Stars From Family Matters You Didn't Know Died

"Family Matters" was a popular American television sitcom that aired nine seasons from 1989 to 1997. The show, centered around a middle-class Black family living in Chicago, was a spin-off of the sitcom "Perfect Strangers," in which the Winslows were introduced — Harriette as an elevator operator and husband Carl a police officer. Although the sitcom achieved decent ratings in its first season, it wasn't until the character of Steve Urkel, portrayed by Jaleel White, was introduced that the show really took off. Simply known as Urkel, the nerdy, accident-prone neighbor of the Winslows tripped his way into America's heart with catchphrases like, "Did I do that?" and "Whoa, mama." In 1991 and 1992, Family Matters was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Comedy series and in 1997 White won the award for Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series.

But it took more than one character to make this show a hit, and after nine seasons, America was entertained by dozens of talented actors who stepped onto the set and into the Winslows' living room. Sadly, some of those famous faces are no longer delivering lines and laughs. So, keep reading as we pay tribute to those we lost from the show "Family Matters."

Ron Glass

Emmy-nominated actor Ron Glass was a staple of American television starting in 1973 with his first role on "All in the Family." After guest spots in shows like "Sanford and Son" and "Good Times," he landed his breakout role as Detective Harris in "Barney Miller." Glass told Pop Goes the Culture TV that another actor, Rod Perry, had the role in the pilot but was picked up by another show, leaving an opening. He also credited the writers with taking his character from "just kind of a Black guy who was in the room" to something that more resembled the actor himself. He said, "So actually we ended up with a really really, totally well-rounded, totally wonderful character to play."

After "Barney Miller," he continued to secure role after role, including portraying an actor named Buddy Goodrich in a 1989 episode of "Family Matters." Buddy was the star of a show the Winslow family was obsessed with and Carl ended up arresting him for assault.

Glass' decades-long acting career also included a hilarious stint as Ross Gellar's divorce lawyer on "Friends" in 1999. His final TV spot was "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" in 2014. Two years later, on November 25, 2016, Glass died of respiratory failure. Per NPR, he was an activist and member of the board of directors for Los Angeles' AL Wooten Jr. Heritage Center.

Rosetta LeNoire

Per The Guardian, Rosetta LeNoire was born in Hell's Kitchen, New York, in 1911. Following a childhood rickets diagnosis that put her in leg braces for some time, LeNoire took up dance and musical theater. This eventually turned into a Broadway career, and she even founded her own theater company in 1968 called Amas.

LeNoire spent more than three decades on television with roles on "Another World," "Ryan's Hope," "Gimme a Break," and "Amen," before landing her spot in the cast of "Family Matters." She was 78 years old at the time, but she had no interest in letting her career wind down. According to the Los Angeles Times article, LeNoire said in 1992, "I tell people I'm against retirement, I'm for God, I believe in goodness and also luck." LeNoire, who played Mother Winslow on "Family Matters," started with the first episode of the series when her character moved in with the Winslows after the death of her husband. She appeared in all nine seasons and unlike most of the other Winslow clan, she actually liked their neighbor Steve Urkel.

On March 17, 2002, LeNoire died from complications from diabetes.

Naya Rivera

Five-year-old Naya Rivera already had a series ("The Royal Family") under her belt when she was cast in "Family Matters" as Gwendolyn, a new neighbor who had a crush on Richie. That adorably sweet smile and natural acting ability garnered her more roles on shows like "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and "Baywatch."

Rivera even successfully navigated her way from child actor to adult, most of those years spent on "The Bernie Mac Show" from 2002 to 2006. Her most notable role on television was that of Santana Lopez on the musical comedy series "Glee." It seemed there was no limit to her talent, no height her star couldn't reach. 

On July 8, 2020, Rivera died at the age of 33. According to CNN, Rivera had gone out on a rented boat with her then-four-year-old son. He was later found asleep in the boat and had reported to authorities that he and his mother had gone swimming but instead of getting in the boat she slipped under the water. It is believed that Rivera drowned while saving her son's life. One year later, her ex husband, Ryan Dorsey, said in an Instagram post, "Fly high, Rest In Peace, knowing he's doing ok...he's being raised right, and he's got a lot of family and people around him that love him, and you."

Sherman Hemsley

When you think of Sherman Hemsley it might just draw an image of him getting out of a cab in front of a high-rise in Manhattan, strutting toward the door, or doing some fancy footwork in his living room as he did in the famously fun opening theme of his hit sitcom "The Jeffersons."

Per Black Past, Sherman Hemsley dropped out of school in the tenth grade to join the air force and served four years in Japan and Korea. He then worked for the US postal service while attending a dramatic arts college and eventually found his way to off-Broadway productions. But it was his Broadway debut in "Purlie" that got him noticed by Norman Lear and led to his first TV role—as grumpy Archie Bunker's neighbor in "All in the Family," for which George Jefferson was born and inspired the spin-off, "The Jefferson's. In 1986, he would go on to star in another series, "Amen," where he played a deacon who was also a lawyer. Hemsley continued his reign on TV, garnering guest spots on shows like, "Designing Women," "Hangin' with Mr. Cooper," and 3 episodes of "Family Matters," in which he played the wise-cracking Captain Savage who has an instant connection to Urkel and cheats at golf, much to Mr. Winslow's dismay.

