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SHOWS FOR YOUNGSTERS AND THEIR PARENTS TOO : Jaleel White paces his growth with Urkel’s--steady, sure and fun

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There’s another side to Steve Urkel. There’s also another side to actor Jaleel White, who plays TV’s most popular nerd, on ABC’s Family Matters. Both are revealed Friday on the show’s fifth-season finale.

White returns as Stefan Urquelle, introduced in an episode last December. This is an Urkel with rearranged genes--in other words, a totally cool Urkel.

The actor hopes the suave Urquelle will show audiences that he’s more than just the bespectacled kid decked out in high-water, suspendered trousers whose nasal proclamations have tickled--and sometimes irritated--the public’s fancy.

At a recent lunch at a Downtown Los Angeles restaurant, White chats politely with fans who interrupt him at least a dozen times as he tries to explain Urkel/Urquelle’s future. Even though he describes Urquelle as “everything I wish I could be,” White in person seems to be a lot more Urquelle than Urkel.

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The alter ego is just one device producers hope will keep audiences interested in the sitcom, which, they acknowledge, now places Urkel at its epicenter. Originally, the show intended to focus on a loving, extended African American family; it now centers on the antics of its nosy neighbor.

“Jaleel did one spot” in the first season, explains co-executive producer Gary Menteer, who also directs many episodes. “He broke out so big we could tell before it aired, from the audience reaction, that he was going to become a regular.”

When Urkel became an instant hit, Menteer acknowledges, there was some resentment from the original cast members, but it “was very short-lived. They recognized his comedic talents.” White has been in every show since. “As long as the ideas are fresh, I know it’s going to be outrageous playing him and that it’ll be fun,” the self-confident actor says, laughing. And in a voice significantly lower than Urkel’s nasal twang, he explains how it all works: “Steve likes Laura. Steve visits the Winslows. Trouble happens. Bottom line. That’s the process.”

While it may be hard to imagine a grown Urkel, White is no longer the 12-year-old he was during the first season. Five seasons later, at 17, he’s a foot taller at 5-foot-9. And as far as White is concerned, Urkel’s changing in many ways.

“He’s a character who can still grow,” insists White, saying he can picture himself taking Urkel post-college. “I can’t put any limitations on Steve. When people ask me, ‘ What will you do next season?,’ I just say, ‘Same as last year.’ He has a car already; it’s really cartoonish and very Urkel, but it’s a car. People don’t realize through little things like that, he’s growing up.”

As for being typecast, White scoffs: “I get asked that by more unemployed actors than anybody! The object of the game is to work and have fun while you’re doing it.”

White’s not concerned about what lies beyond “Family Matters.” “I’m not in a hurry to do something else. I’m not interested in saying, ‘Look, look, I’m not Steve Urkel now. I’m not out to do that. If I wanted to do that, I already could’ve.”

In the fall, White plans to attend UCLA, where he hopes to study economics and business for the first two years and focus on television for the last two. He hopes to emulate his idol, Bill Cosby, and write and direct. White’s already penned an episode of “Family Matters,” which aired last season.

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But he’s taking his time, just as his folks always suggest. “We’re the turtle family and we just watch all the rabbits out there,” says the only child. “I’m only 17! I’m young, I have a lot of time to do what I want.”

One thing the basketball fanatic gets to do Saturday is appear as himself on NBC’s “Fantasies of the Stars”: He’ll be playing ball with his favorite team, the New York Knicks. After that, who knows?

“Family Matters” airs Fridays at 8 p.m. on ABC. Syndicated reruns air daily at 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on KTLA. “Fantasies of the Stars” airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on NBC. For ages 6 and up.


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