Interview with Rebeca Golden

I told y’all I would come back if there was anything important!

If it had been a reboot you’d be reading my fake obituary while I boarded a plane to Argentina to live out my days as Sr. John Smith, Subway cashier. Luckily it’s not that!

This blog has clogged up Google image search results for Perfect Strangers and its actors to such an extent that, when Rebeca Golden was searching for herself last Fall, she stumbled onto this eternal testament to my second-rate jokes.

She commented on the blog, I reached out with some questions, and she wrote me back with answers. Plus I talked to her on the phone! This makes me more special than you, but I won’t let that get in the way of our friendship.


How did you get into acting?

I always knew growing up that I would be on television and I have no idea why but from my earliest memory I believed that was where I was going.

What was your first television role?

Lindsey Laupher, Movie Starlet, on Search for Tomorrow which was a soap opera that ran for 30+ years on NBC in New York.


How did you get the part of Mary Anne?

I was sent for the audition for a guest spot on this show that hadn’t aired yet and the role was for Jennifer. I wasn’t given a script just the sides (pages) that I was to read. On the last page was this role of Rachel who says, “Hi, I’m Rachel, I’m a Sagittarius.”


And Balki says, “Hi I’m Balki, I’m a Bartokomous. Would you like to go out with me?” To which she says yes. So I told the casting director I liked this role better and I want to read for it but she told me they were casting both girls from the readings of Jennifer. So, I read for Jennifer. The part was just for one episode which was “Hunks Like Us”. They did not cast Melanie as Jennifer right away. But Bronson wasn’t thrilled with the actress that was at the first read through so they went back into casting sessions and brought Melanie back in.

The scripts usually depict Mary Anne as a ditzy character, but you didn’t always play her that way. What kind of a woman is Mary Anne Spencer?

I preferred to think of her as naive and marching to beat of her own drum. Early on the writers would write in her brilliant moments but my character was always the first one cut for time so the character became one dimensional.

What was it like doing the first episode, where you meet Balki at a gym?

The first episode was such a fun and amazing time. Both of the guys were so much fun then and Melanie and I became fast friends. We just felt like at the end of that week that it wasn’t really over.

How did you find out ABC wanted you as a recurring character?

Melanie and I were actually on the phone with each other when her agent rang through and then so did mine. We both got the news that the producers wanted to bring us back for some more episodes. So we came back for several episodes still as guest stars until they made us an offer.

What was your relationship with the other actors on Perfect Strangers?


Melanie and I were, and still are, very close. She is one of my dearest friends. We leaned on each other through those years of standing behind a door waiting to knock and we are still leaning on each other in life!


Mark is the consummate professional and just a doll. He’s a man of very few words but very quick to laugh and a pure delight to work with. If you can’t tell, I just love him.


Sam Anderson is the sweetest guy and so funny! He could take anything and make pure comic gold out of it. I love when I see him pop up in films or TV.


Belita Moreno is also hysterically funny and such a great gal. She got pregnant during season 3 or 4 and I remember they just kept hiding her behind stuff and she was a riot.


Jo Marie was also a hoot to work with could pull down a laugh with just a look. It’s really too bad they weren’t utilized more in the show because they always delivered brilliantly.


What was your favorite episode to perform?

That’s a tough one. The earlier seasons were so much more fun but I suppose I really enjoyed The Honeymooners episode because it was so different and we shot it live making it very exciting. Loved “Hunks Like Us” for obvious reasons. “Snow Way to Treat a Lady, Part I & II” was fun also.


Perfect Strangers was known for how quickly it would shoot episodes. What was a typical week like on the show, from getting the script to filming the episode?

It started with a network read through on Monday and usually we’d get sent home while the writers tweaked. Then the network read through got moved to Tuesday mornings and we had Monday off. Eventually we did the network read through during the week before while we were rehearsing the current script and then had two days off only working 3 days. Our shoot days also kept changing as they added other sitcoms around us.


Perfect Strangers is one of the few sitcoms I’ve ever seen that did not give B-plots to its other characters. Do you have any insight into why there was such a focus on just Larry and Balki?

It was how Bronson wanted it.

Were there ever scenes or lines of yours that did not make it into the final cuts of  episodes?

Tons! One time I literally had one word to say in the entire script, which was “Vanilla” and although it got a huge laugh in run through, they cut it! I was the one cut first whenever they were running over time wise. I believe it was Melanie who got them to put “Vanilla” back in. I always joked that my role consisted of knocking on the door, entering and saying, “Hi guys.”, then a scene would take place, and then we would exit as I would say, “Bye Balki.”.


In its last couple of years, Perfect Strangers saw a change of directors, from Joel Zwick to Judy Askins. Did that change affect the direction you received for playing Mary Anne?

Joel is a dear friend of mine and an incredible director. I think he just wanted a fresh view and decided to go over to Full House.

No, Judy never gave me any direction. She was basically just directing traffic when she came on. It was a well oiled machine by then.

There were some tabloid reports–and also from an interview Bronson Pinchot gave awhile back–that there was some behind-the-scenes stress during the last couple of seasons. Was there any truth to those reports? What was the atmosphere in that last year and a half?

Yes, it did get very unpleasant. I don’t know what the reports you’re referring to were but there were grownups behaving badly.

Why was Perfect Strangers cancelled?

It really wasn’t cancelled. Bronson and Mark’s contracts were up and they decided they wanted to move on. So they agreed to do the last 13 episodes without contracts to kind of wrap things up but after we all came back, the network decided to do only 6. I’m sure they didn’t want to put any more money into it since the guys wouldn’t be returning.

I’ve read that there were initially supposed to be 13 episodes for the final season. Do you remember what direction Perfect Strangers might have gone in had it continued, or any individual stories that were dropped?

Oh well, I just covered that! I’m sure it would’ve just been more of the same.

What are Mary Anne and Balki doing these days, do you think?

Living in the burbs with 6 kids.


What was it like to leave the show and say goodbye to your costars?


It was sad to leave all the people who I had spent a chunk of my life with at the point. I was glad we weren’t just cancelled and that we went out still pulling down decent ratings. But I was ready to go.


Do you keep in touch with any of them?

I see Melanie all the time. She is married to Bill Bickley who was one of our executive producers. Bill and my husband get along great so the four of us get together frequently. My girls have grown up knowing them. We just celebrated my oldest daughter’s birthday at their house. Our golden doodle had puppies nine years ago and Melanie and Bill have one (who they dote on like crazy) so I guess that makes us related?

