When hearing the name Jaleel White you might not know he is a television icon. However, when hearing the name Steve Urkel you remember the walk, talk and delivery of the legendary character from the hit television series Family Matters
from 1989-1998. Not since JJ from Good Times
did an African-American character from a sitcom have such a comedic affect across the globe. There was the unforgettable catch phrase “Did I do that?”, Steve Urkel dolls, Halloween costumes and most people identified the hit sitcom as “The Steve Urkel Show” rather than Family Matters. Once the show ended it seemed Jaleel White vanished, until those pesky rumors bolted across the internet in June 2005, one being that he committed suicide with a note reading, “Did I do that?”—pretty vicious, but Jaleel is alive and well.
Jaleel White graduated from UCLA in 2001 and was a guest-star on the UPN sitcom Half & Half
. At 29-years-old White is still making a mark in Hollywood starring in the straight to DVD movie Who Made the Potatoe Salad? with Eddie Griffin (Undercover Brother
, Scary Movie 3
), which is in stores now. In addition, he had a role in the Oscar winning film Dreamgirls, which is available on DVD May 1st.
In a one-on-one interview Jaleel White discusses his upcoming projects, African-Americans on television, surviving Hollywood and much more.It seems like you’ve been gone for awhile. What’s been going on in the last couple years?Jaleel:
I pretty much just kind of stopped acting [Laughs
]—I’m fortunate to have success at a young age, but I’ve been quietly doing film projects and I guess they are all starting to come out now. Beyond that I have my own business interests and I work as a writer with Imagine Entertainment.Let’s talk about Family Matters for a minute—when the show came out there were very few shows about African-Americans. What do you think about the African-American shows that are out there now?Jaleel:
The African-American shows that I see out there—I cheer on everybody, I really cheer them on. I love Everybody Hates Chris
; Tichina Arnold is brilliant, I hope somebody acknowledges her work one day.
Many child stars say how it’s hard to be embraced after doing a popular sitcom. Considering the popularity of Steve Urkel has it been challenging to transition into Hollywood?Jaleel:
I don’t think my transition has been harder than anyone else’s. I’m going to be really real with you; it’s probably been easier because I didn’t need any money—that’s more important than anything. We really didn’t get much publicity for the show’s success that we experienced and that was good. My mother wanted that, she wanted me to be as normal of a kid as possible. There are basically two things that are going to determine whether or not a young child performer has a fighting chance at maturing to some type of well-rounded adulthood—one, do the parents have careers separate a part from the kid? Two, how well was the kid compensated? I’m lucky in both of those departments, and don’t forget our show was on for nine years. It’s weird sometimes, I’ll see at least in the internet world myself getting compared to people who did not make primetime paychecks at all. It’s one of those issues, you have to turn the other cheek and keep it moving, but hey everybody’s trying to get to some level in their career. You know, like, “Oh this guy’s great at comedy but can he do drama?”, “This guy does this but can he do that?”, etc. At the end of day you just got to keep it pushing. Fortunately, I got time on my side, I’m 29-years-old. It’s funny I’ve been getting hired for roles now that are actually in charge of things [Laughs
]—they’re cops or they’re
dentists and I think that’s just one of those things that come with age. People just really forget I was the baby of the bunch when I was doing my job from twelve to twenty-one.Do you embrace the Steve Urkel character, or do you wish you could put it behind you?Jaleel:
I love him…for me it’s like talking about homeruns I hit in high school. Any dude sitting in a bar trying to impress a girl with homeruns he did in high school—he needs to get a life! [Laughs
] So, you know, I’m proud of those homeruns!There’s a long history of child stars becoming victims of fame. How did you not become one of those victims and stand here today being successful?Jaleel:
Again, parents that had their own career path—financially they can tell the kids what they need hear, when they need to hear it. Having been compensated well and that was the result of working with good producers. That’s what people need to understand too—there’s a very job like side to Hollywood. Do your job like anybody going to work and if you work for somebody that is a class act, respects you and pays their people well, you’ll benefit from that. Anybody for the most part who was ever a star on T.G.I.F. across the board lived a pretty privileged existence in television.You’ve been in the industry for a long time. Do you think it’s gotten easier for black actors in Hollywood since when you first started?Jaleel:
I don’t know…that is a tough question—the entertainment industry itself has ballooned where every single person you run into has headshots and wants to be in the business. It’s actually sometimes kind of cool to be a minority because if you have any talent you stand a greater chance of getting noticed. We’re in a world right now where every person has some type of cross to bear, like at UCLA we lost affirmative action so because of it, if you’re an African-American kid you aren’t getting into the school now—you have like 90 African-Americans in the undergrad program—that’s frightening!
Before you just had to be the best of the best when it comes to African-Americans, just like Dreamgirls—there’s nothing of any color within two months of that project that’s going to take any attention, or spotlight away from it.
It’s a rare opportunity, but the production value is going to support all of the talents of the individuals—that means supporting like you wouldn’t believe. That’s one situation where it’s like, a lot of movies duked it out in December—Dreamgirls didn’t duke it out with nobody.
Would you ever do a Family Matters reunion?Jaleel:
Nah…A few months ago there were a lot of rumors on the internet, one that you committed suicide. How did you deal with that?
My phone basically exploded in the month of June. I was actually going to a Yankees game in New York when it started…you know, the internet is the land of the sucker punch
—what can you say? Sucks, people do things, start rumors and there’s no way to trace how it happened from where it began. To be quite honest, I really didn’t want to address this when it happened, but of course I knew the minute I had things coming out people were going to ask me these questions so…all I’ll say is I really appreciate the love that was shown to me by a lot of people. When I say I received a lot of phone calls, I received a lot…so that was nice in that regard. What can I say? Now if it would’ve affected my bank account I would’ve been pissed! [Laughs
] So, I’m still here! Obviously, I'm here—people were like, weren’t you pissed? No, I was very annoyed!There are a lot of kids who want to get in the film or television industry—what’s your advice to them?Jaleel:
Do what you love and know what you’re good at. Ultimately it’s not about what you want to do particularly in the beginning, it’s about what service can you provide for somebody else.
At the end of day my primary success stems from two guys who were casting a role. I basically walked into that audition and adapted to that role in such a way that they got a really big response—bigger response than I expected. So, I don’t think people see acting for what it is in its earliest stages. There’s a big difference between being a mega movie star and a working actor in Hollywood. A working actor is what kind of character you want, what kind of character do you need—you’re not always going to like the character. You’re not in charge of anything, there’s nothing sexy about this business, get rid of all the glamour stuff. You know, you’re going to work so be good at what you do because the worst thing is to see people go through this stuff and you’re looking at them like, “Hey, you don’t have any place in this business.” I’ll end with this—I don’t know how good I am as an actor, I really don’t. I challenge myself anytime I get the opportunity but I can say this—I have been in many casts and I have yet to be the problem!
] You should know that as an actor …