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Articles about Jaleel White (Steve Urkel) Part 2

URKEL'S LAST BOW, June 5, 1998
Actor is back, all 'Grown Ups' 1999


Entertainment Weekly, May 4, 1990, Joe Rhodes

Someday they'll do a book about this. They'll call it The History of Sidekicks and Nutty Neighbors, about the secondary characters who often become more popular than a show's original stars.

We all know the names. So, come on, let's say them together. There's Gomer Pyle, Rhoda Morgenstern, Maynard G. Krebs, and the Right Rev. Jim Ignatowski. There's Lenny and Squiggy, and Larry, Darryl, and Darryl. Of course, there's the Fonz and, oh yeah, Steve Urkel.

You heard me. Steve Urkel, Hollywood's latest and strangest candidate for the Wacky Neighbor Hall of Fame, a whiny-voiced, pratfall-prone seventh- grader, a poster child for post-nasal drip.

Urkel first wheezed his way into prime-time last December, 12 episodes into the debut season of Family Matters, part of ABC's Friday-night situation comedy lineup. The show revolves around the trials of the Winslows, a middle- class black family in Chicago. The character of Steve Urkel was supposed to be a one-time guest shot, an annoyingly nerdy kid with a lifelong crush on Laura, the Winslows' 13-year-old daughter. No one intended for him to be a running character.

But that was before 13-year-old Jaleel White auditioned for the role. Jaleel came to the casting session in full nerd regalia, with a pocketful of pens, huge strapped-on eyeglasses, a crooked bow tie, and pulled-up pants that barely reached his ankles. It was Pee-wee Herman meets Mars Blackmon, junior- high flashback edition.

"I just decided to take it all the way," says Jaleel, who has been acting (mostly in commercials) since he was 3 years old. "There was one other guy who was up for the Urkel part and when I walked in the room he goes, 'Hey, look at that nerd.' And I said, 'And you aren't?'

"The funny thing is, before this happened, I was getting tired of acting. I'd signed this card and given it to my mother that said at the end of my eighth-grade year I was going to quit, that I just wanted to go out for JV basketball. Well, my eighth-grade year ends in June. I don't think I'll be quitting now."

After just one rehearsal, Family Matters executive producer Thomas L. Miller already was trying to sign Jaleel as a recurring cast member.

"At his first reading with the regular cast, he got an extraordinary scream with the first line out of his mouth. And it wasn't that the line itself was necessarily one of his funniest lines. It was just the way he did it. I leaned over to my partner (executive producer Robert L. Boyett) right then and said, 'This kid is major. We've got to sign this kid.'"

When Urkel's debut episode was filmed, Miller says, his first scene almost caused a riot in the studio, the kind of spontaneous audience combustion that writers and producers dream about, a commotion the likes of which Miller hadn't heard on a sitcom soundstage since that fateful night when Fonzie first said, "Whoa."

"They were chanting his name after just one scene," Miller says, re- enacting the moment: "Urkel, Urkel, Urkel."

The chants, it turned out, were coming from about 50 fraternity kids who just happened to be in the audience that night. But the crowd reaction left the producers with no doubt that in Steve Urkel they'd found the kind of hot- ticket character that can make all the difference to a sitcom's success.

"Every new series, every episode is a work in progress," Miller says. "You're constantly trying to find out what works and what doesn't, what the actors' strengths are. And every once in a while you do need to make a noise with somebody, something they'll be talking about in school the next day. What's great is that you never know who or what that element will be.

"Sometimes you get the perfect combination of the actor you choose and the character they're playing. When those two elements have the magic, as Henry Winkler did when he played Fonzie, that's when something special happens."

Miller should know. Along with Edward Milkis and Garry Marshall, he was executive producer of Happy Days and all the spin-offs that followed.

His partnership with Boyett has provided ABC with another slew of hits- Perfect Strangers, Full House, and now, it appears, Family Matters, which has just been renewed for a second season.

Since the audience seems to have taken a liking to Urkel, the challenge for the writers and producers is to figure out what to do with him. And when you get an outrageous character like this, how much is too much?

"One of the things you don't do is you don't make him the whole show," says / co-executive producer Michael Warren, who along with partner William Bickley created the series and wrote the episode in which Urkel first appeared. "There's always a temptation when something works to say, 'Let's do that again.'

"But this show is still about the Winslow family. So we want to experiment with Jaleel, to see how Steve Urkel works with the other characters. But you don't want him to take over."

It is, Miller says, the same problem they faced when it became clear that Arthur Fonzarelli-not Richie Cunningham-was becoming the biggest draw on Happy Days. Working in new characters, particularly outrageous ones like Urkel, requires a delicate balance.

"It's real important when you find someone who is an original but who will also complement the ensemble," Miller says. "So that you'll not only be entertained by the new personality but you'll also get to see how the whole cast reacts to that character. Hopefully he becomes a catalyst who helps an audience understand your regulars better.

"That's why we never did a show called The Fonz, and believe me, ABC wanted us to do one. But all of us, including Henry Winkler, felt that it was Fonzie's relationship with the Cunninghams that made the show work. You have to have elements that work well together."

Meanwhile, Bickley and Warren have another tightrope to walk. When they created the Urkel character, they didn't expect him to become a central cast member. So they made him as irritating as possible, a kid obsessed with his own bodily fluids and prone to say things like "Mucus, it comes in so many colors."

"We want to keep him slightly bigger-than-life," Bickley explains, "as opposed to the Winslows, who we write as a very real family. He's a character who can come in and do very quickly perceived jokes. It's the same role that the Ted Knight character filled on The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

"Our problem now is to keep him irritating but keep him likable at the same time," Warren says. "If he's not somewhat irritating, then he loses a lot of what makes him funny."

And, inevitably, there are the concerns of the original cast members, the actors who thought they were the stars until Urkel, this scene-stealing adenoid case, came on board, flipping into playpens, tossing himself down bowling alleys, having frat kids chant his name.

"It's bound to create some feelings of insecurity," Bickley admits. "Fortunately for us, when it happened on Happy Days it happened to the nicest man in show business, Ron Howard. So it wasn't a problem."

As for Jaleel, the focus of all this attention, it turns out he isn't like Steve Urkel at all. He doesn't whine, he doesn't trip over things, and the big glasses belong to his dad, a dentist. "They're to keep particles from flying into his eyes," Jaleel explains.

Kids already have started recognizing Jaleel on the street, including one at an amusement park a few weeks ago who stopped him, said, "I can do you," and proceeded to slam himself into posts and fences.

"I'd love for Urkel to take off," Jaleel says. "I'd like for those glasses to end up in the Hard Rock Cafe or something, just like Fonzie's jacket."


Entertainment Weekly, June 30, 1995, A.J. Jacobs

It's not easy being Urkel.

Take the pants. These are not your average high-waters. No, these things ride so far up the calf they would have kept Noah dry for the entire 40 days. So imagine how it feels to squeeze into them every week, as does Jaleel White, who plays Steve Urkel, the polka-loving, squeaky-voiced math whiz on ABC's Family Matters. "The older I get, the tighter the pants get," says White, now 18 and 5 foot 10. "By the time I take them off, I've got one hell of a wedgie."

Still, White has no plans to hang up his suspenders anytime soon (ABC just renewed the sitcom for its seventh season). Which is lucky for us. The ubergeek known as Urkel is a true American phenomenon -- akin to Twinkies or velvet Elvis paintings -- and possibly the most intriguing prime-time character since Goober on Mayberry R.F.D. In short, he's our most underappreciated comic genius.

The Urkel influence is everywhere. Addressing why Friends is so funny, actor Matthew Perry recently cited the vibe of Urkel (Family Matters shoots on the same Burbank lot). NBA star Patrick Ewing has written Urkel a fan letter. Urkel look-alike contests are held across America, complete with white and female Urkels. Store shelves have sagged with nearly 80 Urkel products -- everything from talking dolls to Urkel-Os sugar cereal. And darned if Urkel wasn't nerding out long before the Internet and Bill Gates became synonyms for cool.

"Urkel is the master," says stand-up comedian Dana Gould. "There's not a comic alive who pulls his pants up to his nipples who doesn't know where he gets it from."

It wasn't supposed to last this long. When Family Matters debuted in 1989, the sitcom followed the lives of an Urkel-free African-American family called the Winslows. Then, within the first year, came White, appearing in a bit part as a 12-year-old five-foot-tall prom date for Laura Winslow. Entranced, a cluster of frat boys in the audience began chanting "Urkel, Urkel, Urkel!" The writers brought him back, and he's been hoisting trou ever since.

Pants aside, there are other challenges to being Urkel. The unwieldy glasses, for one: horn-rimmed and big as Texarkana. And the voice, an impossibly twangy noise that makes Pee-wee Herman sound like a basso profundo. "When I was younger, it took nothing," says White, who abstains from throat-clogging dairy products before shooting days. "Now it's like a car. I gotta get warmed up first."

But White's not complaining. "For an African-American male to be able to play a character that's revered as intelligent is something I'm proud to do," says the UCLA freshman, who hopes to be a screenwriter. Besides, the role is growing all the time. In an homage to The Nutty Professor (a movie that stars one of White's heroes, Jerry Lewis), the show's writers have developed an alter ego for Urkel, an ultra-suave dude named Stefan Urquelle who emerged after a trip to a "transformation chamber." What's more, next season, Urkel's pants might -- gasp!-- lengthen. "Just three-quarters of an inch," assures supervising producer Fred Fox Jr. Phew!


Entertainment Weekly, June 5, 1998, A.J. Jacobs

Oh, how we'll miss The Voice. Who will ever forget that screechy, glass-shattering whine? Or his inimitable style: those rainbow suspenders, the gargantuan glasses, the way he wore his pants (skintight and hoisted to the nipples). Urkel, pally, you did it your way. You got under our skin.

