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- June 26, 2000
- Vol. 53
- No. 25
Family Matters: 1989-1998
The Perfect Strangers Spinoff Propelled Itself to the Top with a Warm-Hearted Family and a Gut-Busting Nerd Next Door
At the same time her sitcom character was being placed on a pedestal by the love-struck Steve Urkel, Kellie Williams was struggling "through a period of dieting and going to dermatologists," the actress recalls. Fortunately she could turn to her castmates for consolation. "I remember her at age 13, with a little potbelly and pimples, asking me, 'Do you think I'm going to be pretty?'" recalls Telma Hopkins. "I'd say, 'You're going to be gorgeous'—and she is!" Now a psychology major at UCLA ("I thought it would help me understand my characters better," she says), Williams, 24, may no longer worry much about her looks. But auditions are another story. "You get lazy being on a sitcom for so long. It's hard to get into the hustle mode," says Williams, who starred last year in the movie After All, which aired on BET. "But that's what Hollywood's about—making it happen." Her ex-colleagues don't have any doubt that she will. "Of the entire cast," says John Tracy, one of the show's directors, "she's the one who made me want to say, 'Does anybody realize how talented this actress is?' "
By giving Steve Urkel high-hitched pants and a high-pitched voice, Jaleel White turned what was intended to be a onetime guest role into a nine-year run—not to mention a doll, a brand of cereal and two alter egos (the seductive Stefan Urquelle and southern belle Myrtle Urkel). "He took a character who was kind of funny on paper," says series co-creator William Bickley, "and brought him to life." He also brought some tension to the set. "When he became the star, there were a lot of hurt feelings," says castmate Reginald VelJohnson. About a year shy of finishing his degree at UCLA (he's majoring in film and television), the 23-year-old actor—who lives near campus—stars on a new series, Grown Ups, playing a young, hip professional. "Jaleel loved doing Urkel," says John Tracy, who has directed White on both shows. "But he's happy that he's now showing he can do more."
How's this for a shocking confession? Reginald VelJohnson—who for nearly a decade portrayed one of America's cuddliest television dads—isn't always so crazy about having children around. "When my friends bring their kids over, I have fun playing with them for a while," says the unmarried actor. "But then they start getting into my stuff, and I say, They're cute. You can go home now.' " If only he could get rid of insensitive fans so easily. "I had just gotten back from my mother's funeral, and I was in the supermarket, and a woman said, 'Carl, you're not smiling,' " he recalls. "I said, 'Well, you can't smile every day,' and she answered, 'Oh, come on! You can smile for me!' " Experiences like that make VelJohnson, 47, eager to shed his "funny, nice guy" image, which he honed as the Twinkie-loving cop in the first two Die Hard movies before landing his Family Matters gig. "I think it would be cool to play a murderer," he says. "Bad guys have more character." His former television costars would probably disagree. "Of all the people I've ever worked with, he's the most special," says his Family wife, JoMarie Payton. "If I fell short, he caught me. We'd laugh so hard together that I couldn't breathe." Adds director John Tracy: "He's a sweetheart of a guy—a real and happy person." That likability helped VelJohnson land his current spot in MCI's 10-10-321 advertising campaign, but last year a New York City theater production of A Christmas Carol—in which he played the Ghost of Christmas Present—allowed him to explore his edgier side. VelJohnson admits there are probably some types of behavior he won't ever be able to pull off. "I can't flip the bird at another driver," he claims. "The person would think it was Carl—and that would be too weird!"
Talk about a disappearing act. At the end of the show's fourth season, the youngest of the three Winslow children walked upstairs to her room...and was never seen again! "Everyone asks, 'What happened to you?' " says Jaimee Foxworth, now 20. "I tell them, 'I'm still up there in my closet, putting on my clothes.' " The show's creators don't have a much better explanation. "The official name is denial, hoping the audience won't notice," admits William Bickley, who says dropping the character was "a budget consideration." As Foxworth's costars coped with the departure—"Jaimee was my best friend on the set," says her TV sister Kellie Williams—her mother struggled to break the news to the then 13-year-old. "Toward the end of that summer I kept asking my mom, 'Aren't we going back to work?' " Foxworth recalls. "She didn't know how to tell me. Finally she just said we weren't." Devastated by the news, Foxworth struggled to adjust to her abruptly new life. "I was back in school, and I didn't have any friends," she says. Dating, too, proved difficult. "I had boyfriends who would be like, 'She has money, she can pay our way.' " In 1996, Foxworth, who shares a home in Burbank with her mom, two sisters and toddler niece, formed a pop band called S.H.E. with her siblings, and the trio continues to perform locally. After several years of acting classes, the Burbank High School graduate is also back on the audition circuit. "Next time," she says, "I want to make serious films."
