Before Family Matters premiered in 1989, Jaleel White was just an unknown child actor. But everything changed when he landed the role of Steve Urkel, the Winslow family's nerdy next-door neighbor—and became an instant hit. White's portrayal of the character as a suspenders-and-saddle-shoes-wearing dweeb transformed Urkel into one of most well-loved TV characters of the '90s, and with today's DVD release of Family Matters Season 1, the geek-with-a-heart-of-gold returns to the small screen for the first time in over a decade. I spoke to White about playing America's favorite nerd-next-door and what he's up to now—notably, producing and staring in an Entourage-inspired web series, Fake It 'Til You Make It, which also comes out today,
Family Matters is just now coming out on DVD for the first time. The story I've heard is that Steve Urkel was only supposed to make a one-time appearance, but audiences loved him so much that episodes were rewritten to bring him back, and all of a sudden he was an integral part of the show. What was the character like when you auditioned? How much did you end up having to do with the development of the role?
I had everything to do with developing the role. And the [reason I got to do so much with it is] that it was a unique time. I worked for very, very powerful producers who just don’t have that type of influence anymore. Their show really wasn’t doing very well. I was 12 years old with a bundle of energy and a lot of creative ideas and I took a really big risk in the audition. I didn’t realize it was a big risk at that age, but now that I’m an adult—
So the risk was going in there a reading the part as a nerd?
Yeah. The glasses, pretty much everything that you saw, with the exception of—I always give our late wardrobe designer the credit that he was due, because with the saddle shoes and suspenders, he really did nail down the character. But in terms of the posture, the walk, and the glasses, that was all me. And then, you know, Rich Correll is a terrific director. He directed probably over half the episodes of Family Matters. Rich comes from a huge physical comedy background, and so from the day Rich got a hold of me, literally, day one, he was like, “You’re going to bump into this wall right here, and I’m going to show you how to do it so you don’t get hurt.” And that was it. It took off from there, and I think the first season will definitely show that, what was happening with the show. By Episode 12, it really starts to become something different. So [the Season 1 DVD set] is a nice piece of nostalgia to have out there now.
Today, when you hear the name Steve Urkel, does it inspire nostalgia or does it give you nightmares?
It’s completely nostalgia. But I will say this: Imagine you’re in a bar and somebody wants to come up to you and show you a picture of yourself in the ninth grade. [Maybe you loved the ninth grade because] you hit a whole lot of home runs in the ninth grade, and you’re really proud of those home runs. But you might not want to see the picture of yourself in the ninth grade.
What was life like after Family Matters ended? Has typecasting been a problem for you at all, or do you just prefer to stay behind-the-scenes these days?
I would definitely like to continue to act when the opportunity presents itself. It’s just that it’s hard to talk about typecasting when I can’t even find a single black show on any of the big networks. So it’s a problem that’s bigger than me. I’m not necessarily going to hurl any water balloons, but it’s a tough business right now. It really is, for anybody, and especially it’s a particularly tough business to get a show off the ground the way you imagined it.
I will give you my favorite quote from our executive producer, Michael Warren, and it directly addresses any notion of typecasting. At the end of Family Matters, at our 200th episode, Michael Warren took me to lunch. He took me to Geoffrey’s Malibu, and he just kind of chuckled, and he said, "You know, the funniest thing about this show is,"—he’s sipping his very expensive wine, and he said—"there’s no way in hell that we could have sold this show to the network the way it’s turned out." And I’m like, "What do you mean, Michael?" He said, "If we had walked in there to ABC and said, 'We have a show we want to pitch you, about a nerdy black kid who’s in love with the girl next door; he loves Polka and cheese and can invent anything,' there’s no way in the world ABC would have bought it. They’d have laughed us out of the room." And when he said that it was kind of disheartening, because I had enjoyed such a level of creativity [in the role of Steve Urkel]. But that pitch doesn’t sit inside of anybody’s box.
Tell us about the new web series, Fake It 'Til You Make It.
Basically, it’s the other side of Entourage. It’s what’s really going on out here in L.A., where people's hustles don’t match their business cards, and I’ll know you for only as long as I need you. But it's a very comedic look at [the scene]. I play a former child star named Reggie Culkin, and I’m a multi-hyphenate former actor. I’m a mobile notary. I am an image consultant. I am a celebrity trainer to other celebrities. I am the typical guy that you meet at the W Hotel on a Friday night.
And you wrote it in addition to starring in it?
Yes, I wrote it and my production company produced it. I wrote every episode. And there are some great cameos, too. [Mixed martial arts fighter] Rashad Evans gave me an amazing episode. Wayne Brady gave me a really amazing episode. Debbie Allen—I really pulled out all the stops for this one.
Do the guests stars appear as themselves, or does everyone play a fictional character?
Wayne plays himself. I tried to stay true to Los Angeles, where we do have celebrities and certain interaction with famous people. It’s just that I’m the most important person these three schlubs who’ve met me know, and if Reggie Culkin is the most important person you know in Los Angeles in your pursuit of fame and fortune, good luck to you.
How much of Fake It 'Til You Make It is autobiographical, given that you're a former child star yourself?
It's not, really. It’s just that whenever I create characters, I like to take little pieces of different people and create my own person. I felt like, obviously, it was a character that people could see me playing. And the character was more or less a conduit into this bigger world of Los Angeles and living this delusion, all under the guise of following your dreams.