The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Jaleel White

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The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Jaleel White
By Mother Brain

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Okay. If you have heard his name before, only one character he played comes to mind. When child actor Jaleel White took on the one-shot role of supernerd Steve Urkel on a Cosby Show knock-off called Family Matters in 1989, little did he know how big of a pop culture icon he would become. But it also became a double-edged sword for his acting career, forever being stuck with the Urkel stigma no matter what parts he played after the show ended. For this piece, however, I’ll not only look at the non-Urkel roles that Jaleel White played but also reveal how being on Family Matters for 9 years puts him in the category of underrated actors.

Born in Pasadena, CA in 1976, White would grow up in front of the camera as early as age 3 when his preschool teacher convinced his parents to take him to acting auditions for commercials. Over the next six years, White appeared in commercials for Kellogg’s, Toys ‘R’ Us, Pepsi, Oreo cookies just to name a few. He would make his TV sitcom debut as Mrs. Van Morris’ piano playing son on a 1984 episode of The Jeffersons. But he didn’t land a regular sitcom gig until age 9 when he was cast as Flip Wilson and Gladys Knight’s young son on CBS’ Charlie & Co. Like the show that would later turn him into a TV star, Charlie & Co. was a black family sitcom set in the South Side of Chicago and was created due to the success of The Cosby Show on NBC (Ironically enough, White was almost cast as Rudy on the latter show until Bill Cosby decided to change the character into a girl). But even Wilson and Knight’s star power could not attract a loyal audience and the series was canceled after 17 episodes aired. On a lighter note, White and his on-screen siblings received Young Artist Award nominations for their performances on the show.

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A year after Charlie & Co. was canceled, White was cast in a pilot for a new NBC sitcom called Good Morning, Miss Bliss starring Hayley Mills of Disney’s original Parent Trap movies. White played one of Miss Bliss’ adolescent students alongside a pre-90210 Brian Austin Green and the late Jonathan Brandis. The pilot aired in the summer of 1987 but would never be aired again. Instead, the sitcom went over to the new Disney Channel where it went into a major casting overhaul which meant that White and his fellow cast members were ousted. Then in an ironic twist of fate, the new Miss Bliss series was canceled after 13 episodes and NBC re-acquired the show, kept a few of its young cast members, and retooled the series into the Saturday morning classic known around the world as Saved by the Bell!

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White may have missed out on one piece of television history. But after continuing to work hard in commercials and television guest spots, Jaleel White would land the role of his life. When Family Matters hit the airwaves in the fall of 1989, it was spun-off from ABC’s hit sitcom Perfect Strangers and focused on Chicago cop Carl Winslow (Reginald VelJohnson hot off the success of his role as Sgt. Al Powell in Die Hard) raising his wife, three children, his mother, and his sister in law with her son. Yet, most people saw it as just another Cosby Show knock off and struggled in the ratings early on. Then twelve episodes into the new series, the character of Steve Urkel debuted in an episode called “Laura’s First Date,” in which he is introduced as the annoying next door neighbor of the Winslow family who has a serious crush on the Winslow’s middle child, Laura. Urkel’s whole image was created by White himself who came to the audition the with nerd glasses, suspenders holding up his pants, high pitched voice, etc. There was no plan to expand the character going into the episode until the overwhelming response from the studio audience (particularly fifty frat boys chanting his name) caused the writers and producers to bring him back in as many guest spots as possible.

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By season 2 of Family Matters, the show jumped from #32 to #15 in the Nielsen ratings as White was promoted to series regular. The Urkel character went from occasional regular to series star due to his lovable but annoying behavior, science experiments gone wrong, and famous catchphrases like “got any cheese” and “I’m wearin’ you down baby.” But his most famous moments occurred whenever he causes a major mess, turns and asks “did I do that?”. Also, Urkel’s never-ending pursuit for Laura Winslow’s affections kept audiences tuning in every week to see if she would ever look past his nerdy exterior. Urkel’s popularity expanded into talking dolls, cereal (Urkel-o’s), coloring books, and even his own song and dance routine, “The Urkel Dance”, from season 2 became a favorite at parties and school dances.

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While Urkel’s popularity only turned the show into a rating smash, Jaleel White himself needed to branch off into other roles. But since most casting directors only saw him as Steve Urkel, White would get more involved in the show’s writing by finding ways of playing other characters outside of Urkel. The first was the role of Myrtle Urkel who was basically White playing Urkel in drag and having feelings for Eddie Winslow (White also played another Urkel relative, gangster cousin Cornelius Eugene Urkel aka Original Gangsta Dawg). Then there was the episode “Dr. Urkel and Mr. Cool” where Urkel creates a “Cool Juice” which transforms him into the super cool Stefan Urquelle, a character similar to Eddie Murphy’s playboy role in Boomerang who wins over Laura until his self-centered attitude turns her off. Later on in the series, Urkel created a transformation chamber which gave him the ability to not only turn back into (and eventually separate from) Stefan but also imitations of everyone from Elvis to Bruce Lee. The multiple characters made the show increasingly absurd and cartoonish. Yet, it helped White to show his many acting talents in addition to also using Urkel as a positive role model for kids those “special episodes” of Family Matters that dealt with racism, gun control, drinking, etc.

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While Family Matters was at its series high, White was hired by the series’ home network, ABC, to lend his voice for not one but two cartoon series based on the Sega Genesis hit, Sonic the Hedgehog. The one series which aired in syndication on weekdays from 1992-1993 was more like a typical Looney Tunes cartoon with Sonic and Tails foiling Dr. Robotnik’s evil plans while ABC’s saturday morning cartoon was more serious in tone and had Sonic as the leader of a band of freedom fighters. The voice was a nice relief for White who could scrap his high pitched Urkel voice in favor of a non-racial, super hip and slick hero. He would reprise the voice in 1998’s Sonic Underground and most recently the trailer for a fan film on YouTube. White also brought his voice talents to the 1998 animated film, Quest for Camelot as Bladebeak and Martin Luther King, Jr., in Our Friend, Martin.

After Family Matters was canceled in 1998, White finished school at UCLA and vowed never to play Steve Urkel ever again. The following year, White returned to television with the sitcom Grown Ups on UPN. White played a college grad with the day to day struggles of establishing his life as an adult. He was heavily involved in the sitcom not only as series star but also as one of the writers; however, Grown Ups failed to catch on with audiences and was canceled after one season. White would appear in various television shows such as Boston Legal, Psych, and The Game while also appearing in small movie roles in film like Dreamgirls and Big Fat Liar where he played himself as a legitimate struggling actor working studio security. In the later part of the 2000s, White found lead roles in the independent film, Who Made the Potatoe Salad? and the web series, Road to the Altar, in which he plays a black man preparing to get married to a Jewish girl. He also pokes fun of his child star image in the web series Fake It Till You Make It which White serves as writer and producer of.

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There’s no telling if Jaleel White will ever find another major success as he did with Family Matters. On the lighter side, he managed to keep his head above water in the industry when so many other child stars fall into the deadly trappings of fame and/or life after fame. White had a positive upbringing with parents who kept him in school all throughout his young career and kept finding ways to show off his talents as an actor. Today, White is also looking into expanding his screenwriting career and writes regularly for the Blog Squad on NBA.com. Next on the horizon is the fan made Sonic the Hedgehog movie which he’ll be reprising the voice of the iconic video game character.

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