I see Mark when he comes in town and stays with Melanie. He has a daughter and our girls met a long time ago when they were little. I think they still stay in touch on social media. Now that my youngest is in New York, I get back there more often and look up Mark when I do. When he’s on Broadway, I go see him because he’s incredibly talented whatever he does

According to IMDB, you were still acting as of 2000. What got you out of acting?

Really? I don’t remember doing anything in 2000 because I spent that year pregnant.

[this turned out to be a different actress in a James Spader movie – Casey]


After Perfect Strangers ended, I still worked but I really had lost my love for it. I got married in 1996 and in 1997 had my first daughter. I did tons of voiceover work while pregnant and for a while after having Stella. Then I went out of town for work and had to leave her. She was a little over a year old and trying to assure her I would come home soon over the phone was devastating. With acting, it was all about me but with motherhood, it was all about them so I chose them.

I went from pampered actress to slave and wouldn’t have it any other way!

I never actually told my daughters what I used to do and then one day when they were little, we were in Costco and this young man approached me and said he was a huge fan. We chatted a little and then he asked for an autograph. After he walked away both of the girls were staring at me and demanded to know what that man was talking about. (They understood the autograph thing because of getting the princesses’ autographs in Disneyland.) I realized that I had never told them or shown them any of our shows. It’s funny the way that whole thing works. You go from obscurity, to “where do I know you from?”, to “you’re that girl!”, to everyone knowing your name and what you do. Then it reverses! I just thought they knew but of course, how would they? They went home and watched every episode then told everyone their mom was a movie star.


What have you been doing lately?

Well, I raised two humans to adulthood. Quite a run that was. I became a professional volunteer at their schools serving as president of the parent/faculty first at the elementary, then middle school and finished it all up at the high school. I have a clothing business which I really enjoy.

My oldest daughter is at Art Center College of Design studying Entertainment Design and my youngest just started her sophomore year at NYU which happens to be my alma mater.

Have you been contacted about any sort of reboot of Perfect Strangers?

There was an opportunity dangled in 2013 about a national tour with the guys doing the Odd Couple. They sent us contracts but somewhere the negotiations broke down and it never happened.


If you have wondered why I haven’t said anything about Bronson, it’s because I adhere to the old adage that if you can’t say anything nice about someone then don’t say  anything at all.

But the truth is there are some nice things I can say about him.

He was a true Jekyll/Hyde. In the beginning, he was so sweet and fun to work with but as we got further into the success of the show, he morphed into a monster. I was the one member of the cast that seemed to draw his wrath. It was quite the paradox living my dream of being on a sitcom but subjected to being sexually assaulted by him regularly. At the time, there was nothing I or anyone else could do about it. He held all the cards.


[Rebeca offered to answer any other questions I had over the phone, and there was no way I was passing up an opportunity to talk to Mary Anne over the phone. Below is our conversation from October 2019.]

One kind of bigger question that I’m really surprised I’ve never seen anyone ask in an interview about Perfect Strangers–and I figure you might know since you were there almost from the beginning–why did they switch from a discount store setting and an apartment setting to the newspaper?

Oh, because they felt that the guys couldn’t be seen as just staying in one place. They had to advance in their lives. As opposed to just staying working in the Ritz Discount shop. They wanted them to be more successful, so it was more uplifting. So they weren’t just two loser guys. They did follow their dreams and try to have a career, that sort of thing. Because we knew that, we were like “Why are we moving to a newspaper? What happened?”

And then, when they got rid of Ernie Sabella as Mr. Twinkacetti, that was kind of sad.


I enjoyed having Belita and Sam added to the cast, but I hated to see Ernie go. 

Yeah, I know, and Belita was originally Mrs. Twinkacetti. And so she had to go through, all those–it was quite a lot of makeup and stuff to turn her into a redhead. (laughing) It was just funny. She had to be two different characters.

Right. I mean, it was a very drastic change, I thought. Because, you know, I would see her, I’ve seen her in other shows from the same time, and she looks very different. I mean, just from the hair color alone.

Yeah. Oh, she’s a hoot. Funny lady.


Another question about behind the scenes. This was–I had heard stories from other Perfect Strangers fans who had interacted with, I think had talked with some of the actors at different times online. But it was always things I couldn’t report on my blog, because it was kind of unsourced. But I really have only ever heard great things about Mark. Someone was telling me that they had heard through word-of-mouth that any time there was an actress who was on the show for maybe just one episode, it was always his dressing room that they felt comfortable leaving their purses in, things like that.

(laughing) That’s funny. Yeah, Mark is just a teddy bear. He’s the sweetest guy. He just is a really, really nice man.

All I can tell you is I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like him. He’s just always just super, super sweet.  He’s quiet, though. He’s not a big talker. It’s just not his thing.

Well, that was another question. Because I guess I still have hopes I might get to, you know, interview him and some of the other actors, even though I’ve finished the review blog. But if I ever do get the chance to interview him, what’s the best way to get him talking? Because he’s always so quiet in interviews. 

(laughing) You know what? You just have to wait til he has something to tell you. Then he talks! He’s not one for small talk. He’ll listen to small talk and laugh, but he’s just not chitty-chatty.

He’s so funny, he loved my little dog Emmy. And Emmy had known him since she was a tiny puppy. And so every time he would see her, he would go “Emmy Emmy Emmy Emmy” in a really high, squeaky little voice. And she would pee. (laughing) She would just get so excited to see him.


But he tended to do this on shoot nights. Because we’d be coming back from the commissary, and he’d be in his wardrobe. And it used to drive the wardrobe guys crazy because then Emmy would tinkle on him. And they’d have to change his costume. (laughing) And I would be like “Mark, no!”

And one time he went to Venice Beach, and he came back, he was so excited. He bought this little pink hat for Emmy. I mean, he was so excited about this little pink hat that he bought for my dog. So my dog had a total aversion to wearing clothes. If you put anything on her, she just sat down and looked at you like “You’re kidding, right? I am not wearing this.” And even in the show, when she played my dog, she was supposed to wear this little outfit that looked just like what I was wearing. And we put it on her. She was only 10 months old at the time, and she sat down and she just looked at us like “Yeah. It’s not happening. I’m not walking, I’m not moving, I’m doing nothing until you get this off of me.”

