after we got into Family Matters–I think maybe 2 or 3 years after we did it, then they turned it over to David Duclon, you know, with Bill and Michael and them, but with David Duclon, I think it might have been, eh, it might have been a little longer than that.
But at any rate, I still always felt like they were there because I knew I could always contact them. And I remember one year, they gave me a gift and I still have it right now. A Christmas gift. And I opened it up and it was from Tiffany’s. They always gave wonderful gifts, but this particular gift was a harlequin clown that went to a harlequin circus set. And Bob Boyett called me in the office, and they gave me that gift, and the paper–when I opened it up, I said “Oh my god, it’s a clown!” And he said “It’s not just a clown, it’s a special clown. It’s the only clown in this particular harlequin circus. So it can be very, very valuable. If somebody wants to put that circus together, remember, you have the clown.” He said “But we gave it to you because we think you’re the most beautiful clown. We think you’re the most beautiful clown we’ve ever seen.” And they had a note in there, it was absolutely beautiful. I think it’s the best gift that–outside of my God-given–my daughter–I think that the best gift that anybody gave me was that darn harlequin clown.
[In a follow-up email, Jo Marie described a clown like this Tiffany & Co. piece from the 1990s Gene Moore circus collection]
And it made me want to do–always do my best for them, you know. It didn’t matter, all the other stuff, I always wanted to pay them back by giving them the best that I had. The best that I had to make sure that–I didn’t give them 100%, I gave them 200%–because that’s what they expected out of me. To just do it, regardless. And I think when Tom was talking to me, he was telling me that shows don’t always go the way you want them to go, and we know that happened, that way. You know, the show was created for me, it was licensed on my character, and Urkel popped out.
But by the same token, and when I was asked about it, I said “Well, Perfect Strangers was treated for somebody else and I popped out of that too, but that didn’t matter, you know.” And it doesn’t matter today. The show was a success. And what it was to me, was that I was supposed to stay in my lane, do my job. And that’s what I did, you know. And when I left, when I walked out of that door on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, I went home to my family, and I tried to keep a balance on it. Even though, sometimes I was not happy with certain things. I still, because I respected and cared so much–not only about myself and my career–but I loved and cared about Tom and Bob because I knew they cared about me. And I just want to–and that represented them. You see what I’m saying? They took a chance on me. And it paid off well, not only for them, but for me. But I’m going to tell you: when I left Miami–and I’m telling you the story about when I told my mom I was going to give it five more years–I prayed for a project. Family Matters, Perfect Strangers was it. I prayed for a project, and it was Perfect Strangers, and it didn’t matter who came in that prayer with me, we still made it to the top.
Casey: I’ve read somewhere–and I’m not sure where this information comes from–I’ve read that Balki and Larry were supposed to make an appearance on the first episode of Family Matters.
Jo Marie: Right.
Casey: So what led to the decision of not doing that?
Jo Marie: I don’t know! I don’t know. I always heard they were coming but I don’t know. But I do know that I wasn’t going back there because, you know, like I said, Tom had said “You know you’re never coming back.” And before the conversation ended–the phone conversation ended, he said “a messenger will be coming to your house today.” I said “He will?” He said “Are you going to be home?” I said “Yes.” “Because you’ll need to sign for it.” I said “Okay.” He said “Because we’re sending you a big check for all of those shows that you’re not going to do. I said “What?!” He said “We’re sending you a big check,” and they did. It was thousands of dollars. I almost lost my mind!
But they didn’t come over. You know something, Mark Linn-Baker did do one of our shows, Bronnie never did one. Mark did one, and I think Melanie Wilson did do one.
Casey: One of the things that I’ve noticed as I’ve been reviewing Perfect Strangers–it had a very unique, committed focus on just two characters.
Jo Marie: It did.
Casey: It seemed weird to me that they didn’t work you, or Belita, or Sam Anderson into many of the stories, more than just a few lines.
Jo Marie: Right.
Casey: Do you have any insight on that direction?
