Michael R. Payton had been on the streets since he was 10 years old, and first began driving when he was 12. In a later episode, as Joe Astor, Joe claims that he lost his parents when he was 8. 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 caught a 13-year old street kid and drug-addict named Tim Rackem trying to steal his Corvette, and beat him for tearing out the car's ignition system, before showing him the right way to steal a car. Over time, he got Tim straight and became an older brother figure, teaching him his evasive driving skills. As a legitimate front for his Outfit activities, Payton ran a gas station/auto shop.
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 by Dr. Elizabeth Houston, who helped his rehabilitation, that he had been involved in an accident while driving.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 - a Glock pistol with a stainless slide and a laser sight mounted under the barrel.
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. 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 and have Nichols transferred to state prison, knowing that the rest of Payton's team would try to spring him out during the transport.
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 from Payton's account 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.
Occasionally, Joe would also work for Thorne, who after her resignation had been recruited by The Consortium, a secret group trying to bring down the Outfit.
However, after MetroPol took over the Viper project, Frankie chose to stay with the project, while Julian took a post in Washington D.C. Joe, however, as he couldn't play by the new rules, left for Thailand.
Joe's return Edit
Three years later, Julian, who had just finished redesigning 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 deliver 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, thinking he was an intruder. Luckily, just then Frankie walked in and chastised her, before proceeding to give Joe a hug.
As they wait for Wilkes to arrive, Joe 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. Westlake informs the team's FBI liaison, Sherman Catlett, who tells her she is not authorized to drive the Viper. She informs him she's not driving and asks Joe to "say hello to Sherman Catlett". Catlett remarks that Joe isn't authorized to drive it either, before ordering them to bring the Viper to him immediately, only for Joe to hang up the call.
Joe and Westlake obey, and meet Catlett and his partner, Agent Harper, who demands Joe hand over the Defender's keys. However, just as Joe and Westlake leave, Joe reveals that he gave Harper another set of keys, as they leave to check out a garage, when they encounter two bikers, who then escape. Morphing the Viper into "Defender" mode, they manage to catch one biker, who however, is killed during the chase. Just then, they are met by Catlett and Harper, who are no happier, and demand Joe hand over the real keys.Joe and Westlake then return to the Viper base, where they find out the hijackers are operating out of the North Star Boatyard, and drive there in Westlake's Jeep Grand Cherokee, only to have Harper, who turns out to be rogue, start shooting at them, with Julian and Catlett as hostages. 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 suddenly get sealed. Putting the Defender into Hovercraft Mode, they are able to resurface and continue the chase. Joe uses a torpedo to blow up the boat.
Next, in Catlett's office, Frankie comments that it feels good to have the original team back together, but 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 persuaded the FBI to take Joe on as the Viper's driver. Joe is still reluctant, but after Frankie tells him that they need him, he relents and agrees to stay. With Joe and Westlake reinstated, the Viper team is back on the road.