They ended up just putting a collar of the same material that I was wearing. Because she would have none of it. You couldn’t dress her up. So she would not wear the hat. I still have it, though. Because he brought it to me on a little stuffed dog, so that I could see how it worked. It was so funny. We put it on her. But she wasn’t going anywhere in that hat.


And he’s so incredibly funny.

I remember when we did that episode, the “Black Widow”, where he thought I was going to kill Balki. (laughing) I think it was the first time ever we had a scene together alone. And it was just so funny because he was supposed to be tying me up. And just to mess with him–he tells me to hold the piece of rope, and then he’s going to go around me in circles and tie me up. And I just started turning with him. And it just cracked him up. He started howling. I was like “What?” And he goes “Do that! Do that!” “Sure…”

But I had so much fun with him.

He brought his daughter to Melanie’s, and we had this quasi-reunion. Because of course Bronson showed up the night before, he didn’t come on the right day.


But we had the kids, the girls were all in Melanie’s pool. And Mark (laughing) Mark only has the one daughter, and it was so funny, because every time they would scream, he would jump up and start to run over there. And look at me like “They’re screaming!” And I would just look at him and go “Yeah? Well do you see blood? If you don’t see blood we’re good.” He was such a nervous Nellie about it, “Is she okay? Are they okay? Okay then why are they screaming?” And I’m like “They scream all the time. Don’t worry about it.” But he was cute.

He’s a cute daddy just as well as he was a cute everything else.

I got the sense just watching him and reading a little bit of reporting from the time of the show, that a lot of the little touches for jokes were his. And so what you were saying about “Black Widow”, that makes a lot of sense. That fits with what I’ve read about him. 

(laughing) Yeah, I always envied Melanie getting to work with him. Because he’s just such a doll.

You had mentioned in the responses you had given me that the earlier seasons were different from the later ones. So, you were on the show for six and a half years? Did you feel it was, like it was changing from year to year with the writing, or the sensibility? 


Well, our writers changed. Because basically we kept the core group, but… towards the end we didn’t. Well, I guess we did. We would get a couple of new ones here and there. I don’t know. I think attention got split. There were other shows in the making. So they got the attention. When we first started, our show got all the attention. And then as the producers were adding more shows, it started to change a bit.

And it was really a collaboration, because we would sit for hours in notes with the writers at the end of a day. Trying to find our way through some of these scripts, towards the end.

I think it was a little smoother in the beginning. Not really sure why.


I had read something about that, that in the early years the process, maybe at least the filming, was quicker, but then towards the end it got a little longer? 

Oh, well, the filming, with Joel Zwick, yeah. I mean, that was like doing theatre. You were just doing live theatre and you were done. I mean, occasionally he would have maybe a pick-up shot here or there. But he could usually get the entire show while we were doing it in front of the audience.


Now, if we had special effects or crazy stuff that could go a little longer. I think the plumbing episode, we had to shoot from the one scene with the shower going crazy, that wasn’t done in front of an audience. But the part where the whole ceiling caved in, and the water falls on us, that was in front of an audience. But, yeah, we never went very late at all. If we went to 10 o’clock that was unusual.


We were always really quick with our shoot night. And then after Joel left, it got longer. A bit.

Because he was doing other shows at that point, correct?

Yeah, he decided to go do Full House. I don’t know how long he was over there, but yeah, that’s when he left us. I think it was after five years he went over to Full House. And then we had some guest directors that were all just pretty nice. And then Judy Pioli got the regular director.

[The call is dropped, when we reconnect we commisserate about technology woes. – Casey]


I didn’t even know what it meant when you said that I had left you “on seen”. I had to ask one of my daughters. (laughing) I said “What does that mean?”

I think sometimes Facebook acts like the other person has seen the message, when they really haven’t.

Facebook keeps on notifying me that I have messages, and I don’t! So I just turned it off, I was like “stop notifying me!” So now, of course, I miss stuff… because I got a message, and who knew?

Anyway we were talking about Joel. Joel is a dollbaby. Love Joel. He’s just the sweetest guy, funny, hysterical. And it was like having three crazy men to work with when he was on the show. I’m surprised he doesn’t talk about it more, but… I don’t know.

He had a biography book, it was kind of in the form of a long-form interview. He only mentions Perfect Strangers in passing a couple times. Mostly in terms of reining Bronson in.

(laughing) Yeah… well, that was the issue. “Who could wrangle Bronson?” But he did a pretty good job. He was able to somehow balance it. It wasn’t easy, but he was able to… I just think Bronson, in the beginning… Bronson was like a big overgrown kid, and you needed to rein him in or he’d go crazy. Fortunately, that job fell to Joel. And Joel’s like kind of reining him in. Joel’s famous line is “Well, it’s not in my movie!” (laughing) That was the best.

Going back to talking about the writers, and hammering out the scripts with the writers, I’m curious to know: were there ever any scripts or stories something that existed in script form that never made it to the screen, that y’all never filmed?

Oh, tons of stuff. I mean, sometimes (laughing) the way it was originally written and the way it ended up in the end would be like two totally different things. Because things are different on paper than they are on their feet. And then sometimes it just didn’t whatever was written didn’t ring true with the characters, or something had to be changed, but… I don’t know. I remember the two writers who wrote “Snow Way to Treat a Lady”–that was way back in the beginning–I think it was their spec script? And it was so good that they–the producers–made it a two-parter.


It was originally one script, but it was so good, and they just got us so well. And then they got hired on. And they were just wonderful guys.

It looks like that’s Howard Adler and Robert Griffard.

Yeah. Howard and Bob. Yeah, they were so young then too! Well, we all were. (laughing) But… we were all young then. Their script was so good, and it ended up being stretched into a two-parter.

Also the baseball one, that Paula Roth wrote. That was another really good script. I think she wrote the Honeymooners one also.


Right, she was with the show the whole time, correct?

Yes. Yes. She was there from the very beginning. And of course there was Bill Bickley and Michael Warren, and… oh my god, I have no memory anymore, Casey.


Speaking of people who were there at that time… there was an actress who, she was in the background, and she was in–anytime that an episode was at the newspaper set, she was always working in the background. And even some of the people who are the Perfect Strangers superfans have never figured out who she is. I was just curious if you happen to know. She had dark hair.