Jo Marie: No, but I’ll tell you what. They were so darn good, I didn’t even worry about it. They were so darn good, especially when they did the Gleason and Norton thing. You know, they just had good comedic timing. They could do that–what do you call it–that slapstick stuff, they were so talented. They could do anything! I enjoyed them myself to tell you the truth. (laughing) It didn’t bother me. I was in my element, I was working, I had excellent producers, and a good camera crew. I still talk to my camera crew right now, those guys, and I see them on different shows. But it never bothered me, and then especially I have to say that it didn’t bother me because I got spun off into another character, well, another show. But it was wonderful working with them. They were very nice to me, and I appreciated the fact that they were so doggone professional. They really were. It was no horsing around and fooling around.
There was a little incident one time. And Bronnie and I went in the elevator and, you know, we talked it over, and we have been beautiful, you know, castmates and friends since then. We just had to have an adult conversation and we did and they allowed us to do it. And I never say it.
And nobody knows what that conversation was but myself and Bronson Pinchot. That’s it.
Casey: How did the Perfect Strangers cast feel about you getting spun off?
Jo Marie: Well, I believe they were happy. I know Bronson was, because he talked about it all the time. I’ve seen him on different interviews and he talked about it, you know. He would mention it, even if they didn’t mention it he would mention it. And I think there was a little bit of–I’m not going to say I think, I know it was a little bitter–a little jealousy that popped up with Melanie Wilson, because I did have a little snit with her. And this only happened–I didn’t know she held it like that, but she did. When I came–there was one particular time when I came, because we would always come out and, you know, do our bows to the audience. And the audience would ask questions and everything, and all, and they started asking me questions, you know. And on this particular day an audience member asked two times, I think it was, you know, that “I’d like to hear from Harriette” and she wouldn’t give me the microphone. When the Q&As were over with and all, I said “Why didn’t you give me the microphone?” And she said “Because I was busy talking on it!” And I said “But the lady asked two times.” I said “Please don’t do that again.” And I think ever since then, she and I kind of–there was a little cloud there. We spoke, you know, and even when she did Family Matters, we were cordial. I’m just telling you the truth. But she was the only one. I think–well, I don’t think, I know–you know, Melanie was a little bit of a prima donna, you know, she was very beautiful, but I think it was just her. You know, it’s always somebody. But like I said, I don’t carry grudges, I don’t carry hate, I understood, you know, where she was with it. But it is what it is. I don’t want to go out–I’m famous for shooting straight from the hip and just telling the truth. And that’s what it was. But like I said I didn’t hold it, you know, against her. She probably held it against me, but I didn’t. But I remember it, you know, and I remember it well. And that did kind of put a little thorn in the side, you know, with us.
And to tell you the truth, when you–I’m going to tell you the truth, because this is how I am–when I got your request for this interview, I had mentioned to my husband, I said “You know, not everybody wanted this reboot of Family Matters. Wouldn’t it be a hoot if they rebooted Perfect Strangers instead of Family Matters?” I said “Because I think, I don’t know what happened to”–god I can’t even think of her name now, that little cute little blonde girl, you called her name.
Jo Marie: Rebeca! I don’t know what happened to Rebeca because I never saw her after this. But I know that Mark is still here, Bronnie’s still here, Melanie’s still here, Belita’s still here. I think Sam Anderson–who was Sam Gorpley–I think Sam’s still here, out in the valley…. I said “Wouldn’t it be a hoot if those guys still owned that newspaper?” I mean, where they owned it not as opposed to working there. That they owned it, and they had people working for them. There’s always, you know–we call it “Show Business”. You show ‘em, and it’s good, you got a business. I said “Wouldn’t that be a hoot?” And then Harriette did come back there.
Casey: I would watch that.
Jo Marie: Oh yeah!
Casey: Are they talking about a reboot?
Jo Marie: Nobody’s mentioned it to me. I know that the only people that have mentioned it to me are our fans. (laughing) Our fans are begging for it every day. They’re begging for a reboot. “Are we gonna have a reboot?” I said “I don’t know, nobody’s talked to me yet. If you wanna see it, you gotta go to Hulu, Hulu’s got the entire line-up if you still wanna see it.” Because it’s never been off the air, it’s always been somewhere, I know that for a fact because residuals come in. I say “You can see it.” And then some people say “Well I don’t know if I want anybody to mess with it.” But by the same token, when Entertainment Weekly threw us in last year, November we were there. And they put that big spread on all of the networking sites and they did the one-hour special.
