Joseph Payne "Joe" Astor, formerly Michael R. Payton, played by James McCaffrey, is the leader of the Metro City Viper team during Seasons 1 and 4, and the main driver of the Viper Defender.
Michael R. Payton had been on the streets since he was 10 years old, and first began driving when he was 12.
He had a grandmother who was named Olivia Payton.
Sometime in the future, he caught the eye of The Outfit and was recruited as a driver. During his criminal career, he became an older brother figure to another street kid named Tim Rackem, and taught him evasive driving skills. Payton ran a gas station/auto shop as a legitimate front for his Outfit activities.
Once in Mexico, Payton met a woman named Claire Holloway, who was on the run from her abusive lover, Frederick Lang. They got married in Mexico, Payton giving her his grandmother's ring. However, sometime later, he returned to the USA, leaving her behind in Mexico. While Lang wanted to get even with Payton, he didn't because he understood it would be detrimental to his standing in The Outfit.
During his criminal career, Payton was also involved in a diamond heist with master criminal Sylvia Ehrengraf, serving as her wheelman. His arrival prevented her from killing a guard. 10 days later, she was arrested and sentenced to 10 years, but escaped after 6 years.
Eventually, Payton would become the leader of a team of highly-skilled wheelmen within the Outfit called "The Highwaymen", who pulled heists in their custom black Dodge Stealth R/T's - himself, Alec Connor, Andi, Nichols and Yuri. However, one night after stealing a satellite from a research center to deliver to the Outfit, during the ensuing police chase, his team got away, but Payton himself, after crashing into a bus, crashed into a wall. He was pronounced dead on the scene.
In reality, Payton was taken to a hospital. Councilman Strand decided to "recycle" him, so that he would be useful to the crime-ridden Metro City's police. He was given a cosmetic fine-tuning, and a microchip was installed in his brain to erase the criminal part of his memory. He was officially reborn as Joseph Payne Astor, a police officer recently transferred from Chicago to Metro City to become the driver of the Defender. He was told that he had been involved in an accident while driving by Dr. Elizabeth Houston, who helped his rehabilitation.
Although the inventor of the Defender, Julian Wilkes, was skeptical at first about making him the driver, Joe soon proved to be very proficient at handling the Viper, for which so far MetroPol had been unable to find a driver. He then said that "I'm never gonna wanna drive anything else." However, as Julian had objected to adding any weapons to the Defender, Joe decided the he would carry a sidearm himself.
Joe successfully arrested the first three criminals with the help of the Defender he ran into. The last one, however, turned out to be Michael Payton's former team. Having witnessed him showing his old Payton behavior before at a restaurant, Nichols had told about it to the team, now led by hot-headed Alec, who had brushed him off. Joe had managed to disable Andi's car, before she started firing at him and was picked up by Alec. However, Joe managed to capture Nichols.
Now believing that Joe Astor was Michael Payton, Alec led the team to capture him and bring him to the team's hideout. They seemingly restored Payton's old memory, and told him to bring them the Viper. However, Joe confronted Elizabeth first, then confronted Julian, who convinced him that the city gave him a second chance that he should take, as Payton would have sooner or later died in prison, on the highway or some Outfit double-cross. Taking Julian's words into heart, he decided not to bring the Viper to the team and instead went to see Elizabeth. However, Alec had figured out that Payton/Astor wasn't going to bring the Viper to the team and in retaliation, rigged Elizabeth's house with explosives, killing her just as Joe was about to see her.
Disheartened, Joe visited Elizabeth's mother, whom she had confided in everything about Joe, and she gave him a lockup key Elizabeth had put aside for him. Joe went to open the lockup to discover a large stash of money, which had been on Michael Payton's bank account.
The Outfit's leader, Townsend, then bribed Strand to end the Viper Project and destroy the car. However, with the help of Motorpool Officer Frankie Waters, Joe stole the Defender and brought it to Julian's garage. They were later met by MetroPol Commander Delia Thorne, who resigned over the corruption in the city, informing them that she was well-aware of Councilman Strand being bribed. Joe told her to lie that the Viper had been destroyed. However, Townsend would find out the truth and then killed Strand in rage.
After figuring out that the rest of Payton's team would try to spring Nichols out during the transport to the prison, Joe and Julian responded quickly, arriving at the scene and taking out the team with the help of the Defender, before leaving the scene just as the police arrived on the scene.
With much of the city corrupt, Joe used the money he took to buy a base for the Viper team in an old power station on the outskirts of town that had been abandoned for 50 years. As Joe and Julian were checking out the power station, Frankie arrived in his 1971 Plymouth Barracuda, and was accepted into the Viper team. So Joe, Julian and Frankie began to run their top-secret Viper operations from the power station.
