Jaleel White on Playing Steve Urkel: "I Didn't Know What the Heck I Was Doing"
In 1989, ABC premiered the Perfect Strangers spin-off Family Matters, which featured a relatively unknown cast. Although the series focused on a middle-class African American family in Chicago, the breakout star was the Winslows' annoyingly dorky neighbor, Steve Urkel. Twenty years later, Jaleel White, who played Urkel, still looks back at the show that catapulted him into stardom with fond memories and says that, yes, people still ask him to do the famous "Urkel" voice. The 33-year-old spoke to TVGuide.com about his favorite memories from his nine seasons on the show, the first season of which is in stores on DVD Tuesday.
TVGuide.com: What was it like working on Family Matters?
Jaleel White: It was an amazing experience. I learned physical comedy to a degree that most child actors never will. I really just became a student of it — became obsessed with it to be quite honest. I was fortunate to work with some very powerful producers like Tom Miller and Bob Boyett. [They] gave me an inordinate amount of free reign ... to adlib and really embrace the spontaneity of what multi-camera shooting can be.
TVGuide.com: Were you surprised to become the show's breakout star?
White: It was a completely different climate back then. I wasn't a kid trying to become famous. I wasn't a part of any Disney Channel wheelhouse. I was basically a black kid whose parents put him into the business so he could go to college. They needed a spark. I didn't know what the heck I was doing. I was just being me, just following my instincts.
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TVGuide.com: Were you like Urkel in any way?
White: I wasn't a nerd by any stretch of the imagination and [I was] decidedly more a jock. You can ask George Clooney: We played basketball quite a lot on the set.
TVGuide.com: Do people ever ask you do the Urkel voice?
White: Yeah, somebody that's drunk at a bar.
TVGuide.com: Did you keep any memorabilia from the series?
White: I own the car. I got little things, but I'm not one of those people who adorns my house with images of himself. There's a trunk somewhere that has a few Urkel dolls in it.
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TVGuide.com: Did it bother you that the show never got its proper ending?
White: It's one of those things where there are so many power players above you and so many power players involved in what it is to have a TV show on the air. Not everyone gets the right ending. ... It's par for the course being in television. If you have enough influence as a star or executive producer, [you] get the big Mary Tyler Moore send-offs, or Seinfeld send-offs. For other people, maybe it was a regime change. I think Disney buying ABC had a much bigger hand in how we ultimately faded out than anything that we did.
TVGuide.com: What's your favorite episode?
White: I have favorite episodes pretty much from each season. In Season 1, my favorite episode would have to be "The Big Fix," because that was the first episode that my character had a full storyline, and I got to take Laura out on a date. There's so much about that episode I remember. ... That was the episode that they probably all looked at each other and realized how much of a load I could carry.
TVGuide.com: What's one of your favorite memories from the show?
White: I used to have this Arsenio Hall-esque ritual racing back to the set just in time to throw on my clothes and hit the stage — this contrived adrenaline rush. The craft service guy would give me a cup of Kool-Aid, and I would just down it for the sugar rush. If you watch a lot of the episodes, you'll see my tongue is really red in the early ones.
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TVGuide.com: Was it hard to find roles after Family Matters?
White: When it comes to the typecasting thing, I always tell people, "You're only as good as your opportunities." The nature of television is that it's a beast with a lot of opinions. I don't consider myself typecast any more than Neil Patrick Harris was as Doogie Howser or James Gandolifini is as Tony Soprano. I could play the "Where Are They Now?" game with a lot of people. The process is: I need to grow up, mature, become an adult, then surprise people with new stuff like I am with my newest web series coming out on Hulu.
TVGuide.com: Tell me about the web series, Fake It Til you Make it.
White: I did a web series last year, and the second I did it I knew that I was going to end up doing it again only bigger and better. The series follows character Reggie Culkin, a former child star-turned-image consultant who has three protégés. Basically, we're just hustling the façade called Hollywood. Their sole purpose is to be famous and do as little as possible. The show really is more or less the culture of Hollywood show business ... where nobody's business card matches their hustle. But these people take themselves so seriously that it's really just fun to laugh at them on this hamster wheel. For a lack of a better pitch, it's the other side of Entourage, a more realistic take on what it is to be out here in Los Angeles. If Reggie Culkin is the most important person you know, that's probably not good for you.
TVGuide.com: Is it safe to say you based it on your personal experiences?
White: I never do a straight impersonation of anything. I always take bits and pieces of a lot of different people to create something that feels realistic to an audience. I wrote every episode, so people really get a chance to see what my own personal comedic sensibility is and how that's matured. To be able to pair that up with the release of the Family Matters DVD. [We] have that nostalgia, where it's like, "OK, this is him then, and this is him now." It worked out.