It went viral and so people are still asking right now, “Are we going to get a Family Matters reboot?” because they know we’re all here except for the grandmother and Myra. And I remember Kellie saying to me–that’s Laura–she said “Ms. Jo Marie, why won’t we hear anything about a reboot? Why don’t we have a reboot? All of us are still here except for the grandmother.” I said “Guess what, Kellie? I’m the grandmother now, you’re the mother.” She said “Oh my god, I never thought about it, Ms. Jo Marie!” I said “Now, you’re at the age where you’re the mother, and I’m the grandmother.” She said “Oh my god, that’s right.” I said “So you won’t be without a grandmother, because they’re not gonna give me any young kids, they’re gonna give them to you.” She said “Ms. Jo Marie, we got it all. We got it all.”
Casey: I would love to see it, personally, because I was watching Family Matters from the beginning. I didn’t catch much of Perfect Strangers, I was a little too young.
Jo Marie: Well you know, speaking of Family Matters and people watching it, you know that Australia had Family Matters for the entire 9 seasons that we were on. As a matter of fact, Australia flew me out there to work at the Royal Children’s Hospital. And then we got a letter back and said that the year that I came there to work with the Royal Children’s Hospital was the biggest money-making year that they had. But I do remember that when I was on the phones, and doing the telethon and all this stuff, that people started calling in to say “If she answers the phone personally, I will double my pledge!” you know. And so I was jumping all over the place! I was jumping, I was tiny then, I was about a size 10. And I was jumping all over the place, and they thought it was the cutest thing, but they made a lot of money. And then I went to Africa and I went to Paris, and when we got to Paris because we did–we went over to do a two-parter, it actually turned out to be a three-parter.
But they had the show. People were flying me everywhere. And then Jerusalem wanted me and I was scared to go, I should’ve went to Jerusalem. The show was there, so people loved it. When I went to Europe–when I went to London–Perfect Strangers was there and they were calling me the lift operator. “Harriette the lift operator! The lift operator!” That was before Family Matters, so it was all over the world and I heard people speaking it in Chinese. And I was at a casino one time and I unloaded the bus because they saw me with my husband, and all of them are on the bus, and somebody said “Oh! Harriette! Harriette!” They jumped off the bus and they had their cameras and they were taking pictures.
I’m telling you, it’s been wild! On the freeway one time, traffic was slow and I was in my car, and I had the big black Mercedes at the time and there were a bunch of prisoners in this bus. And it was hot so they had the windows down, and one of them started to say “Hey, man! That’s Harriette! It’s Harriette driving!” So the people on the bus went crazy. I said “Oh my god, this is wild. This is wild.” I’m so happy that people liked us, and Reggie did try to come up with a project one time for us. But I’m going to tell you something. There’s somebody out there that’s real smart–I hope it’s our producers, because I do believe that they cared about us–I don’t know what the issue is, I really don’t, honestly. But whoever decides that maybe they want to do this, it’s gonna make a lot of money this time, the same way they made a lot of money the first time. Because I know people want to see us, I know they do. And we’re ready. Like Jaleel and I said–it would only take them putting a script in our hand, and two or three days we’ll be there and the show will be shot. Period. That’s how we worked, we had the chemistry. I know exactly what they’re saying and how they’re going to say it out of their mouths and the same thing with them with me. We know exactly what it is. It’s not like they have to work at it. All they have to do is pay us. Have the set done up, get in the good directors and just pay us, we’ll give them what they need and more, you know, and bring it up to date.
Casey: After nine years I imagine you just know everybody in and out.
Jo Marie: Aw, yeah. We do.
Casey: Well, I have one more sort of general question about Perfect Strangers. What were your favorite moments or favorite stories?
Jo Marie: You know, I liked the sexual harassment one, I really did, with–oh my god, she was so great on that, I think she was nominated for an Emmy for that particular show. Her and Bronson Pinchot were just magnificent in that show. Because she–what is her name–she’s a great actress, she still is. That one on sexual harassment was fabulous. And then the one where–there was one where we went to a Christmas party, or something, and it was hysterical.
And the one they did Jackie Gleason, I wasn’t in even that one. But when Mark-Linn Baker and Bronson Pinchot played Jackie and Norton and the girls played Trixie and Alice, oh man, it was fabulous!