In July 24, 2012, Sherman Hemsley died of a lung mass.

Michelle Thomas

Michelle Thomas' first role on television was on the hit TV series "The Cosby Show," where she played Theo's girlfriend, Justine. Thomas would eventually end up as the real life girlfriend of the actor, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who played Theo. Just a few short years later, she was cast in Season 4 of "Family Matters" as Myra, who for some reason, sees Urkel as the man of her dreams. She finished out the series with the rest of the cast and then jumped right over to a recurring role on "The Young and the Restless." 

Per The New York Times, this is when her illness, a rare form of stomach cancer, seemed to take a foothold, and Thomas had to take a medical leave from filming. She underwent surgery to remove a tumor in 1998 and returned home to her family to recover. She died on December 26, 1988, surrounded by her family as well as former boyfriend Malcom-Jamal Warner with whom she had remained close friends, according to People.

In 1999, Thomas was nominated for an NAACP award for Outstanding Actress in a Daytime Drama Series for her role on "Young and the Restless."

Johnny Brown

Singer and actor Johnny Brown had a megawatt smile that was perfect for stage and television. Per Broadway World, his film debut was alongside Sammy Davis Jr., whom he also appeared with on Broadway, in the 1966 movie "A Man Called Adam." Soon Brown found himself garnering role after role on TV shows like, "Maude," "Chico and the Man," and in 1975 was cast in Season 2 of "Good Times" in the role of Nathan Bookman, the super for the building in the projects that the Evans family lived in. Though his character, often referred to as "Booger" by character Willona, was meant to be an antagonist, Bookman soon became a fan favorite and Brown would always be remembered for this role.

After "Good Times," he continued his sweep through television roles, including a stint as a voice on the "Alvin & the Chipmunks," animated series. Then in 1995, Brown appeared in a season 6 episode of "Family Matters" as the character Pastor Fuller, who asks Mr. and Mrs. Winslow to counsel a couple about marriage. Brown's last role came in 2013. He died on March 2, 2022, at the age of 84. He was survived by his wife and two children. At the time of this writing, no further details are available regarding Brown's death.

Eddie Mekka

Born in 1952 to an Armenian father and an Italian mother, Eddie Mekka told Broadway.com he got the performing bug when he was asked to be the emcee of their variety school, so of course his next stop was the stage. In 1975, Mekka received a Tony nomination for his Broadway performance in "The Lieutenant." One of his earliest television roles was, of course, the one that would forever brand him as "The Big Ragoo." Carmine Ragusa was the bright-faced, dancing, on-again-off-again boyfriend of Shirley Feeney. After appearing in all 8 seasons, Mekka went on to a myriad of guest roles in both movies and series, including two different characters on "Family Matters." In the season 2 episode, "Flash Pants," Mekka plays Charlie, a transfer who competes against Carl in a dance contest. Then in "Sink or Swim" in season 6, Mekka plays Mr. Nutting, the P.E. teacher in Urkel's swim class.

Mekka continued getting roles in TV and movies, including small ones in 1992's "A League of Their Own" and 2006's "Dreamgirls." In a 2014 Boston Globe interview, Mekka mused, "I got to do a great jitterbug number with Madonna in 'A League of Their Own.'" Mekka continued working until his last credit in 2018, then a few short years later, Mekka died on November 27, 2021, at the age of 79. Costar Michael McKean tweeted, "A sad goodbye to Eddie Mekka this morning. A genuinely good guy and purveyor of cheer whenever things got cheerless."

Bubba Smith

NFL defensive end Bubba Smith was born in 1945 in Texas. Per Beaumont Enterprise, when it came time for college ball, he ended up leaving his homestate for Michigan State because the University of Texas team was not yet integrated. It was UT's loss, and a big one at that: Smith became a two-time All-American in 1965 and 1966. He started with the Baltimore Colts, won a Super Bowl in 1970, and played until 1976.

Just before his retirement from sports, Smith got his first role on television, a guest spot — playing himself — on the show "The Odd Couple." Smith must have enjoyed the bite from the acting bug because he continued acting, now not as himself, on shows like, "Charlie's Angels" and "Eight is Enough," and then landed some regular gigs such as a recurring role on "Open All Night." He also appeared in 6 "Police Academy" movies and the TV series. Bubba Smith's character on Family Matters, Bones, is an intimidating muscle to the loan shark the guys got in deep with, complete with a hilarious growling match between Urkel and Bones.

On August 3, 2011, Smith died at the age of 66. The cause of death at the time had been ruled acute drug intoxication and other conditions. Per USA Today, years later it was discovered he suffered from CTE, a brain degeneration likely caused by repeated head traumas.

