Jo Marie Payton shot to fame as Harriette Winslow on Perfect Strangers and was so popular that she got her own spin-off, the long-running Family Matters. Payton, 71, did not end up finishing the entire run of Family Matters though, leaving part-way through the ninth and final season. She was replaced by Judyann Elder in the last batch of episodes. There had been rumors that Payton left the show because she was frustrated that Jaleel White’s Steve Urkel character became one of the main characters. However, in a 2010 interview with TVSeriesFinale, Payton said she just wanted to do other things.
Family Matters‘ first eight seasons ran on ABC, from 1989 to 1997. The last season aired on CBS, where the show’s ratings began to founder before it ended in July 1998. Payton told TVSeriesFinale that she actually considered leaving the show a year before she did because she wanted to make other projects. Her contract was up after Season 8, and she had no interest in re-signing at first.
When the show moved to CBS, Payton was asked to come back. “I really didn’t want to come back. I had just done my jazz album and all,” Payton explained. “And we agreed that I would come back just to kick off the move to CBS and that’s how that whole deal went. I was to do half of a season, eight of the episodes. And I had an option out and I exercised my option. I did.”
During the show’s run, Payton said she “felt stifled” at times. She was allowed to do other projects, but if a project was delayed, she might be told she couldn’t make it when it was finally rescheduled. “I just needed something extra to do, you know,” Payton said in 2010. “How I explained it is, ‘A baker that loves to bake doesn’t want to stop baking. They just don’t always want to make a chocolate cake or chocolate cookies. They want to try to do something else. Bake some bagels, do something else.’ I never wanted to stop acting. I’ve been acting since I was six years old. It’s just that I was tired of doing that project, you know what I’m saying, I wanted to do something else.”
While it was unusual for an actor to leave a show partway through a season, Payton said any rumors that there were tensions between her and White were not true. “I’m a very truthful person, and I shoot straight from the hip, just like my character, you know? I would be the first person in the world to apologize to someone if I thought I hurt their feelings or I said something that was untrue,” Payton told TVSeriesFinale. “But by the same token, you know, you just get to a point where sometimes you gotta say ‘Okay, alright, let’s back this up now.'”
Since leaving Family Matters, Payton has always been busy. She starred on Moesha, Will & Grace, The Rev, and Mann and Wife. For younger viewers, she is the voice of Suga Mama on the animated Disney Channel series The Proud Family. She will reprise the role in the Disney+ revival, The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder.