photo courtesy Cherie Johnson

EXCLUSIVE: Cherie Johnson talks about her life and career

The former "Punky Brewster" and "Family Matters" star dishes about her life in the business and extensive career.

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22 mins read

Cherie Johnson began acting professionally at the age of six years old. In 1984, she started out playing “Cherie” on the NBC sitcom “Punky Brewster.”

“It was the happiest time of my life,” she said. “’Punky’ is definitely the reason I’m in love with entertainment because I definitely thought that every job was going to be like that and it wasn’t like a job. We played with pogo sticks until they said ‘action’ or threw the ball at each other until it was time to act. We had a wonderful stage manager named David Wader. He would literally take the pogo stick off you before they would call ‘action’ or hold your ball until they said ‘cut’. Then when they called ‘cut’, he would throw the ball right back at you. We were allowed to be children and it was really a safe haven for us. It definitely gave a false sense of what Hollywood was about, but I’m so thankful because it let us live our childhood.” 

During her time on the original “Punky Brewster” series, Cherie did an episode that had a lot of impact on the viewers. In 1986, season 2, episode 16, titled “Cherie Lifesaver,” Cherie’s character gets trapped inside an old refrigerator while playing hide and seek.

“There was a big thing in the 80’s where people were putting out old refrigerators and kids were dying in them,” she said. “Our producers were amazing and our writers extraordinary. When we did shows like that, they would sit down and talk to us and get our feelings. They made sure I felt safe. Again, we had this amazing stage manager, David Wader, and I can’t say it enough because he was great and he really protected us.” 

Johnson said that they had taken off one side of the refrigerator so if she got nervous and couldn’t open the front, she could kick out the back because it was velcro. 

Cherie Johnson as “Cherie” on NBC’s Punky Brewster. Photo courtesy NBC studios.

“They did a bunch of safety checks,” she said. “He got in the refrigerator and kicked it out himself first.” 

They made her get in and kick it out so they knew she was ok. 

“I believe, if I’m not mistaken, the whole time I was in there, he sat behind it to make sure I was ok. David Wader was an extraordinary man and I have to give a shout-out because his godson is now our first AD’s [assistant director]  on the ‘Punky’ continuation so we’ve kept it in the family.  I drove past places with old refrigerators and thought why is that door still on?” she explained. ” I actually stopped and went and got a man that I did not know, and made him take the door off. He took it off for me. He was looking at me and saying well it’s not my fridge, but I’ll take it off. G.E. makes a refrigerator that I have and they do not lock from the inside. I have a video on my social media of me getting in and out of the refrigerator. I’m not telling any kids to get in it but if you’re going to buy a fridge, G.E. is my recommendation.” 

Cherie would go on after “Punky Brewster” to star in the ABC hit series “Family Matters”, which ran from 1989 until 1998. It would become the longest running sitcom about a black family in television history.

Despite appearing in 58 episodes of the series, Cherie was inexplicably never given the status of series regular. She still enjoyed her time portraying “Maxine Johnson” on the series and working with her friends.

Season 2 episode 16 “Cherie Lifesaver”. Photo courtesy NBC studios.

“‘Family Matters’ was interesting and fun at the same time,” she said. “We had two of the producers from ‘Punky’ [Brewster] that worked on ‘Family Matters’ [Gary Menteer & David W. Duclon] so it was kind of continuing on with my family, plus, I was in-love with Darius McCrary [Eddie Winslow on Family Matters]. We had the same agent and we became fast friends at like age 14 at a Christmas party. So it was really exciting to get to work with my friend because as child actors, we don’t really have those connections from others at school like most people do. I mean we had friends but you don’t really get to see them you know? Then Shawn [Harrison] came on the show and I knew him from ‘Punky’ [Brewster]. We all grew up together, I mean those are my brothers. That’s my heart right there. We are still really close today.” 

It would be at The end of “Family Matters” that she questioned what she wanted to do with her life.

“After ‘Family Matters’ was over and I was about 25 years in [acting professionally], I was like, what am I going to do with my life now? I was sitting with my Mom and looking at a newspaper and I was like, I’m not really qualified to do anything. I had dropped out of college because I was working on ‘Family Matters’ at the time,” she said. “I was at work for 14 hours a day and trying to take night classes. It just wasn’t for me. So I don’t know if I was thinking acting was for me or if I went to it by default. I actually always wanted to be an architect. To build big, beautiful buildings but I didn’t take those math classes. So I went back to acting and in fact got kind of discouraged for a while because they type cast me. They didn’t want to give me the roles of the crackhead or mom, they wanted me to play everybody’s best friend or take my clothes off and I didn’t want to do either. That is what made me start writing and producing my own projects.” 

Being an avid Pittsburgh Steelers fan, when recent controversies hit the NFL, it affected how Cherie viewed the league.

“I have issues with the NFL. I was born in Pittsburgh and I will never claim another football team as long as I live but the whole situation, regardless of how anyone feels about Colin [Kaepernick] or not, has really turned me off from the NFL as a franchise. They have so much power and I’m not saying politics and sports go together, but take a humanitarian stance. The NFL is mostly black men but they kind of showed us that they don’t care about black men. So I have a hard time when you show you don’t care about black men for me to care about you. It’s not like a political thing, it’s just that it was their opportunity to be human and not just look at a dollar. 

Cherie had a similar experience that occurred with her daughter in a Taekwondo class as well.

photo courtesy Cherie Johnson

“My daughter is 6 years old and she had a conversation, and I was very proud of her because at the time she was 4 years old. She had a conversation with her Taekwondo instructor. She did not want to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. She didn’t get it from me, she got it from her own mind. He asked what the problem was and she was like well Master Miller, we’re not one nation for all and we are divided. Everybody is not equal and some people don’t believe in God. He asked her if she believed in God and she said yeah. He asked what she thought about people who don’t believe in God and she said that was their choice. So they’ve never done the Pledge of Allegiance in Taekwondo again. Her instructor is a 6 foot 5, cornbred, southern white man you know? With a bald head. He sat down and held her hand and told her he wanted her to know they can’t divide him from her. That he loved her and would always be on her side. So she hugged him and said I love you too. That’s her best friend.” 

Cherie isn’t just an actress, she also writes and produces. Having a natural instinct for business, she decided to expand her reach and create a podcast show.

“You know a lot of people don’t know it, but I did radio for years. I co hosted a sports radio show with Kevin Hardaway and Charles Barkley called ‘The Bottom Line’ sports show for about two years,” she said. “Then I got pregnant and had a baby. I had a very complicated pregnancy and I quit the show when I got pregnant. Then I was interviewed by a radio show called ‘Inside The Cave’. He was like you know you really should have your own show. I said we’ll produce it and I will. He thought I was joking. He said Cherie, I’m serious. If you did a show what would it be about? I said I wanted to humanize the celebrity. Let people see their life. I’ve been in the business 37 years and I’ve met a lot of people. I would love for people to know them the way I know them and that’s as human beings. He asked what I would call it and I said I guess Cherie’s World. 3 weeks later I had a logo and a show. It became a great revenue stream for me to be at home. I’m a homeschooling Mom by choice. So I can also work and stay in touch with people which is amazing. I’m not just talking about guests but the audience. I feel like I have friends everywhere because we literally all grew up together.” 

In 2021, Cherie had the opportunity to return to “Punky Brewster” for the revival series.

“I’m the biggest cry baby on the set. It’s like a running joke,” she said. “It’s from pure gratitude though. To get to go back and in the same situation you were in at 6 years old and I get to be on the couch next to Soleil [Moon Frye]. I don’t even realize I’m still working. They will be like, we said action, and I’ll say oh! My bad! Ok!” She said laughingly. “I don’t know if anyone else is having fun, but Soleil and I are having a ball together! It’s like a dream come true! Soleil is my soul sista. Like we are connected and there will never be anything that could break that bond.” 

In the updated series from Peacock, Cherie’s character is revealed to be a lesbian with a beautiful girlfriend named Lauren [Jasika Nicole]. By episode 8, fans of the show get to see the two ladies propose to each other. Fans await season 2 for a possibility of a marriage between the characters.