"I'm extremely happy with the way my career is going," says Darius McCrary, 24. It would be hard to argue with him: He has landed a lead role as a mercenary on a fall UPN series called Freedom. He's filming the big-screen family drama Kingdom Come opposite Whoopi Goldberg. And in October he'll appear in the thriller Fifteen Minutes, starring Robert DeNiro. "People forget that before Darius was on Family Matters, he gave an incredible performance in the movie Mississippi Burning," notes series executive William Bickley. "He's a dynamic actor." The single, L.A.-based McCrary, who also is an amateur boxer, definitely has a lighter side as well. On the Family Matters set, he "liked playing pranks like rigging the dressing rooms so people couldn't get out," says director John Tracy. Once, McCrary joined forces with costar Jaleel White and "wrapped my car in toilet paper," recalls Reginald VelJohnson, who played the actor's father. McCrary's victims could never stay mad for long though. "Darius threatened to turn my hair gray a few times," castmate Telma Hopkins says jokingly. "But what a great kid—and, consequently, a great grown-up."
Her role as a feisty elevator operator on the sitcom Perfect Strangers was supposed to be a small one. But JoMarie Payton, 49, rode it all the way to the top: In 1989 producers spun off her character, Harriette Winslow, into Family Matters. "When I learned I got the show, I cried," the actress says. "But some people on Perfect Strangers weren't very nice to me when they found out." And so when Payton was upstaged on the Matters set—by nerdy neighbor Steve Urkel, played by Jaleel White—she was philosophical. "When you're headed to the moon, you don't give a damn who the captain of the ship is," she says. After eight years, however, Payton "felt there should be more stories about the mom and dad and their relationship with the children," observes director John Tracy. "And the studio had a different point of view." In 1997 she left the series, and producers filled her role with another actress, Judyann Elder. "Nobody wanted to do a dying mother show or a divorce show," series co-creator William Bickley explains. Payton—who lives in L.A. with her third husband, Landrus Clark, 49, and her daughter from her first marriage, Chantale, 16—has rebounded with recurring roles on Seventh Heaven and Will & Grace and has recorded a jazz CD. Family Matters "had been stagnating my creativity," she says. "The Monday after I left, I felt happier and lighter than I'd felt in years."
Because he joined the cast when he was only 3 years old, "most of the things kids learned at home I learned on the set," says Bryton McClure. "It was my tutor who taught me how to ride a bike, how to play baseball." Now 13 and living with his parents in Orange County, Calif., the only child has traded in Little League for competitive go-kart racing. He has also traded in acting for a career as a singer. "We didn't want to subject him to auditions again, knowing the odds of getting on another show are so slim," says his homemaker mother, Bette McClure. This past spring the home-schooled eighth grader signed a deal with the Polydor/Universal music label. That news shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who ever caught McClure imitating Michael Jackson. "Bryton was a great singer and dancer," recalls director John Tracy. "He'd come out with a white glove on and his hair all greased up. Everybody thought it was hysterical."
When Telma Hopkins's grandmother died last year, virtually every one of her former sitcom costars reached out to her. "They really are like family to me," she says. Which made her decision to leave the series after four years a difficult one, even though she was doing so to take a leading role in a new sitcom called Getting By. "The sets were close to each other, so I'd go back and forth all the time," recalls the actress, 51, who continued making guest appearances on Family Matters. Her ex-castmates were happy to have her hanging around. "Telma and I connected the first time we met," says JoMarie Payton, who asked Hopkins to be a bridesmaid in her 1998 wedding. Adds TV niece Kellie Williams: "She helped raise me. To this day I can still call her, crying." Unfortunately, Hopkins—who sang backup in the 1970s for Tony Orlando as one-half of Dawn—saw her new series survive less than two seasons. But the divorced mother of a 31-year-old son managed to walk away from the experience with something more lasting: a fiancé, actor Rif Hutton, 47. whom she met on the set.
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