Yeah, Janet. Just one of our stand-ins. Janet and Corey. They were our stand-ins, and they would also frequently be in the background. They were actually–Janet and Corey were stand-ins for Mark or Bronson. And they were there since the beginning, we always had them.

Funny thing is Corey now works at my Costco. That Costco is the weirdest place. It’s like it keeps trying to take me back to Perfect Strangers. (laughing) Because that’s where my kids first found out that I had done the show. I hadn’t seen Melanie in several years. We had lost contact for whatever reason. We moved out here to the boondocks, and (laughing) I’m in Costco on Christmas Eve, it had to be 2004. And I look over, and I was in the wine section and I’m like “That’s Melanie. And look, there’s Bill.” And I was just like… I’m in a large, cavernous place, like a soundstage, and there they are! It was just so weird. And so Bill said the same thing, he’s looking at the two of us standing there together, he goes “I feel like I’m back on the set!” It was just so weird. And then come along here’s Corey. Corey’s always the guy at the door who checks off your receipt. (laughing) I know people think it’s weird that every time I go by him I have to hug him. And it’s just so funny that’s how we keep up with Corey. And he’ll say “Oh yeah, Mel was in last week.” It’s just funny, my Costco is my Perfect Strangers meeting grounds.

I’m trying to remember, just from the background actors, was Corey, was that the African-American gentleman? 

No. No, Corey’s not very tall, probably about as tall as Mark. Just a little Caucasian guy. Quiet. Very quiet.

I think I can think of his face. Was he in… because there were a lot of people that came to, you know, the Cousins’ apartment in the Christmas episode, I feel like he was in that one. 

Probably! I’m sure they were, yeah. Whenever we needed a crowd, they’d be in there. They would be our friends.

That brings up another question for me. I know we’ve talked a little bit about some of the secondary characters not being used very much, because there’s so much of a focus on the Cousins. There were some episodes where I got the suspicion that some of the actors–like Belita and Sam especially–were maybe brought in for just one line, just to fulfill the contracts. Because they didn’t really have anything else to do with the story. And I know nothing about contracts, so I’m curious–is that how it would work? That it would be a contract for a certain number of episodes, or would they figure that out after doing the scripts?

Yeah, everybody gets a guarantee. So it’s either pay them or play them. So it’s one or the other. It was unfortunate that they didn’t use their supporting cast more, because I think… I mean, look at the talent they had. With Sam, and Belita… that’s some serious talent that they just kind of… let… lay there. (laughing) In my opinion I think that they are very, very accomplished actors, and I felt that I would have liked to… I just really enjoyed working with them. I think that they’re extremely talented, it just was unfortunate, we had 22 minutes, and I think they–the producers–felt that the objective was to keep Balki and Larry front and center the whole time.


But as you see on any of these other sitcoms that even would start out with one major character, they’d still… it turns ensemble. Because that’s what keeps the interest. It keeps it fresh. And I think that also was the reason why we started to get stale. There’s only so much, you know, (laughing) you can put these two guys through! You’ve got to have something on the outside, it has to have more stuff, more input from the outside, than just…

It was a strange show. In my experience of working on sitcoms, I’d never seen a show that was so hyper-focused just on two characters.

Especially when you compare it against the other shows that ABC was running. Because Full House… it was always an ensemble, and it’s been a long time since I’ve watched that show, but I’m sure that every character had something to do in those episodes.

Yeah, and then they would put somebody else in. As the years went by, they would even add in another supporting character. And that’s the whole point, you have supporting characters to hold the show up and keep it going. And when you don’t use your supporting cast, you just kind of let it languish there. It’s not going to improve your show. And I think that’s part of why it was getting kind of stale.

Yeah, and I think Family Matters is also an interesting case, because it started out with a strong ensemble cast, but in some of the later seasons it focused mainly on Jaleel White and Reginald VelJohnson.

Right! (laughing) They kind of did the flip of what we did. That’s true.

I never actually got a chance to really watch Family Matters and Full House. I was still young and going out then. (laughing) I didn’t stay home on Friday night and watch our lineup.

You see, I was still just a kid, so that was the big thing for my Friday night. 

Had to watch that Friday night lineup. I know when I was a little kid we had a Friday night lineup, that I used to love, so I get it. But, yeah, no, I didn’t stay home and watch them.

You had talked about losing your love for acting, or for that business, after Perfect Strangers. And I’m sorry to hear that because, of all of the actors on the show, you seemed to be doing the most outside of it. Because you were appearing on talk shows, on a lot of game shows, you were on Circus of the Stars.


Do you know that I did Circus of the Stars for four years? (laughing) I loved doing Circus of the Stars. And you might go “Why?” because that’s kind of weird. First, I truly believed that they were trying to kill me for four years. But they weren’t successful, so I just kept going back for more. But it was an incredible experience. And the funny thing is, is Bronson did it first. He did it the year before me. I think it was the year before me, and maybe two years before I did. He did the trapeze.

And I was so taken with it because I had been a gymnast. So to this day, if I can just get upside down, I’m happy. But I really wanted to do Circus, and then I went (laughing) I went there… oh my god, what a nightmare! I was so terrified. And it’s three months of grueling training. Six days a week. Even if you’re working, you have to go there, and still train every day. And, with LA traffic, it’s just a nightmare. Trying to get there, you know, home from work, get there, learn something. It was just–it was brutal, but I loved it. So I was like a repeat offender on Circus of the Stars.


I loved working with the Circus people, because obviously the only ones that could train you were people who really knew how to do it. And they were fascinating. And three months of the year, I would get in great shape, and I’d be like “Yeah, I want to do that again!”

I remember the last year, we did a bungee jump. It was (laughing) I was not supposed to be doing Circus of the Stars that year. And the producer called me, and he was a friend of mine, and he said “They’re going to call you and ask you to do this because so-and-so chickened out.” And he said “Make sure they pay you this amount of money, because that’s what they were going to pay her.” And I’m like “Okay!”


So I ended up saying “yes” to this bungee jump. So that is one time when Mark was not short on words. All day long at work, he’s like “Are you sure you want to do this? Are you sure you want to do this?” Now, because I had done all this stuff with Circus, I wasn’t afraid anymore of heights. But this was a whole different animal, because they were taking me up on a crane 200 feet to bungee jump to concrete, basically. Because there was nothing under me. And I’d never done it before. So, Mark was (laughing) I just remember him on the soundstage going “You see the top of that rafter right there?” And I say “Yeah” and he goes “That’s only 40 feet.” I was like “Oh.” He goes “Yeah. You’re going up 200 feet. Are you sure you want to do this? Are you sure?” (laughing) I said “Well, yeah, Mark, I’m sure it’s safe.”