My favorite parts of Perfect Strangers wasn’t the parts that I did. When me and Belita Moreno was together, I loved everything we did when we had an opportunity to work together. But my favorite really was Mark and Bronson. It was always–for me it was always a joy for me to watch them work. I don’t know if they practiced together off the set, at home, or whatever, but damn, they were good, you know? They were just that–for me–they were just that on it.
Casey: I was just looking it up while you were talking. It was Holland Taylor.
Jo Marie: Yes it was! Holland Taylor, exactly. That was a good episode, I will always remember that episode. And in today’s, you know, climate of what we’re having and everything and all–you see I already knew about it, because I was in the business, so, I mean there’s some stories I could tell myself–but that episode was done so beautifully. The levels on it–Holland’s levels on it were great. But we had good writers–both of the writers we had on Family Matters—Perfect Strangers and Family Matters. We had the best writers, we had great directors. Rich Correll was our director–I don’t know if Rich–I think Joel directed all of the Perfect Strangers. Rich Correll came in and he and Joel were the top directors for Family Matters, along with John–I can’t think of John’s name [John Tracy – Casey]. we had quite a few of them on Family Matters, but Joel Zwick was the major one. There was a reputation–if Joel Zwick directed a pilot, the pilot was going to sell!
So if I had to answer the question again–my favorite moments on Perfect Strangers were the moments that I enjoyed so much watching Mark Linn-Baker and Bronson Pinchot. Bronson Pinchot and Mark Linn Baker. Those are my favorite moments. My favorite episodes were the ones I did with Belita Moreno.
Let me tell you this: you have really lightened my whole week, my day especially, because you took me back into memory that I don’t often have a chance to revisit. So for that I thank you so much. There’s so much in between all the other stuff, and I know my answers were very long. But I got paid–I always tell people I get paid a lot of money because I got a very good memory. And you just made me go back and remember some of the things that make me happy and excited to continue on being in my element and doing what I truly love to do. And that is making people happy, and it makes me happy to be able to have them enjoy what I do. So for that I thank you so much.
Casey: Oh, well thank you so much! And I really appreciate your answers, especially the long ones, because there’s not a lot of–I couldn’t find any other interviews with you about Perfect Strangers.
Jo Marie: Well, I appreciate that. And if you talk to any of them, please tell them I’m sending them love and blessings, and that I miss them, okay?
Casey: Thank you again so much, Ms. Payton.
Jo Marie: Take care, and you have a wonderful holiday season, okay?
*Jaleel must have been 12 when his first episode was filmed, but he is around half a year younger than Darius McCreary and Kellie Shanygne Williams. If Jo Marie met Darius and Kellie any time after June 1988, they were 12 at that time. As thorough as Jo Marie’s memory appears to be, I am disinclined to attribute any error to her or to suspect any age misrepresentation on the parts of the younger actors (and even if so, cf. Charo). I would suspect that the two were eleven when they first began talking to ABC. If you want a more thorough picture, please, start a Family Matters review blog.
**In a follow-up email, Jo Marie clarified that this program was from ~2004, part of the New York City Commission’s Promotion on Home and Family.
Thanks for reading, and thanks again to Jo Marie Payton, who was a delight to chat with, and who is a much better person than I am. I mean, I’ve never kept in touch with any of my cameramen. If you enjoyed this, please flood all of the other actors’ social media with demands that they let me interview them!
Join me next week for “Out of Sync”!
7 thoughts on “Interview with Jo Marie Payton”
This woman is a class act. I love that she’s not bitter about Family Matters focusing on Urkel’s exploits instead of than Harriette and her family. She still considers it all a success. She’s a pro!
Also, I’d kill for a Family Matters reboot.
I would watch a Family Matters reboot only on the condition that the pilot episode opens with Urkel’s funeral.
I’ll send you a list of names, Shawn.
This interview has made Jo Marie Payton one of my heroes. I wish I could write fan mail to her or something!
Isn’t she great? I think she’s fairly active on Facebook!
[…] they sought comfort from each other, and even that had story potential as a mirror to the cousins. Speaking with Jo Marie last year deepened my understanding of what I saw their characters do: there was a friendship that extended […]
This was a nice interview, thank you.