Throughout Season 1, Joe carries a Glock pistol with a stainless slide and a laser sight mounted under the barrel as his sidearm.
However, after MetroPol took over the Viper project, Julian took a post in Washington D.C., Frankie was relegated back to the Motorpool, while Joe left for Thailand.
Joe's return Edit
Three years later, Wilkes, who had been asked to redesign a new Defender based on a Viper GTS Coupe, asked Joe, who had just arrived from Morocco, to deliver the car to Metro City, while he himself would take a decoy car. When Joe arrived at the Viper's new headquarters in the trainyard, he was "greeted" by the Viper project's MetroPol liaison, Cameron Westlake, pulling a gun on him. After he asked for Frankie, she demanded to see his identification, to which Joe attempted to disarm her, only for her to throw him to the ground and threaten him with the gun again. Luckily, just then Frankie walked in and chastised her. Westlake then comments that she nearly shot him, only for Joe to show her the magazine from her gun he managed to extract. Frankie then proceeds to give Joe a hug.
As they wait for Wilkes to arrive, Joe asks Westlake whether it was her or Thomas Cole, his replacement as the Defender's driver, who blew up the old Viper. Joe then mentions that as soon as Wilkes arrives with the decoy Viper, he'll be leaving for Iceland the day after tomorrow to track polar bears. However, when they check out Wilkes' location on the tracking device, it is static. Joe leaves to check it out, however, Westlake follows him, to which he objects, as he is used to working alone, but Westlake tells him it'd never hurt to have backup.
As they arrive at the scene, they discover that Julian with the decoy Viper have fallen victim to a string of truck hijackings recently gripping the Metro City. Joe and Westlake head to a warehouse Frankie points out, whilst informing the team's FBI liaison, Sherman Catlett. As Catlett tells Westlake is not authorized to drive the Viper, she informs him she's not driving, before telling Joe to "Say hello to Sherman Catlett", to which Joe comments: "Sherman?". Catlett remarks that Joe isn't authorized to drive it either, before ordering him and Westlake to bring the Viper to him immediately, to which Joe hangs up the call, commenting: "He mentioned an order. Automatic response."
As Joe and Westlake arrive to meet Catlett and his partner, Agent Harper. Harper reveals that he recieved an audio tape a few minutes ago, with the hijackers threatening to kill Wilkes if they don't receive the real Defender. Joe proposes to give the hijackers the Defender - albeit rigged with explosives. Harper disagrees, and demands Joe hand over the Defender's keys, then throws Joe and Westlake out. However, just as Joe and Westlake leave, Joe reveals that he gave Harper another set of keys, commenting "I hope that guy Catlett's got cab fare."
Joe and Westlake then leave to check out the garage, when they encounter two bikers, who then start shooting at him after he claims to be of "Hijackers Anonymous", and escape. He then morphs the Viper into "Defender" mode, and takes off after the bikers. However, as he is about to use the Static Pulse on a biker, the button instead turns on the wipers. He then proceeds to use the net launcher to capture the biker.
However, after the coroner arrives to take the biker away, they are met by Catlett and Harper, who are no happier, and demand Joe hand over the real keys, as they take off in the Viper. Joe and Westlake then return to the Viper base. Later on, Frankie informs them that he has tracked down the Viper. Figuring out they're heading for the North Star Boatyard, Joe and Westlake drive there in Westlake's Jeep Grand Cherokee, only to have Harper, who turns out to be rogue, and Trudy, one of the hijackers, and Harper's girlfriend start firing at them. Joe asks Frankie to remotely morph the Viper into Defender mode and reverse it to them, which Frankie does. They chase after Harper to the boat, and Joe fires the Viper's grapple hook at the boat as it takes off. However, due to the dock being unstable, the Viper falls into the water, and the doors get locked. Westlake then converts the Viper into Hovercraft Mode, allowing them to resurface and continue the chase. Joe uses a torpedo to blow up the boat.
Back at the office, Joe remarks to Wilkes that the hovercraft function is probably his greatest addition. Frankie then comments that it feels good to have all three of them, the original team, back together, before Wilkes informs him that he has taken another job with NASA and thus won't be joining them. Joe also comments that his job is done, just as Westlake and Catlett enter. However, Wilkes tells him that he had already suggested Catlett to take Joe on again as the Viper's driver. Joe is still reluctant, but Frankie tells him that they need him as a driver. Joe finally relents and agrees to stay. So, with Joe and Westlake reinstated, the Viper team is back on the road.