I got the worst case of whiplash.

Because the person that they tested the camera shots with weighed about 10 pounds heavier than me. So I ended up coming down and then ricocheting like I was on a rubber band. Oh my god. I got thrown all over the place. It made for good TV, but ow.

And then the next night we had to do a scene. That was on a Thursday. I think we were still shooting on Friday then. The next day was our shoot night, and I had to stand with Bronson and I had to do these takes back and forth between Melanie and Mark while they were arguing about something. And I couldn’t move my neck, my head. So I had to move my whole body. These takes back and forth because I had such bad whiplash from my Circus of the Stars.

I would do anything, like a gameshow, or a show, because I figured it was all fun. To me, it was fascinating. All the opportunities. But everyone else on the cast were very reticent. They wouldn’t go out and do all this stuff.


I remember Disney World flew me down there, paid me $10,000, flew in my friends and family. I flew down my mom and her boyfriend. And we had a whole week, and all I had to do was a question-and-answer on a stage here, and every day be in the Mickey Mouse parade, or at the MGM studios. That was it. And they’re like “Would you please ask Bronson if he’ll come?” And I’m like “Yeah! I don’t know why he wouldn’t.” I mean, it was amazing. I had what I called the “Disney Secret Service”, because they stayed with me all the time. And they were in their their little grey suits, and they took us everywhere. Just took us everywhere. I knew more about Disney World… They filled it full of facts, took us through back doors and showed us all kinds of stuff. It was incredible!

And so when somebody would call up and say “Would you like to do this?” I’d go “Sure!” Why not? Why wouldn’t I say yes?

I said “yes” to the Azalea Queen in North Carolina. No idea what I had said yes to. It was the most bizarre thing I had ever heard of. Because I had never heard about the North Carolina Azalea Queen before. So I get this call from my manager, saying, you know, “They had another Azalea Queen, but they had to replace her. So they want to know if you’ll do it.” And I’m like “…I guess so. What do I have to do?” And they said “Oh, you just have to ride in a parade.”

Well, there’s a lot more to it than that.

But, anyway, that’s what they said. “You just have to ride in a parade.” Like, “Okay. I can do that.” So then they sent me a list of all the actresses who had been the Azalea Queen before. And it was kind of a… interesting list. So but it turns out that was the year that Julie McCullough from Growing Pains, she had been their original choice for Azalea Queen. And then Kirk Cameron was making a big stink about her having posed for Playboy.


And they ended up, I guess, I don’t know what happened. But they ended up cancelling her as Azalea Queen, and that’s when they came and asked me to do it. But I didn’t know all the backstory. And that night, on Entertainment Tonight, was this whole thing about poor Julie McCullough being booted off of being the Azalea Queen. And I’m sitting there going “Wait. Is that that thing I said yes to?”

And then they were speculating about “who would be the next Azalea Queen? Would it be Vanna White?” And I’m like “Huh?”

So anyway… that was totally strange. Anyway I went to North Carolina, and I was their Azalea Queen, and it was lovely. And it was interesting, because they took me everywhere in a police escorted motorcade. And I kept thinking we were getting pulled over, because of the sirens and the lights. And I’d be in this limousine going “Oh my god! Are we getting pulled over?” (laughing) No.

And then I would be in the hotel room with my mom, and we would turn on the TV, just to catch up with what was the news. And it would be me! I was the news in North Carolina. We were cracking up. We’re like “I have no idea what’s going on in the world. I just know that I’m here being the Azalea Queen.”


And then, that summer, I was doing Circus of the Stars, and that was my first year on Circus of the Stars, on the trapeze. And Julie McCullough was doing the highwire. And I was so nervous that she would find out that I had replaced her. Because she’s so nice. So sweet, so nice. And so I thought “Oh, she’s going to hate me. She’s going to hate me.”

And so we had started to kind of become friends, and I was really, really cautious, because I thought “This girl’s going to hate me.” And finally I said to her one day “Do you know who replaced you?” She goes “Oh, yeah, I know it was you.” And I was like “You did? You knew all this time?” She said “Yeah! It’s okay.” So sweet. She’s the sweetest girl in the world.

So there are lots of really awesome actors that you never… but he did a disservice to his show by getting rid of her. I think. But she was a doll. She still is a doll.

So, my last question. There is still a very committed Perfect Strangers fanbase. There is a fan group on Facebook, it was started by a woman named Linda Kay, who was there for many of the tapings. I think starting with season 3 or season 4 of Perfect Strangers. So there’s still a lot of very committed fans who still watch the show pretty regularly. And whenever I get this interview ready to go on the blog, I’ll post it there so I know a lot of them will see it. Do you have any message you’d like to send on to Mary Anne fans?

I think it’s awesome that people still enjoy the show. Because I don’t know a lot of people who do still remember it. They’ll say “That’s the one with Tom Hanks?” (laughing)


And it’s understandable they mix us up. We had the same director, and it was a buddy comedy. But yeah, I think it’s great if people are still loving the show. You know, often times I always wondered how it translates in other countries. Because it was all about Balki trying to learn the customs and the languages, the language here. And then it was dubbed into another language. I kind of go “How does that work?” I’d only ever seen it in Mandarin, which was fascinating.

Oh, do you speak Mandarin?

No, but on the show I do! (laughing) They had dubbed me and I was like “Oh, look at me go!” Who knew?

So somebody got a tape of one of our episodes. I can’t remember which show it was, but it was funny. I don’t remember what episode it was, but it was us speaking Mandarin.

It must have been a trip.

It is! There’s one point where I do a take, and I’m–the person dubbing me–made a noise. (laughing)-Balki says something, and I kind of do one of those “What…?” looks, and she went “Uh?” (laughing)

Like, oh, okay! I never thought she made that little sound!

Some of those things don’t translate as well as you’d like them to. I lived in Germany for a few months years ago, and I saw Full House on television there, with Dave Coulier, he would do Bullwinkle and Popeye. And the German voice actor did not do the voices. So a lot of that did not carry over at all.

Yeah, because you do wonder how will that translate.