Donna Summer

Per The Guardian, five-time Grammy winner and queen of disco Donna Summer went from church choir singer to musical theater performer to music superstar who put out hit albums like "Bad Girls" and "Love to Love You baby." Though she spent plenty of time onscreen in her music videos and she starred in the 1978 musical comedy "Thank God it's Friday," Summer wasn't making any moves toward a career in films or television. That's why it must have been quite a treat when Summer showed up in not one but two episodes of "Family Matters." In 1994 and 1997, she played Urkel's aunt, Oona Urkel, who according to Urkel is "a little odd." She was a hilarious older female version of Urkel, and when the two started wreaking accidental havoc on the Winslows living room, spilling popcorn and breaking the coffee table, they both exclaimed, "Did we do that?" In the end, she saved the day singing her iconic song "Last Dance" at a talent show.

When Donna Summer died of lung cancer on May 17, 2012, many singers and industry professionals mourned her, some attending her service, others voicing their feelings on social media. "Few singers have impacted music & the world like Donna Summer!" tweeted Gloria Estefan. "It's the end of an era."

Julius Carry

As iconic character actor Julius Carry recalled to the Chicago Tribune in 1990, he got into show business as a teen when he joined a touring play group called the Spartan Players. He spent much of the '80s in guest roles on television shows including recurring parts in "Bay City Blues" and "The New Leave It to Beaver," but it was his 1985 appearance in the classic martial arts spoof film "The Last Dragon" as Sho'Nuff, the villain in the movie, that would forever cement him a place in Hollywood history. Confident, hilarious, and kick-a** fighting skills, Carry drew in audiences who couldn't help but fall in love with Sho'Nuff.

In 1992, Carry appeared in an episode of "Family Matters" in which played Harriet's tall, handsome piano teacher that Carl thinks twice about leaving her alone with. Carry continued acting in the 1990s and through early 2000, garnering roles in such shows as "The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr," "Murphy Brown," and "Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place." Carry was a working actor up to his last role in 2006's "The 12th Man" before his untimely death from pancreatic cancer. On August 19, 2008, Carry died at 56 years old.

Fred Willard

Emmy-nominated actor Fred Willard was a prolific actor whose career spanned more than fifty years. Willard went to two military institutes before serving in the US army and being stationed in Germany. Like many actors of his time, he started on the stage in the 1950s. In the late '60s, he began showing up on television and in movies, and by the time the '70s rolled around, it seemed he was bitten by the comedy bug, appearing in variety shows like "Love, American Style" and sitcoms such as "The Bob Newhart Show" and "Fernwood Tonight," in which he appeared in 44 episodes as Jerry Hubbard. His comedic talent on shows "Modern Family" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" earned him multiple Emmy noms, and he was a fixture of Christopher Guest's mockumentary troupe. Willard also portrayed Vice Principal Mallet on "Family Matters" from 1994 to 1996, appearing in three episodes. 

On May 15, 2020, Willard died of natural causes at the age of 86. His daughter, Hope Mulbarger, told People of her father, "He kept moving, working and making us happy until the very end. We loved him so very much."

Matt Landers

Actor Matt Landers was in dozens of television shows and 20 motion pictures over his thirty-year career in show business. His most notable on screen part was in the Bruce Willis blockbuster film "Die Hard," in which he played Captain Mitchell, an officer on scene who directs the SWAT team during the hostage situation. He also portrayed a member of the LAPD in the Arnold Schwarzenegger action film "Commando." Ironically, Landers was on the other side of the law in his first appearance on "Family Matters," playing a robber at a convenience store. Between 1994 and 1995, Landers appeared as Larry Pinkerton in 18 episodes of "The George Carlin Show." Landers' next time on "Family Matters" was in 1997, and he played a pirate named Flint when Urkel and Carl went back in time.

Landers continued to act, including a recurring role on "Days of Our Lives," until 2010, appearing last on "Law and Order." Landers passed away on March 12, 2015, at the age of 62 from cancer.

Behind the scenes talent

Thomas L. Miller produced some of the most memorable television shows in TV history including hits like "Happy Days," "Laverne & Shirley," "Family Matters," and "Full House." Per his obituary in The Hollywood Reporter, Miller's dreams of showbiz came true when he landed his first real gig as assistant to William Self at 20th Century Fox. He went on to form his own production company and eventually signed a deal with Warner Bros. TV predecessor Lorimar Television. In 2018, "Family Matters" star Reginald VelJohnson told Today that Miller helped him land the role of Carl. Apparently, Miller had seen an early screening of "Die Hard" and thought he'd be perfect for the show. Miller died on April 5, 2020, from complications related to heart disease.

Gary Menteer, a writer, director, and producer, actually started out as an actor. Also an accomplished dancer, he was in the original cast of "The Music Man" on Broadway and appeared in several musical adaptations, including "Hello, Dolly!" Menteer also popped up in variety shows like "The Dean Martin Show" and "The Carol Burnett Show" before he began his career behind the camera. Menteer holds credits for writing, directing, producing on many of the shows he worked on including "Happy Days," "Punky Brewster," and "Family Matters." Menteer passed away on January 18, 2016, at the age of 72.