‘Family Matters’: Jo Marie Payton Finally Clarified Why She Left the Show Early

When Jo Marie Payton first appeared as Harriette Winslow in Family Matters, it changed the course of her career.

Harriette showed up in two TV shows, first in the sitcom Perfect Strangers. What started out as a minor character on another sitcom became one of the stars of a spinoff show. Family Matters ran for nine seasons, and Payton played Harriette for almost all of them. 

Almost. Halfway through the final season, Payton decided to leave the series. The rumors about why she left circulated for years and Payton once said they made her “look like this scandalous person.” But after a long wait, she finally explained what was behind her abrupt departure. 

How Jo Marie Payton became Harriette Winslow

JOMARIE PAYTON;REGINALD VELJOHNSON
JOMARIE PAYTON;REGINALD VELJOHNSON | Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

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According to IMDb, Payton was only six years old when she first tried her hand at acting. She must have caught the bug at that early age because as soon as she graduated from college, she left her home state of Georgia and headed to California. There, she joined the national touring company of the musical Purlie, starring Robert Guillaume. 

Payton was an accomplished singer, and her musical talent opened up many professional doors. But when her big break came in 1986, it wasn’t in music. She landed the role of Harriette Winslow, a minor character on a sitcom called Perfect Strangers. Three years later, a spinoff show featuring Harriette and the rest of the Winslow family was created. This new show was none other than Family Matters, and Payton found herself starring in a hit TV series. 

‘Family Matters’ was taken over by Urkel

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Hollywood explains that when Family Matters was created, it was supposed to be about Carl and Harriette Winslow and their family. But the loving family was quickly overshadowed by the neighbor, Steve Urkel (played by Jaleel White). Urkel was only supposed to appear in a single episode, but his quirky, clumsy character was so popular that he quickly became the focus of the show. 

Soon, the members of the Winslow family were secondary characters, while Urkel was the star. The change led to some tension on set

“Things were definitely strained in the early going. There’s no sense in hiding that,” Jaleel admitted later. “There was a division between myself and the rest of the cast, but over nine years and 215 episodes, obviously relationships get better. I still talk to certain cast members to this day.”

Jo Marie Payton left before the show ended

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Family Matters lasted for nine seasons, but according to Mental Floss, part of the way through the final season something strange happened. Payton left, and the part of Harriette was played by Judyann Elder for the remaining episodes. 

Rumors went around claiming that Payton had left because she was sick of Urkel, but she insists that’s not true. She had returned to her musical roots and just recorded a jazz album. After eight and a half years on the series, she was ready to try new things. Her contract had prevented her from leaving sooner, but when she was free to move on she decided that’s what she wanted to do.

Payton’s years on Family Matters are fondly remembered by fans of the show. Although she bowed out a little early, she’ll always be remembered as Harriette Winslow.