So how did you get into doing this blog?



That’s it! Or… that’s all I’m going to share here. Rebeca and I spoke for another 15 minutes or so.

Just… chatting.

She was curious to hear more about me, this blog, and the work I do at a university. And just like every other person who’s seen this blog, she asked would I be doing another sitcom. And I’m just as grateful for that chat as for her willingness to answer my questions.

It’s heartwarming to hear that–by and large–the actors on Perfect Strangers were great people who enjoyed working with each other. (For further proof of this, see my earlier interview with Jo Marie Payton.)

We should all be so lucky to have colleagues we love so much.

So, Mark, Melanie, Belita, Sam, Ernie, Tom, Joel, Judy, Janet, Corey… if you’re reading, I’d still love to interview you and hear all the great memories you have of Perfect Strangers.

Until then, thanks again for reading.


Interview with Ross Brown, creator of Meego

On March 22, 2019, I had the opportunity to speak with Ross Brown. Ross Brown has been a writer and producer on television sitcoms since 1985, for shows including Webster, Step by Step, The Facts of Life, and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. He also created the 1997 sitcom Meego, which starred Bronson Pinchot.


I really appreciate you taking the time out of your day to answer some questions I have.

Sure, sure, I appreciate–I’m glad you sent me the questions, there, and I think I can answer… most of them. Some of them I don’t know the answer to!

You’re credited as the creator of Meego.

I am!


So what, in 1997, what went into creating a network sitcom back then?

Well, there were several ways it happened, but in… it could happen, but in general, a writer/producer/showrunner would go to a network and pitch an idea. Sometimes you would have an actor attached to it. In this case, the process started with Bronson. I knew that CBS was going to be looking for a family comedy, because they were looking to expand the amount of family comedies they…  or, family-friendly comedies they had. And, so I talked to Bronson, because I was working with him at that time on Step by Step. He had a part on Step by Step, and I said “You know, look, if it’s going to be a family show there need to be kids, and you tend to play an Other, there, and you’ve already played a, a, somebody from a foreign country, so…” You know, I said “What if we did, you know, Mary Poppins from outer space?”, basically. A nanny from outer space. And Bronson said “Okay, that could be fun.” And so we developed the idea, we talked about it together, we talked about it with the production company that I worked for and that Bronson worked for at that time–Miller-Boyett–and then, you know, went with them to meet with the senior executives at CBS, and pitched the idea. And they liked it, and from that point, I wrote a script, and they gave me some feedback on the script, and then we shot the pilot.


What was the turnaround time on that? How long did that take to go from the pitch…?

Golly… Usually from the pitch to getting a story approved for, you know, there’s one thing, when you pitch a pilot, you are usually not pitching the story of the pilot episode. You’re pitching the series concept. What is the series gonna be about, in a, from a 30,000-foot view? And then you go in separately and you pitch the actual story of the pilot episode. You know, so you’ve gotta make some decisions. You can pitch a story about a nanny from outer space, but are you showing that person being hired? Or are you picking the story up where that person’s already been working for the family for five years? You know, those kind of decisions.

So but I’d say it takes about three months from when you pitch an idea and get approval for it, to then go develop a pilot story, refine it, go back into the–when–probably about two months. Develop the story, and then another couple months to write and re-write the script, show it to the producers before you show it to the network, and then show it to the network and get feedback from them.


I think something that I’m not aware of, you know, in looking at these shows is: how does it come about that someone like Bronson is working with CBS to try to develop a show. Did they reach out to the actor or the other way around?

I’m going on my memory now. My memory is that I talked to Bronson first, and he was comfortable working with me. And then we went to the senior producers, to Tom Miller and Bob Boyett. And they said “Yes, and we’re going to be talking with CBS.” And then they made the call to CBS and said “We want to pitch a show for Bron… with Bronson attached to it.”

So but there are other shows–not this one–but there are other shows where the network has made a, a deal with an actor saying “We’re looking for a pilot for you” and so they’ll have a deal with an actor already, and then they make pitches from writers about shows that could star that actor or actress. Or they may have a writer pitch a separate show that they really like and then say “Have you thought about Actor X for that show?” And they–so it happens in different configurations.


Right. And that latter situation that you’re referring to, I suspect that was– I mean, I don’t have information on this, but I suspect that may have been how Bronson’s previous sitcom, The Trouble with Larry, came about.

Could be. I don’t know, but it could be.


Let me ask you about the writing aspect of it. Because the popular image of the television writers’ room–it’s just a bunch of funny people spitballing their ideas.



So how do stories get developed, and broken, and, you know, script assignments given out?

Sure. Well, every writing room is not the same. There are some, I’m told–though I was not there–I’m told that the Frasier writing room was quite sedate and scholarly. And people would say [adopts a sedate voice] “Well, what if this happened and Frasier said something like that that?” “Yeah, that’s funny.” And they were not particularly raucous. And other rooms are raucous, there. But I’ll tell you what my general process was on Meego and other family sitcoms. I would come in with the writers, and there would be, say, myself and five or six other writers. And we would spend the first couple of… we would come in 6-8 weeks before we were going to start shooting episodes, which would generally be 6-8 weeks before they were going to start airing on television. So we were coming in right after around Memorial Day, if the show’s going to premiere in September. And we’d spend a couple of days saying “Let’s just talk about every half-baked idea anybody has for the show.” And we’d throw out 50 ideas, and then try and say “Well, which of these seem the most promising?”, see if any themes emerge from that. And when we identify the most promising idea or where we might want to start, we talk that story through. Usually it would take the writing staff a full day to sort of grapple with the story and say “Okay, so what are the themes? How do we use the other characters in the show that aren’t featured in this particular story line? Can they have a role in this storyline? Do they need to be part of a, what’s called a B-story or a subplot?” And really lay the story out scene by scene.


Then, on most shows, you have to clear the story with the network. So the showrunner–me, in this case–would call the network person and briefly describe the outline of the story. And they would comment on it, and give you notes if they had any. And then I would–at that point in time, that’s all group work. Then when an actual draft has to get written, you’d send one of the writers out of the room and say “Okay, you’re going to go write the first draft of this.” And I’d give that writer six or seven working days to write a first draft of the script, and then the rest of the room would go on to episode two. “What are we going to do for the second episode?” Pick a story, and go through the whole process once again.