“When we get a season 2, and they haven’t told me we will, but I believe in power in words and manifestation,” she explained. “I don’t know! I’m just as shocked as you guys are! The writer’s don’t talk or tell us what’s next for us. I would pray that we have a wedding, some children and all kinds of stuff, but I don’t know! I think she would be a beautiful bride and I think I’d be a beautiful bride and it definitely would be fun. I wish I knew by this particular date thru would be calling us and by this date we would be going back to work but I really have no clue! We’d love to go about 8 seasons and do as many episodes as we did in that first run, if not more!” 

In season 1 episode 2 of the revival series titled “Make Room For Izzy”, when Punky takes in a young lady who has nowhere to live, the other kids become jealous and none of them want to share their bedroom. So Punky decides to show them how selfish they are by making them all sleep in the car.

“Let me make that scene even more awesome for you!” she exclaimed. “Not only is the moral of this story untouched, but this was filmed during covid so they wouldn’t allow more than one person in the car at a time. That whole scene was shot separately. The editors and producers figured out how to piece everything together and make it appear they were all in the car together. We all worked during a time that was extremely tense and scary. We had the best covid supervisors there. We watched all the other shows filming around us, get shut down but we did not get shut down. Everybody stayed home and masked up. We tested for covid every day. We were not allowed to come out of our dressing rooms until we got our results.” 

The big question for a lot of fans now is, will there be a “Family Matters” Revival series? Cherie weighed in with her thoughts on that possibility.

“If they were to call me and offer and Darius [McCray] has already said it publicly, that I don’t have a choice, but if I was invited back and I made sense then yeah, I’m there!” Johnson said. “Do I think they will make it? Probably not. Darius really wants it to happen. I can tell you that. I was never a Winslow so I don’t know if they did it, if they would even invite me back! I was never considered a main character! I was just a guest star. One of the producers, David Duclon, is my Uncle. That’s why I never got a romance that would work! I never even kissed Shawn [Harrison] on the show. If you go back and watch the series, ‘Maxine’ and ‘Waldo’ never kiss. He brought in Kristoff St. John for an episode and that was my first TV kiss. Kristoff was Soleil Moon Frye’s brother’s best friend. I’ve known Kristoff since I was 6 years old. He was older than me and my Uncle knew he would never be interested in me in that way. So that was my first TV kiss and the only guy ‘Maxine’ ever kissed.” 

Kristoff St. John was best known for his portrayal of Neil Winters on “The Young and the Restless.” A role he originated. On Feb. 3, 2019, Kristoff passed away from an accidental case of hypertrophic heart failure.

“It’s so desperately heart breaking but if you knew Kristoff, he was a dedicated father and a really good man,” she said. “He just could not live without his baby. [Julian St. John passed away in 2014]. As hard as it is to understand, when you know him, you know how he loves his kids and he has always been that good hearted soul. Even as a kid, I remember Kristoff helping me out of the pool. He would pick up your lunch plate and bring it to you. He was just a really kind soul.” 

Between writing, producing, acting and her podcast, it isn’t easy picking a preference, but there has been a process to help reveal that!

“I found it boring when they wanted me to play the same role over and over because it was like I was no longer stretching my muscles,” Johnson explained. “So I started writing and that kind of became my therapy, then I started producing and that became a challenge because I didn’t know what I was doing and it was brand new for me. It was also carrying on a legacy, as my Uncle is also a producer and there’s nobody I look up to more than him. So through my therapy [writing], I was cheating on my acting by producing. I like to call my producing my mistor [mister], you know like when men have mistresses, it makes my marriage stronger and my marriage is acting. By stepping into different positions, it made me respect actors and acting so much more. So by going to therapy [writing] and cheating, my marriage is stronger than ever. I’m really enjoying myself as an actress.” 

Cherie has proven herself to be a smart and savvy business entrepreneur by being what she needed to be in the moment and using her talents and determination to accomplish her goals.

Jimmy Reno

Jimmy Reno has always had a passion for the creative arts. Singing and writing have been at the forefront of his career. A professional Christian country singer and songwriter, he discovered his love for writing and journalism later on. Working as a freelance journalist in addition to his music, he contributes to the Daily Planet. An avid, life-long Superman fan, discovering the Daily Planet and contributing to it, was a dream come true.

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