Yes, hard as it is to lose the legendary Frank Sinatra, now we must also bid adieu to the Chairman of the Nerds. After nine years (eight on ABC, the last on CBS) and countless "Did I do that?"s, Urkel's sitcom, Family Matters, has been canceled for lackluster ratings. The final episode--which will find Urkel (played by 21-year-old Jaleel White) taking a trip on the space shuttle--airs in July.

No matter that Urkel became a late-night punchline and snagged nary an Emmy: He won our hearts! With his latex face and anything-for-a-laugh shtick, this man-child was an underappreciated comic genius.

His weekly high jinks were a high-water mark for trousers and TV alike. But as sad as CBS' Urkel-cide is, we should thank Nielsen we got to keep him this long. Originally, Urkel was slated for a onetime cameo--the dorky 12-year-old prom date for Laura Winslow. But the audience went wild, and so Urkel stuck around, allowing us to watch him shoot up from shrimp to beanstalk and marvel at White's astounding range: alter egos included the debonair Stefan Urquelle, cousin Myrtle, and cousin Original Gangsta Dawg (Frank wasn't the only one with links to gangsters!).

Oh, Urkel, we got a kick out of you. Say it with me now: Urkel. Urkel. Urkel. Urkel. Urkel. If you're not smiling, your heart is made of stone.

Actor is back, all 'Grown Ups'
R.D. Heldenfels, Akron Beacon Journal, August 22, 1999

Cast of "Grown Ups"Jaleel White goes from Steve Urkel on `Family Matters' to new UPN comedy

When Family Matters ended its nine-season run in 1998, Jaleel White didn't find his plate overflowing with offers.

For many viewers of the series, which spent eight seasons on ABC and a last on CBS, White's performance as Steve Urkel was the marquee attraction. But White said recently that he never felt as if ABC saw him as all that valuable, that he was just another kid who'd grown up on television.

``Someday, somebody will do a great film about what it really is to be a child in this business,'' White said during an interview in Pasadena this summer. ``When you're a child you do not get the respect for the work that you do. People basically discount the things that you do as `luck,' `cute,' `hammy.'

``A lot of the things that I did, I know how much thought I put into it. . . . and you don't get credit for things like that,'' White said.

But don't take this as the plaint of an embittered, unemployed actor. White had options. He spent a year pursuing his film studies at UCLA (where he'll graduate in 2001). And at 8:30 p.m. Monday, he's back in prime time as star of Grown Ups, a new comedy on UPN.

``I get a chance to move on,'' White said. ``It would be worse if I didn't get a chance to move on.''

He's moved down an odd road. Grown Ups was originally conceived as a one-hour comedy-drama about a young Jewish man named Ethan. Now it's a half-hour, and the main character is J. Calvin Frazier, a 24-year-old aspiring businessman who's finally putting his youth behind him.

A pilot previewed for the news media wasn't very good, but the producers -- who include White -- have talked about changes, including opening up J.'s professional options in ensuing episodes.

White, meanwhile, wants to keep the basic tone similar to what he saw -- and liked in the show's original script.

His first six months away from the daily series grind were tough, he said, but then he got used to being away.

``I really wasn't looking for anything,'' he said. ``This was really recruitment by (UPN Entertainment President) Tom Nunan. And when somebody in Hollywood reaches out to you and says, `I've seen your work, I believe in you, I think you can do a lot more' -- you have to acknowledge that.''

Besides, win or lose, the show moves him one step away from the inevitable Urkel questions -- like a reporter at a news conference who wondered if White would be doing much physical comedy in the new show.

White's basic answer was, ``If something is slippery in front of me, I might fall.'' But he also pointed out that his comedy isn't based in any one style. ``I've never taken an acting lesson in my life,'' he said. ``I basically watch people.''

And in the pilot for Grown Ups, he said, ``The last scenes weren't particularly sit-commy. My vision for this is just to play moments, whether they're comedic or dramatic, I just want to play them as naturally as possible.''

Still, he knows the pitfalls facing any series, new or old. While he speaks fondly of Family Matters as a show that ``gave me confidence and knowledge,'' he speaks less fondly of its final season.

``The last year was all about money,'' he said. ``And that's not coming from me. My contract was signed and delivered. The last year was about money for a studio, and CBS was willing to pay it. I'm not casting any aspersions on the year. I knew what was best for the show but you have to be professional and hang in there. . . . But after a while, everything you say starts to sound like `What you talkin' bout, Willis?' And you know it.''

That experience, and what he's seen happening to other young stars, has made him leery of the big networks.

``The bigger networks right now are not letting some shows grow, and are not even really nurturing some of their talent,'' he said. ``Not to knock these people at all, but people like the Olsen twins and Fred Savage, who I pretty much came up with during the same era, they've already come and gone.'' (The Olsens' latest series, Two of a Kind, was canceled last spring after a single season; Savage's Working barely lasted two seasons.)

Reminded that those actors at least got series on the air, White said, ``They did get that shot. And there is a side of me that wonders what I would have done with that shot. But there's also a side of me that says, I'm where somebody believes in me.''

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