Eventually, the writer writing the first draft will turn in the draft to the group. Everybody will read it, and then we’ll get together and talk about the–what our reaction to the draft is, what seems to be working well, what doesn’t work quite as well, are there things that should be re-written, or are there missing things? And then the group will reconvene as a group and do a re-write. And if I were leading the group, I’d say “I’m good until page 3, anybody, anybody got anything before page 3? No? Okay, on page 3, this line here doesn’t quite work for me. Let’s try and find another joke”, or “Let’s find”–”I’m not sure I believe this attitude that the character’s expressing” or whatever, and we work through the whole script until we have a revised version.


Then you get into the production cycle of it, which is–there’s a table reading with the actors, where the actors read the script out loud, and you have the crew there, the writer/producers, the studio and the network representatives and the director. And you get another glimpse of what’s working and what isn’t working. You get feedback–certainly from Bronson if it’s a show that features Bronson as the lead actor–and the writers do a re-write. And then the next day the actors rehearse it from 10 to 4 and you come and see what’s called a run-through. And they perform the script without cameras, and then you get more clues about what needs to be re-written. And you do that again a second time, on a Wednesday. Thursday’s a technical day, a camera-blocking day. And Friday you shoot the show in front of an audience. And that’s the basic process.

One of your questions was whether the show was filmed in front of a live audience. It was, largely, although there were some scenes–because of the magic elements in the show–that needed to be pre-taped. Because they had, they were technically cumbersome and you needed to start and stop a lot and things, scenes that did not flow in front of an audience. But by and large, it was a live audience sitcom.


One of the things that I see about Bronson across many of the things that he’s done is that he really likes to improvise.



He likes to come up with jokes on the spot, especially when he’s doing characters. So what kind of leeway has to be made in the script for an actor who likes to do that?

Bronson does more than improvise. He will come in in rehearsal with ideas for jokes and so on. So some of the jokes that were not http://cuts%20out that get filmed, you know, Bronson’s been working on all week on that stuff, and some of it he might improvise in the moment. But I–when you’re, when you do live audience comedy, and you’ve got somebody who is skilled at improvisation, and at creation and so on, like Bronson is… that’s a gift, and you’ve got to make room for that. You’re a fool if you don’t make room for that. And, look, Bronson is a highly-trained actor in addition to being a very funny guy, and he knows when there’s an essential part of the script that he can’t just eliminate, that’s part of the storytelling. And he wouldn’t, you know, throw you that kind of a curveball, there. But I really value Bronson’s input on the show.


Absolutely. One of things I’m trying to suss out is, you know, how much is him and how much, you know, is everything else. So that’s very illuminating.

Well, because live audience sitcoms have this rehearsal process, there’s–it’s–you really get to work together with the writers and the actors and the director during a rehearsal process and a preview process, very much like a play. And so it’s collaboration.


For the other cast on Meego, how are those decisions made?

Ed Begley, Jr. was suggested to us by CBS, and we really liked the suggestion, thought he’d be great for the dad in the show. Jonathan Lipnicki was, was, I believe, already in mind when we wrote the little kid character, that–once we knew we were going to have a family–that he had become fairly well-known because of the Jerry Maguire movie. And we said “Well, let’s put him in a TV show”, so we wrote the part for Jonathan. The other two kid actors, we held auditions for the part, and ended up with the actors we did.


I think there were a lot of great casting decisions. Ed Begley, Jr.–he’s, I feel like he’s the rare sitcom dad that can kind of rib somebody, but you can tell it’s from love.

I really like Ed as an… he’s, you know, he’s a terrifically nice person, but also he’s a very good actor. And he was somebody that, you know, I hadn’t seen as a sitcom dad at that point in time. And so it felt fresh.


I want to go back–you were talking about, you know, submitting scripts to CBS. Just to give you my background, I was born in 1984, and so I–in my mind, some time in the mid-90s, you know, there seemed to be a shift in network sitcoms to a little bit more blue humor. So what were the boundaries?

Unquestionably. Well, there’re different boundaries. And it’s, you know, it’s… I remember–this is not about Meego, but I tried to do, use a word. And I don’t even remember what the word was, but whatever word I wanted to use–this was not CBS, this was an ABC show I was doing–they said “You can’t say that on your show.” I said “Why not? They used that word on Roseanne, which is on your network at 9 o’clock, and my show’s on your network at 9 o’clock.” And they said “Yes, but the audience has a different expectation for the shows on TGIF on Friday night than they do for other parts of the week.”


And so they, you know, the–each network has a, an actual department that’s called Broadcast Standards or Standards & Practices or something like that, and they review each script and send you a memo that says “You–We have a problem with this word” or some–”this other word” or so on, you know. I went through this on a pilot–again, not on CBS, on another network–where it had a scene where… the show was about a… the older brother of the family having to adopt his younger brothers and sisters and being the youngest dad in the world at age 23 [this would be the 1995-1997 series Kirk–Casey]. And it had a scene where a six-year-old boy came in and said “I’m ready for school” and the script said he was wearing a cowboy vest and underpants, and… and they sent me a note saying “Russell”–that was the little boy’s name–”must be wearing boxer shorts.” And I called them back and said “He’s six. He doesn’t wear boxer shorts. He’s a little boy, he wears, like Spider-man underpants.” And they said “Well, we don’t want to be seeing–we have a rule on our network that all males in their underwear have to be wearing boxer shorts.” I said “Yeah, but this male is six! It’ll look stupid if he’s wearing boxer shorts.” And they said “Well, we don’t want to be seeing any bulges on television.” I said “Once again: he’s six, he doesn’t have a bulge.” And they finally, they finally relented and let me show a six-year-old boy wearing underpants on television.

But to get to the heart of your question: there used to be something on television–earlier–that was called “the family hour”. And you were expected to have shows between… in the first hour of prime time–so 8 o’clock to 9 o’clock on the West and East coast, and 7 to 8 in the middle of the country–that were family-friendly, and had rules about language and so on. That went away in the 90s, and it was left up to the networks to make decisions. And they started putting shows like Friends on at 8 o’clock.  And so you were then in a position, even if you were doing a family show, of going “My god! These other shows are, have much more appeal to adults, how am I going to compete with that?” And it’s part of why shows like Step by Step and Meego and all the TGIF shows stopped being on television. They’re just… they couldn’t compete.


I never knew that!

