“I always tell people, if I was Bart Simpson, I’d still be on the air as Urkel right now. But, I wasn’t animated. I was a real boy.” The son of a homemaker and a dentist from Culver City, California, Jaleel Ahmad White is a talented actor who rose to fame in the 1990s after he was cast as the iconic Steve Urkel on the successful family sitcom, Family Matters. Donning suspenders and glasses while annoying the Winslow family week after week, White embraced his role as the eccentric and nerdy Urkel as he watched in awe as the show’s ratings climbed over its nine-season run from 1989 to 1997. Despite the show’s success, however, White struggled to break free of the Urkel stereotype and saw his popularity dwindle with the failure of his UPN sitcom, Grown Ups, in 1999. Turning his attention to voice acting, White was happy to lay low saying, “Sometimes when you’re not getting a whole lot of attention, you’re actually walking the right path.” But, it seems that the 40-year-old has since changed his tune as he’s returned to primetime as the straight-laced Darryl on CBS’s new sitcom, Me, Myself and I.
Making his grand entrance into the world on November 27, 1976, White was in preschool when his teacher saw something special in the youngster and encouraged his parents to take him to a few auditions. At only three years old, White appeared in his first television commercial for Jell-O alongside Bill Cosby and later landed bit parts in television series like The Jeffersons and Charlie & Company. In 1983, he auditioned for and won the part of Rudy Huxtable on The Cosby Show only to learn that Cosby had reworked the part of Rudy as a female. Seeing the role go to a young Keisha Knight Pulliam, White held is head high as he made appearances in short-lived series including Mr. Belvedere, Jay Leno’s Comedy Hour, Cadets and Good Morning, Miss Bliss.
“It forces you to embrace professionalism at an oddly young age,” White said of his early start in the business. “But, it also gives you a very distorted perspective of human nature, adult life and what’s expected of you. I’ve learned everything that you’ve learned, I would like to think—but completely out of order.”
Things improved for White in the late 1980s when, at 13 years old, he won the part of Steve Urkel on a new family sitcom called Family Matters, which was part of ABC’s popular Friday-night lineup. Although Urkel was only meant to be a guest character on the first episode, viewers demanded more of Urkel as the show’s writers expanded his role and made White a regular cast member as he happily explored Urkel’s nerdy tendencies from his high-pitched voice to his suspenders and glasses.
“You need fans in high places, I always tell people,” White later said of his sudden rise to stardom. “I don’t care how talented you are.” White obviously had the talent as Urkel became a cultural icon with Urkel dolls and board games flying off store shelves throughout the early 1990s as Family Matters became one of ABC’s most popular shows with White taking home an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Youth Actor in 1994 and 1995 as well as a 1997 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series.
Over the last three seasons of the show from 1995 to 1998, White struggled to stay in character as his own interests expanded behind the scenes. “The movies I was watching were Dead Presidents and Boyz N the Hood and Friday and Quentin Tarantino movies,” White said of the huge shift between he experienced between himself and his family-friendly character. “That was the tougher part of my development, when I got to college and beyond, getting people to understand that everything they had been living, I had been living too.”
At 22 years old, White was more than happy to leave Urkel behind and said as much when he told reporters, “If you ever see me do that character again, take me out and put a bullet in my head and put me out of my misery.” However, White quickly learned that moving on was easier said than done as he focused most of his energy on voice acting when he took over the part of Sonic the Hedgehog in animated series like Sonic the Hedgehog, Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic Underground. Then, in 1999, he took another huge chance at sitcom fame and starred alongside Soleil Moon Frye in Grown Ups only to see the series canceled after one season.
“I really chose a path after Grown Ups of doing different things that I hadn’t tried before and just trying to take on those challenges,” White reflected. Earning his degree in film and television from the University of California-Los Angeles in 2001, White continued to struggle. “It wasn’t easy when I got to college because that’s where every kid feels like they’ve reached their peak of cool,” he said. “My work that I had done was being appreciated by a younger generation and the kids that actually grew up with me were into Chris Tucker movies and Tupac. People don’t realize I’m very much part of the Biggie-Tupac generation. I have very fond memories of myself of that time period that they just wouldn’t identify me being a part of. That was probably my toughest period, my early 20s trying to fit in.”
Eventually finding his way, White returned to acting after college and snagged minor roles in flicks like Big Fat Liar; Puff, Puff, Pass; Who Made the Potato Salad?; Kissing Cousins and Green Flash. In 2010, he wrote and produced the internet series, Fake It ‘Til You Make It and, two years later, competed on Dancing with the Stars where he proved his maturity by embracing Urkel as the character who helped launch his career. “I guard this character with my life,” he said. “For me, it’s honestly like talking about someone who is revered and deceased. You’re not going to be disrespectful around me talking about the character.”
With a new perspective, White has since returned to primetime television as the straight-faced Darryl on the CBS sitcom, Me, Myself & I. Although CBS has since pulled the show, White refuses to let another failure stand in the way and says he’s even open to a Family Matters reunion. Now that’s something we’d love to see!