Question: Is it true that Family Matters was supposed to be called Urkel? There's some serious money riding on this. Thank you. Marci G., Natchitoches, La.
Televisionary: No, it's not true, Marci. But considering how quickly nerdy neighbor Steve Urkel (played by Jaleel White) stole the show out from under his costars, it might as well have been.
Thing is, White wasn't even supposed to be a costar when he auditioned for the role. As written, Urkel was intended to make a one-time appearance 12 episodes into the first season (the show debuted in September 1989 on ABC). According to executive producer Thomas L. Miller, however, that changed as soon as White recited his lines in front of 50 or so actors, writers and producers his first time out. "When he started reading, the whole room screamed," he said. "I turned to my partner, Bob Boyett, and said, 'We have to sign this kid'."
Sign him they did, and in doing so quickly shifted the show's focus from a Chicago cop (Reginald VelJohnson) and his extended family to the dweeby kid. Basically, he was the Fonzie of his generation, but he boosted the show's ratings enough to get it renewed, then carried it to the Nielsen top five in its second season. "It's like taking the show not in a different direction, but expanding it, broadening its base," Miller said. "It's allowed us to go off the wall a little."
When Urkel showed up his first time out, the studio audience went nuts, chanting his character's name. But as you might imagine, in ego-driven Hollywood, having the new kid step in to steal everyone's thunder generated a bit of tension on the set. As TV Guide reported, egos were bruised and tantrums were thrown, but everyone involved knew enough to cash their checks and smile, even if those smiles were a bit forced.
"Remember [I was] just a 12-year-old kid," White, interviewed in 1998, said of his early times on the show. "But there was a pecking order established before I came here. And people were fighting to hold their positions, which was natural.... There were a lot of things I didn't understand. I didn't know how much money I was making until I was 16. But I did understand slights and the way some people treated me. Still, nothing kept me from having a good time. That show was my playground. And I learned a lot doing it."
Still, as anyone who remembers life on the playground will tell you, the fun comes with skinned knees. Urkel wasn't allowed to grow up for quite some time. White couldn't change his hairstyle or have facial hair. He couldn't work out because he needed to maintain the wimpy build of a nerd. And once he became famous, he had to worry about who his friends were and what they wanted from him.
And early on, those burdens didn't even come with real-life celeb benefits. "A lot of people think kids on TV lead glamorous lives with limousines and all, and that's not the case," White said in 1991. "When I go back to school, I'm treated like a lowly freshman with all the other kids. I mean, I didn't eat lunch today because the seniors kept butting in line. There was no special line for Steve Urkel."
It didn't get much better when he got older and had to deal with the assumptions we regular folks make about famous people, either. Attending classes at UCLA, he found himself having to justify his presence. "[When] I first started here, people would ask me all the time, 'What are you doing here?' As if I didn't have a right to be here, as if celebrities are only allowed to hang out with other celebrities. You have to fight that. You can't let people push you into a cage."
Those difficulties, of course, applied to dates, too. "The biggest thing is how your preestablished persona affects the way people react to you," White said. "Especially girls. I was out with this girl one time. I had been talking to her for a while, and I mean, I totally dug this girl. And when she says to me, 'Do the voice.' Ohhh, man. That's like, heartbreaking."
As you might imagine, when the show went out with a whimper rather than a bang in 1998 its two-part finale was relegated to the summer months White wasn't all that sad about leaving the role behind. "After nine years, you just know what everybody's going to do," he said. "There's a point where 'Did I do that?' starts to sound like 'Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?' The last year was really tough. Last year was the first time it really felt like work."
And if that's not a clear enough statement of his feelings, consider this: "If you ever see me doing that character again, put a bullet in my head and take me out of my misery," he said. "Call Dr. Kevorkian. Because I'm obviously trying to commit suicide and just don't know how to do it."