Jussie Smollett’s path from adorable child actor to ‘Empire’ star to felony suspect
The 12-year-old seemed to burst out of the TV screen with grown-up swagger, his abundant Afro tucked under a derby, punctuating his stride with a smooth dance move.
Jussie Smollett’s bold appearance in the opening credits of the 1994 sitcom “On Our Own” was Hollywood’s introduction to the future star of Fox’s hip-hop drama “Empire,” who now faces felony charges and feverish backlash for reportedly orchestrating a hate crime against himself.
ABC’s short-lived comedy also offered a first glimpse at the large and talented Smollett family, including Jurnee Smollett-Bell, who would grow up to score starring roles in WGN’s “Underground” and HBO’s “True Blood.” The six Smollett siblings starred in the sitcom, which lasted 20 episodes.
Key people involved with that project who have remained close to Smollett since the launch of his career said Smollett’s performance in the innocuous “On Our Own” and his subsequent turns in “Empire” and other projects gave no hint he would ever be involved in a plot such as he’s now accused of, which threatens to torpedo his promising career.
“Jussie was smart, talented and caring, a great person,” said Robert L. Boyett of Miller-Boyett Productions, one of the companies behind “On Our Own.” The prominent production company churned out numerous landmark comedies from the 1970s through the 1990s, including “Mork & Mindy,” “Full House,” “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley.”
During a phone interview Thursday, Boyett said, “The Smolletts are a great family. I know them all, and we have all stayed in touch since our show.”
Boyett said he is stunned by the current firestorm surrounding Smollett, who has been charged by Chicago police with filing a false police report in which he claimed to have been the victim of a racist, homophobic attack. Two brothers told the police they were acquaintances of Smollett and that he hired them for $3,500 to stage the attack as an attention-generating stunt.
“I still can’t imagine something like this is happening,” Boyett said. “I feel that we still don’t know everything, that there’s another shoe that has yet to fall. I don’t know if this may have started out as a stunt or prank.”
He added, “But I know Jussie, and I know he doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body. He’s always been a sweet and caring guy. I stand by him. I will always be there for him.”
Even though “On Our Own,” developed as a vehicle for the Smolletts, had a short life, Boyett said he has fond memories of the series, which for part of its run was tied to ABC’s family-oriented TGIF slate. In addition to the children, he was fond of their parents — Janet, who is African American, and their late father Joel, who was Jewish.
In the show, Jussie, Jurnee, JoJo. Jazz, Jake and Jacqui Smollett played the Jericho family, who were living on their own after their parents.were killed in a car crash. As in real life, the characters played by the siblings ranged from 14 months to 20 years old. Starring as the oldest Jericho sibling in charge of the family was comedian Ralph Louis Harris, who was cast more for his acting chops and experience than for his resemblance to the Smollett brood.
Still, Harris said the Smolletts treated him as if he were a family member.
“I remember when I first walked into the room to meet everybody, it was Jussie and Jurnee who immediately got up from the table to greet me,” Harris said in a phone interview Thursday. “I will never forget that. They showed me a lot of love from day one. ABC and Miller-Boyett took real good care of us. And the family was so happy because this show was allowing them to live out their dream — to work together. And they treated us all like royalty.”
Harmony appears to have always been a centerpiece of the Smollett chemistry. During the filming of “On Our Own,” the siblings shared a large dressing room filled with toys. Jazz, the second oldest, said in an interview at that time, “We love each other. We’re really close.” Added JoJo, the oldest Smollett, “We’ve been brought up to reject conflict. We think it’s a waste of time to fight and argue.”
Jussie was rarely at the center of the story in the show, “but he was always caring about what was happening with the other folks on the show,” said Boyett. “He was always focused on the set.”
The young star also seemed to have his priorities in perspective, saying his family would not wind up like other troubled child stars. “We’ve been brought up to be real strong, so nothing can take us down,” Jussie said.
Growing up in New York, the siblings had watched other young people on TV and decided they could do just as well. Their mother became their manager. Jazz became a successful child model, JoJo and Jussie did small movie roles, and Jurnee won roles on sitcoms, including “Full House.”
“The next thing we know, we’re in a meeting with ABC. I mean, all these old-ass white men. So we went in, and I don’t know why, but we went in and sang ‘Shut ’Em Down’ by Public Enemy,” Smollett said. “But yo, they loved it. Apparently they wanted to shut it down too. But then I guess they didn’t like it anymore because they canceled us. They shut us down.”
But the cancellation did not damage their connection. In an interview with People magazine, Jussie spoke of the importance of family meals, describing how the family would gather around a large wooden table built from scratch by their mother.
“That was the vault,” Jussie said. “The place where you could say what you wanted. Whether you were happy or frustrated, you could lay it out on the family table.”
Harris said he has remained connected to the family since the end of “On Our Own.” Asked about Smollett’s current troubles, he declared, “I’m standing by my brother. I will jump in and fight for him. I will protect him.”
He added, “If he needs any help of any kind, I hope he gets it. No matter how this turns out, there’s no way for this to end without him coming out with scars.”
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