Jaleel White will never understand your pity. White, who has branched out into a plethora of projects over the last 13 years since Family Matters ended, still gets a tad touchy when the subject of Über-nerd Steve Urkel comes up. Not because he’s trying to disassociate himself from the character that made him a star (although he did once plead, “Put a bullet in my head” if ever caught playing the role again), but more because he doesn’t quite understand why some people think it was such a bad gig. As White says, he made a “shitload of money,” even if that did mean having to cover up a newfound bulge in his pants as he aged.
I caught up with White to reflect on his 31-year career (yes, 31 years), which includes the heartbreak of coming this close to being a Huxtable on The Cosby Show. Make no mistake, White—who also plays a banjo-wielding teacher in this past weekend’s pre-teen comedy film Judy Moody and the No Bummer Summer and is set to shoot a film that he’s been writing for the past four years—is still very proud of his accomplishments on Family Matters. So proud, in fact, he’s willing to challenge the legitimacy of Tyler Perry.
Mike Ryan: I apologize, I haven’t seen Judy Moody. Though I’m not sure that I’m the intended demographic.
Jaleel White: I almost preferred that you had a six-year-old daughter and sent her in there and let her come out with her review.
I did see a clip where you’re playing the banjo.
Yeah, I spent about three or four weeks working on it. Apparently I followed in Steve Martin’s—one of my heroes—footsteps and I didn’t even know it.
You two should tour.
Set it up! I’m a huge fan.
You’re getting ready to shoot a film that you wrote?
I’m keeping it under wraps, but I will tell you it’s a romantic comedy that Joel Zwick is producing. He directed My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I wrote the script four years ago and I’m really excited about this project. We’re shooting in Canada later this summer.
Your first acting role was as Van Van Morris, a child-prodigy pianist on The Jeffersons. Was it intimidating to play Weezy Jefferson’s foil at such a young age?
You’ve been doing your homework. At that age, I’m just wide-eyed and just can’t believe I’m at a table reading with George Jefferson and Florence and Mr. Willis. It was amazing and it was surreal. I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. I was just being a cute kid. That was such a fun week and I remember Sherman Hemsley being so nice to me. I did an episode of Mr. Belvedere, too. I’ve been working in TV, man, for 31 years.
That’s going to make a lot of people feel old.
I’m 34! It doesn’t make me feel old. If anything, it makes me feel really proud.
Is it true that you were originally cast as Rudy Huxtable on The Cosby Show?
Yep, that’s why the character was named Rudy—it was intended to be a boy. That’s my tragic auditioning story. We were all packed up and ready to go to New York and my agent had told my parents that they needed to start looking for places to live out there. Next thing you know, there was one more audition and that was supposed to be a formality at the network. And a little girl comes walking in, and I’m like—even at eight years old—“Who’s she?” And they’re like, “She’s auditioning for Rudy, too.” So I’m like, “Oh, it’s not as much of a formality as I thought.” That was my first time walking into a room of 30 people staring at you going, “O.K., make me laugh.” They were in such a hurry to get to New York and start filming that they came out and picked the kids one by one right in front of all of us. Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Tempest Bledsoe . . . The rest of us all went home crying. It was amazing. Obviously I’m grateful that things worked out the way they did; I think it put a little more money in my pocket.
Was Cosby in the room?
Yeah, he made the decision that he wanted the family to mirror his exact family.
Sadness and Bill Cosby’s presence don’t seem to go together.
Believe me, they do.
Sorry for bringing up a sad story.
First of all, let’s get something straight: all of these rejections resulted in me making a shitload of money elsewhere.
It’s not a goal to make you cry.
You ain’t gonna! [Laughs.] I’m literally looking at the marina water right now. You ain’t gonna, man!
When Family Matters premiered, you weren’t a part of it. How did you wind up being brought on later?
The show had been on for 12 episodes; I came on for episode 13. It wasn’t doing well in the ratings. I got booked on the show and I remember thinking, Great, I can have fun for the week.
How was your relationship with Reginald VelJohnson? He was coming off two Die Hard movies, and when Family Matters premiered, it was supposed to be his show. Obviously it became Steve Urkel’s show.
Things were definitely strained in the early going. There’s no sense in hiding that. There was a division between myself and the rest of the cast, but over nine years and 215 episodes, obviously relationships get better. I still talk to certain cast members to this day.
Twelve years ago or so you said about Steve Urkel, “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.” Do you still feel that strongly?
It’s one of those things that it’s very unfortunate how quotes are taken out of context. I remember that interview very vividly. I loved playing those characters; I didn’t play one, I played a lot. If I were Bart Simpson and I were animated, I’d still be on the air right now. Trust me. But the fact is that I was maturing. I knew physically I had made certain sacrifices to keep that property alive that just couldn’t be made anymore. I wasn’t changing my hair; I was staying out of the gym. To be honest, I was retarding my own growth as a man in order to maintain the authenticity to what I thought that character should be.
In later seasons you were getting quite tall.
I was getting network notes on the bulge of my sack! I wore my pants so freaking tight and it was like, after awhile, we got a problem there. So, literally, the last season we loosened up his pants.
How do you respond to a note like that?
It’s not overly sophisticated, man. I’m the highest-paid black kid in the history of television, just so you understand that. I was trying to prolong the checks! For all of the people who want to scratch their heads about this . . . we’re probably the second-longest-running African American show in the history of television.
I believe Tyler Perry’s House of Payne has put you in third.
Did we get passed by Tyler Perry’s show? Did we? He’s shooting them so fast, I don’t even know if that counts.
That’s a good point.
He’s shooting like four a week! I think you’ve got to make something that everyone’s willing to watch in droves. I don’t know what category to put that in. I don’t want to sound like I’m dissing Tyler Perry, but making three or four episodes in one week is not the same in terms of production value of what we did, one a week. Technically, I guess he passed us. More power to him, but it might as well be YouTube videos.
Any good William Shatner stories from when you did Boston Legal?
It was funny because he had no idea who I was. After a take he says, “You should stick with this, you’ve got some chops.” So Captain Kirk just told Urkel he should stick with this and he’s got some chops.
So nothing could get you to play Steve Urkel again?
I’ll always say never say never; I’m a pretty creative person. I can’t envision how I could do it in a way that would be irreverent and fun for both me and the viewing audience. Remember I have to have some fun, too.
What if you could play him in a low-budget indie movie where Steve is now a normal human being? Where that mission to space in the series finale really changed him. Would you reconsider?
It’s a rough pitch, Mike. You’re dying in the room right now.
I’ve never received a good explanation for this: What did happen to Judy Winslow on Family Matters? She just disappeared.
Oh, Lord. Shoot, I didn’t get an explanation. Her momma asked for too much and they sent her upstairs. That was it. Back then, family television had a way of getting away with certain things that, obviously, you couldn’t get away with now.
Like sending Urkel to space?
Exactly. My producers, Tom Miller and Bob Boyett, are famously known for having fired Valerie Harper and replacing her with Sandy Duncan. They had a Broadway mentality about performers. If you became a problem on the set, they would replace you. [With Judy Winslow,] they just didn’t feel the role needed to be replaced. In one regard they were right—it didn’t stop the run of the show. But in the long run—when pop culture does what it does; everything is over-analyzed nostalgically—obviously it’s a key mistake. source 1, 2
*sigh* The memories. smh @ Tyler Perry's trash passing Family Matters as the second longest running black tv show. It's almost shocking how we've regressed in terms of black representation on tv.