Saturday, June 18, 2011

Jaleel White on Playing Steve Urkel, Being Dissed by Bill Cosby & More


For better or worse, Jaleel White will be forever linked with his role as super-nerd Steve Urkel from the '90s sitcom 'Family Matters.' The actor chatted with 'Vanity Fair' about his 31-year Hollywood career and there were more than a few surprises.

Before landing his signature role, White, 34, who now portrays a banjo-playing teacher in the recently released kids' movie, 'Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer,' told 'Vanity Fair' that he just missed out on being part of the Huxtable family on 'The Cosby Show.'

In what the actor described his "tragic auditioning story," White recalls how he was up for the role of Rudy, who was eventually played by Keisha Knight Pulliam.

According to White, a meeting that he figured was a "formality with the network" turned for the worse. "A little girl comes walking in, and I'm like-even at eight years old-"Who's she?," he said. "And they're like, "She's auditioning for Rudy, too." So I'm like, "Oh, it's not as much of a formality as I thought."

But, White said, that wasn't the worst part. Bill Cosby, who wanted his TV family to reflect his real-life family, was in the room as they decided who made the cut. "They were in such a hurry to get to New York and start filming that they came out and picked the kids one by one right in front of all of us," he said. "Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Tempest Bledsoe . . . The rest of us all went home crying. It was amazing. Obviously I'm grateful that things worked out the way they did; I think it put a little more money in my pocket."

The money that he's referring to likely came from the more than 200 episodes in which he starred as Steve Urkel on 'Family Matters,' which ran from 1989 to 1998. The show is regarded as the second longest-running TV show featuring a black cast, just behind 'The Jeffersons.'

White looks back on his time on 'Family Matters' with some pride, but some memories are bittersweet. At the time, he struggled with aging-out of the Urkel role.

"I knew physically I had made certain sacrifices to keep that property alive that just couldn't be made anymore," he said. "I wasn't changing my hair; I was staying out of the gym. To be honest, I was retarding my own growth as a man in order to maintain the authenticity to what I thought that character should be."

He even recalls a particularly embarrassing moment.

"I was getting network notes on the bulge of my sack," he said. "I wore my pants so freaking tight and it was like, after awhile, we got a problem there. So, literally, the last season we loosened up his pants."

In the years immediately following the show, White starred in the short-lived UPN sitcom 'Grown-Ups' and did voice-over work for various animated projects. More recently, he's acted in films including 'Big Fat Liar and 'Dreamgirls.' Plus, he's scored bit TV roles in 'The Game' and in 'Boston Legal' opposite William Shatner. "Captain Kirk just told Urkel he should stick with this and he's got some chops," he said.

Still, it may take some doing to get White to play Urkel again. "I'll always say never say never; I'm a pretty creative person," he said. "I can't envision how I could do it in a way that would be irreverent and fun for both me and the viewing audience. Remember I have to have some fun, too."

Read the rest of the interview
 here.

Watch Jaleel White as Steve Urkel/Stefon Urquelle in 'Family Matters':

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