An interview with former Family Matters star Jaleel White, who makes an appearance at The Pool at Harrah's Jan. 27.
When the long-running 1990s sitcom Family Matters left television in 1998, Jaleel White couldn’t put enough distance between himself and Steve Urkel.
White was just 13 when he developed and played Urkel to nerdy perfection, turning what was supposed to be a one-off acting gig into a series-stealing persona.
White had become so identified as the kid with the high-pitched voice, the oversized glasses and the suspenders that held up his clam-digger pants that he was finding it difficult to land other acting roles.
“If you ever see me do that character again, take me out and put a bullet in my head and put me out of my misery,” he famously told a reporter not long after the series had ended.
But time and maturity have a way of tempering White’s feelings about the character. Today, he’s proud of the work he did on Family Matters, which comically followed the lives of a middle-class African-American family in Chicago.
He doesn’t go out of his way to call attention to Urkel. That’s going to happen anyway, because the series is still airing in syndication around the world.
“Look, if you hit a bunch of home runs in high school, man, you don’t need to be talking about those home runs at 35 years old,” White tells AC Weekly. “If that’s your only pick-up line in the bars, man, you haven’t done much lately.”
Although White was acting on television long before Family Matters, he accepts that Urkel, more than any other reason, is why he’s still working today as an actor, producer, voiceover artist and writer.
If not for Urkel, it’s doubtful White would have been invited to host the Friday Night Live party this week (Jan. 27, 10pm) at The Pool After Dark at Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City.
Urkel is an important piece of pop culture and resonated with the viewing public so much that no less than TV Guide named the character No. 27 on its list of top 50 television characters in the history of the medium.
It’s unlikely people realize how much work and study went into creating the character, White says. Even more amazing is that he began working on Urkel from the moment he auditioned for the part when he was 12.
“What you saw was a black kid’s impression of Ed Grimley,” he says of the geeky character Martin Short created for The Second City and SCTV in the early 1980s before taking it to Saturday Night Live.
“I put a lot of work into what I did,” he explains. “I did a lot of studying. I studied The Honeymooners and the relationship between [Ed] Norton and [Ralph] Kramden. I really got academic about creating [Urkel]. It kind of became my obsession.”
By the time he was 17, Urkel began flexing his artistic wings on the series. He wrote an episode of the show that featured “Grandmama,” the character that NBA star Larry Johnson played in a series of Converse sneaker commercials.
The episode turned out to be the highest-rated episode in the history of Family Matters, and it was a personal thrill for White because he was a huge NBA fan and a pretty decent hoopster himself.
“I had great contacts in the NBA so I could call [Johnson] personally and ask him if he wanted to be on the show,” he remembers. “That was an amazing thing, to be able to write an episode and within five weeks be shooting it.”
White’s busier today than he’s ever been during his career, which began when he was three years old and started doing commercials before graduating to sitcoms like Charlie and Company with Flip Wilson and The Jeffersons.
Last year, he guest-starred in episodes of House on Fox and NCIS on CBS. He’s been active in producing new programming for the Internet, and after the 2010 monster flick Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus aired on the Sci-Fi channel, he was asked to host a game show on the channel beginning in March.
He acknowledges the television business is far more competitive today than it was during the run of Family Matters.
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