Jaleel White fondly recalls playing Urkel on ‘Family Matters’
It’s hard to tell at first what’s going through Jaleel White’s mind as he picks up the new “Family Matters” DVD box set. Front and center is a picture of a young Jaleel, decked out in oversized glasses, suspenders and braces, flashing a geeky smile.
As White gazes at the image of himself as Steve Urkel, the ultra-nerd with the high-pitched voice and snorty laugh who became the most popular character of the ABC comedy about a middle-class African American family, his mouth tightens.
Does he feel the same resentment as Gary Coleman, who died earlier this month, and other child stars who felt trapped as they tried to transition to more grown-up roles? Does this month’s release of the comedy’s first season bring back bad memories? Does he feel cursed by Urkel?
After a few moments, White’s expression brightens: “This is the great accident. It’s one of the greatest things that ever happened to me.”
Unlike the bitterness expressed by Coleman, who experienced personal, financial and professional turmoil following his stint on “Diff’rent Strokes,” White, who is 33, has nothing but positive feelings about “Family Matters,” which premiered in 1989 and lasted nine seasons. He said he was supported through those years by “my amazing mother, family and friends.”
Though his face is the main selling point for the DVD set, White was not part of the original cast and appears in only a handful of episodes that first season. When it first came on the air, “Family Matters” revolved mostly around heavyset Chicago cop Carl Winslow ( Reginald VelJohnson), his wife Harriette (Jo Marie Payton) and their teenage children Eddie and Laura ( Darius McCrary and Kellie Shanygne Williams).
The series, which was part of ABC’s “TGIF” comedy block, was also a rarity — a comedy centered around an African American family that never referenced race or politics.
Urkel initially was supposed to be an occasional character who relentlessly pined after the uninterested Laura. But White injected the character with a strange voice and mannerisms that caught the eye of producers, executives said. They accentuated his role, which pushed the original stars of the series into the background.
The transition was not exactly smooth.
“How do you think they reacted?” White said of his former cast members. “There was some jealousy. Not with the kids on the show, though. We worked through all our issues and we were all cool.”
Bill Bickley, an executive producer on “Family Matters,” said there was never any doubt about reworking the show to highlight White’s Urkel.
“Jaleel is the reason that show became a big hit,” said Bickley. “He really was one of those happy accidents. Some of the adults in the cast were upset when he became so prominent. We told them that this was one of the best things that could happen to them, that they would have a steady job for longer than they would have otherwise.”
Though his post-"Family Matters” career was not as high-profile, the success of the series sparked several opportunities for White after the show ended, including acting, voiceovers and his first love, writing. He appeared in the film version of “Dreamgirls,” and starred in a short-lived UPN series, “Grown Ups.”
Sitting in a conference room at Warner Bros. Home Video, he is obviously excited and upbeat about his latest project, “Fake It Till You Make It,” a Web series available on Hulu that makes fun of Hollywood wheelers and dealers. He wrote and directed the series, and also stars as Reggie Culkin, a former child star weaving in and out of the fast lane.
White joins other personalities such as David Faustino, Justine Bateman and Kevin Pollak who have developed projects for the Web.
“This is a great time for me, to be doing something that is totally me, where everything comes from me,” said White. “I love the freedom this kind of series brings me. I know how to do this.”