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Countdown to When the Winslow Family Scatters

Television: After seven years of 'Family Matters' and standing in the shadow of Urkel, Reginald VelJohnson and JoMarie Payton-Noble are ready for new challenges.

November 11, 1996|STEVE WEINSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It started out as their show, their star vehicle, their big break. But for seven years now, they've toiled in the very big shadow of a little kid named Urkel.

It's made them fairly wealthy. It's made them celebrities. But playing the happy, loving couple at the heart of ABC's long-running Friday hit "Family Matters" all these years has finally begun to make them a little antsy.

"You do a show for so long and it's very difficult to come in the door feeling refreshed every day," said Reginald VelJohnson, who stars as Carl, the patriarch of the Winslow household. "How many times can you say, 'Go home, Steve [Urkel]'? Or how many different ways can Harriette say, 'Carllll'? It is a challenge to keep going."

"What I basically say is that I'm not tired of working, dot dot dot dot," said JoMarie Payton-Noble, who plays Carl's wife, Harriette, the former elevator operator on another sitcom, "Perfect Strangers," who was so beloved that its producers decided to build an entire show around her. "But you do get tired of a certain rhythm. I feel like I need another rhythm. My juices are going, but I feel like doing something else."

Payton-Noble is more emphatic than VelJohnson about her desire to leave the family behind at the end of this season. Despite the limitations of his character, he said he will stick it out until the studio breaks down the Winslow living room set for good. Though she reserves the right to change her mind, Payton-Noble stated strongly that she is ready to walk away, even if ABC and the rest of the cast want to continue.

"Family Matters" has from the outset been a winner for the network on its family-oriented Friday night schedule. Its ratings for the first month of this season are down more than 13% from the same period a year ago, but it continues to win its time period.

"Unless I can see something bigger and better happening here, then I have no reason to stay after I fulfill this last year of my contract," Payton-Noble said. "I understand and have never forgotten that this show was a spinoff from my character. They have been good to me, but if they decide it's over, then fine, and if I decide that, then it should also be fine. I need to be fulfilled creatively. It's not that I'm crying over spilled milk or sour grapes about what's gone on here, it's just that I like to sing, I like to dance, I like to shout. I've still got a lot of movement, a lot of action that I want people to see, and I don't think it's going to happen here."

Payton-Noble's yearning to stretch seems reasonable for anyone stuck playing the same character for so long, but it is also likely a residual of a frequent phenomenon of successful family sitcoms: The parents get eclipsed by a precocious kid. While Bill Cosby, Roseanne and Tim Allen all managed to stand fast as the focus of their sitcoms, Michael J. Fox from "Family Ties," Jason Bateman in "Valerie" and the adorable Olsen twins in "Full House" all overshadowed their elder, more established co-stars in popularity, publicity and, often, lines per episode.

It's a basic fact of television demographics: Shows watched primarily by kids need some young stars for children at home to love.

Enter Urkel, "Family Matters' " flamboyantly bespectacled, freakishly squawking genius nerd, played by Jaleel White, who began as a onetime guest early on and then stayed to become the show's one lasting contribution to the pantheon of TV's great characters.

VelJohnson admits that at the start--especially when White, who has now grown up into a UCLA student, was just a tiny 12-year-old--it was bizarre watching a child dominate a show that was supposed to be about a married couple and their family. But he understands that success rubs off on everyone involved, and there's no denying White's Urkel mattered there.

VelJohnson, who also starred as the plucky policeman who saved Bruce Willis in "Die Hard," said the bonus of such TV longevity is gaining at least a shot at other parts that he otherwise never would have.

"But there's also a danger of getting so associated with the character that the real you doesn't shine through," he added. "I have lost a couple of roles because they said, 'We don't want Carl.' Whenever this is over, it will be a challenge and testament to the versatility of the performer for any of us to change that image. Everyone thinks we are goody-goody, and I can solve a problem in 10 minutes. People come up to me in the supermarket and they say, 'Listen, my son has a problem. Could you give me some pointers?' I swear they do."

*

And it's that goody-goody image, the idea that family does matter, that has been the driving force in the ongoing popularity of the series, both performers agreed. In a society filled with divorce and isolation, the Ozzie-and-Harriet--or, in this case, Carl-and-Harriette--version of American family life has proved incredibly soothing.

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