Yep! And they, you know, largely now, those family-friendly shows are available on Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel, and not on broadcast networks.


That clarifies so much! I’m also remembering when I was a kid, having to beg my parents to let me stay up past 9 to watch the shows that were a little, you know, more risque.


Well, and, you know, I should say: with the Standards & Practices people, it’s not just risque or nudity on adult dramas that they deal with, you know, they deal with all kinds of things. There are books out there–and I don’t remember the title of them–but that have collections of these Standards & Practices notes, some of which are humorous. You know, they–in gory shows, where they’ll say “We assume that when character A gets shot in the head, it will be done tastefully.”


(Laughs) That’s great!

(Laughing) So, yeah, and then they…they, they used to–I’m told–that there were network notes–maybe not Standards & Practices notes–and I think there’s actually a whole book with this title out there–on a show My Favorite Martian where they gave the note “A Martian wouldn’t say that.” Which would lead one to say “How exactly do you know what Martians do or don’t say?”

What else can I answer for you?


The big question is: Meego ended up being cancelled, at least in the US, halfway through. Like, I think six or seven episodes into the full 13. So how does that kind of decision get made?

Yep.  It gets made based on ratings, and… at the time, what happened was CBS picked up two shows that had been part of the ABC TGIF lineup that were done by the same production company, by Miller-Boyett, and Warner Bros. They picked up Family Matters and Step by Step. And then they ordered Meego and one other show, and I can’t remember what that other show was off the top of my head. It might have been a Gregory Hines sitcom.


I think you’re correct.

Anyway, anyway, the–so on one week, Family Matters–which was the lead-off show for the night–ran a re-run on ABC and it got a 15 share. And then the following week, the new episode–and new episodes almost always get better ratings than re-runs–but the new episode, for the first time was on CBS at 8 o’clock, and it got a 10 share. So they’d gotten a 15 share one week with a re-run on ABC, and a 10 share w– (laughing) with a brand new episode of the same show a week later on CBS. It just… that what was clear was: the audience wasn’t mov–the family audience that had been loyal to these kind of shows on ABC wasn’t showing up on CBS. It just wasn’t… CBS could not get their audience younger. And they–it took them a long time to try to, for CBS to get their audience younger, and they’ve tried various things. And they still are not as young as ABC was in those days.


Yeah, and looking at the reporting from that time, it seemed that Family Ma–getting Family Matters and Step by Step was, was essentially a major coup for CBS.

It absolutely was a coup. They were two, you know, established shows, and… that had loyal audiences for many years. But, look. Family Matters was in its 9th year, and Step by Step was in its 7th year, and, you know, they… It’s very hard, especially with kid and family shows to keep that going for a really, really long time, in part because the kids aren’t really kids anymore! You know, they’re in their 20s (laughing) and you’re trying to tell… to figure out how can I tell a convincing story about someone who, in reality, is two years away from the characters they’re portraying on Friends? But I can’t do those stories.

You know, they had trouble when we had gotten, on Step by Step, the oldest girl was in her 20s, the character was, at that time. And we got her a boyfriend, and there was a scene where she was making out with her boyfriend. And the person at ABC was like horrified and going “Oh my god! Dana’s just, you know, making out with this guy!” I said “Dana’s in her 20s! In real life she’s doing a lot more than making out with her boyfriend, and this is a cheat, what we’re doing.”

But, you know, that’s TV. Or, that kind of TV.


So, in terms of Meego, were there sort of general ideas of where to take the show if it had gone to a second season? Like larger story arcs?

You know, we–the larger story arcs really would be “Well, would the dad find out where Meego really came from?” You’d probably play that sort of tension there. But mostly what happens in a, in a family sitcom where you have kids, the new angles for the stories have, at least half of what influences that, is what age the kids turn each year, and what are the rites of passage for a kid at that age. So, you know, if you … in that case, we had Michelle Trachtenberg, who was, you know, 12 years old, I think, on, or so, on the show. I’m sure that she would eventually start dating boys and Meego would have to get involved with that, if we got that far in the show. Because, you know, you just follow the natural evolution. In fact, that’s–to get back to your original question, where did it–how do you come up with story ideas. Part of what I would do with the writers in the early pre-production development is say “Okay, let’s talk about each of the characters”–the kids, what age they are, and “what was going on in any of your lives or your kids’ lives when they were a boy or a girl that age?” And we’d, you know, you’d say “Well, that’s the year we went to the prom” or “That’s the year you get your driver’s license” or “That’s the year you go to your first boy/girl dance” or whatever, and those would be sort of–the starting points for finding stories is just real life and rites of passage for kids and families in those phases.


That makes sense. So, of the 13 episodes that got made, do you have a favorite?

Well, we only got to make 10, as I recall. They ordered 13, but cancelled us, and I think we only made 10 and I’m not sure–as you said, I don’t think they aired all of them, there.  I don’t–you know, the pilot’s my favorite just because I spent the most time on it, there. But it’s been a long time since I did the other episodes, and I’m not sure I remember them in as much detail as you might want me to.


That’s fair. It has been 20 years.

Although I will tell you this, that this is ironic to get a call from you about this, because literally two weeks ago a guy who’d grown up in France and I think is now going to school in New York wrote me and asked if I had copies of any of the episodes, because it was his favorite show growing up in France. So somehow (laughing) it made it to France!

Jaleel White showed up in a couple of episodes of Meego in uncredited parts. A lot of people take that–that that was his Urkel character showing up, because he’s wearing the glasses and all. So can you settle the big internet argument as to whether it was Urkel?

I can’t! Because I don’t even remember Jaleel being in the episodes! (…) I don’t have any memory of how that came about. I know there were–at various times that I’m mixing up–some of them were on Step by Step, and some might have been on Meego, where there was discussion of “Can we have Urkel in the episode?” And if we did, I’m sure they wanted people to think it was Urkel, or know for sure it was Urkel because Urkel was one of the most popular characters on television then.


The mystery goes on! Any other memories or thoughts on Meego?

I don’t have anything else to add. You know, it was fun to do, it’s disappointing when it gets cancelled, but, you know, most TV shows do get cancelled before they become hits–without becoming hits. So that’s just life in TV!


Thank you for your time!

Thank you!


Next: Prizes

Interview with Jo Marie Payton

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

[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.

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.

1957 chevrolet

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.

Casey: Rebeca.

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 MattersPerfect 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”!