Hike up your pants and do the Urkel Dance: today is Jaleel White Day. Well, not officially, but it should be. It’s at least a red letter day for the Family Matters vet — not only is the show’s first season coming out on DVD, but his new web series, Fake It Til’ You Make It, is launching on Hulu. We recently spoke with White about what it was like filming through the awkward years, the appeal of Family Matters, the metamorphosis of Steve Urkel, and why he decided to create his semi-autobiographical new web series.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it like looking back at the early episodes of Family Matters?
JALEEL WHITE: Well, how’d you feel looking back at the seventh grade? [Laughs] I always tell people when they talk about the show [that] it was one of my greatest accomplishments. People continue to enjoy the show. It won’t go away for good reasons, but at the same time it’s like hey, if you were at a bar and talking to a hot chick, you don’t want anyone coming up to you with a picture of yourself in the ninth grade! You would consider it a cheap shot! That’s how I feel about it socially, but when it comes to professionally — I don’t say this to be cocky — but I put my work up against any child actor who has been on TV. I know the amount of work that I put in, the number of characters I played, and the unusual amount of free reign that I was afforded because I had powerful producers who were just very into performance and casting.
Do you think the release of the DVD set is going to open the series up to an entirely new generation?
The series has already been opened up to so many different generations. It’s amazing. I’m actually really enjoying this young generation. I had this little girl run up to me at a hotel in Santa Monica, and she said, ‘Oh my God, you’re Jaleel White!’ She said my name perfectly. I was flattered because I asked her how old she was, and she was eight. She knew everything about me, and I realized the reason she knew everything about me was because she’s the Internet generation. So, if she likes something, she Googles it. She knew everything about me, and knew all these little factoids, and said she wanted to be an actress when she grew up. That part of the game for me is going to be interesting as I continue to work in the business, to see which generation is the generation that’s going to say, “I like what he’s doing right now.”
Do fans often approach you? Do any ask you to say any of your catchphrases like, “Did I do that?”
Anytime you play any kind of iconic character [people approach you]. I don’t care whether you’re me or Mike Myers — I’m sure he’s had some romantic meals and someone’s come up and said, ‘You make me randy,’ and thought that was cute. It’s just par for the course playing characters that are so deeply embedded in people’s hearts and minds. Sometimes it’s completely flattering. Other times it’s like, “Can’t you see I’m talking to a young lady right now?” [Laughs]
Do you still keep in touch with the rest of the Family Matters cast? If not, do you think the DVD release might bring you guys back together?
I don’t see any reunions. I definitely think everyone has gone their separate ways. It’s just like any workplace that disbands. You keep in touch with certain people. Kellie [Shanygne Williams, who played Laura Winslow] got married last year, and I’m so happy for her in that regard. I took her to dinner before, and it was so funny, she wanted to go to Crustacean. I told her there was no way in hell I was taking her to Crustacean. We found a quieter restaurant! That type of thing, sometimes, when you want to connect it can create kind of a stir in public. People will just kind of infringe upon your re-connect. Like I said, it’s no different than going back to a space in time when you were in the seventh, eighth, ninth grade. You remember your teachers, and what the hallways looked like. All that stuff.
What memories stand out from your time filming Family Matters?
There are so many. That’s always a tough question. There’s always a favorite episode from each season. I know in season one, “The Big Fix” is my favorite episode. It’s the first episode I took Laura out on a date. I had my first real, heavy physical comedy load. I leveled this entire restaurant. It was very well choreographed. Those kind of moments, I remember the writers who wrote it. I think I approached my job back then far more professionally than anybody would have ever expected a 13-year-old to.
You started as Steve Urkel, then Stefan Urquelle came to be. Was that you wanting to show your acting range, or did the producers come up with that?
It was funny — it was David Duclon, our executive producer. He’s like a father figure to me. That was not me at all. He said one of the most flattering things: “I never had an actor like you. I could just stick a quarter in you and a better joke would come up. There was no character that I could give you that you couldn’t play.” After a while, I just started to become his instrument, like a piano or something. I would open the script on Monday morning and see that I was playing Bruce Lee that week. All of that desire to push me as an actor was really just coming from a coach that saw more in me than I probably even saw in me myself. Being really honest, I didn’t want to play Stefan when he first suggested it. I thought the character was boring. Dave was like, “Just trust me. When people see something that is closer to what you really are, you’re going to love it.” I hit that door and until this day, that’s one of the biggest reactions I’ve ever received from any audience, doing anything. In my mind, what you can’t see is my astonishment, like “Are you kidding? This is how I come to work every day!” That was the naivete of me as a young actor. I was naive about the business and naive about the transitions that an actor must go through in order to be regarded as great.
Ok, I’ve always wanted to know: What happened to Judy Winslow when she disappeared from the show?
Judy Winslow’s mama wanted her to have too many scenes, that’s what happened to Judy Winslow! [Laughs] That was an unfortunate circumstance. [Miller-Boyett producer] Tom Miller was never one to put up with any shenanigans. They were kind of old school about their replacements. They kind of felt like people had the aspects of the show they were focused on, and they were allowed to do things like that and not even explain it. Obviously, I don’t think television today would handle it the same way. [Laughs]
Where they just disappear into thin air as a child.
Where somebody just goes upstairs to their bedroom, and they don’t come back down! At the time, it was like any other workplace. Somebody got fired.
Now you’ve got a new web series coming out on Hulu. How did you get started with this?
This is just moons, ducks, and stars all lined up at the same time. I hope everybody’s able to enjoy everything, the DVD and the new series. I did a web series last year called Road to the Altar, and it was a favor for some friends. I became really excited about the web as a medium, and it offered so much creative reign. It took me back to a nostalgic place, and I said, “I’ve got to do this again, only bigger and better.” I went off and created a show that I felt would translate as a show, but on the web in five- and six-minute webisodes. It’s called Fake It Til’ You Make It, and I basically play a former child star named Reggie Culkin. I’m a multi-hyphenate now. I’m a celebrity trainer to other celebrities, I’m a mobile notary, I own a record label. I’m one of these guys out here in L.A. who is a jack of all trades, who makes life in L.A. look really easy. I have three protegés, who need everything from SAG cards to an agent, and I’m the most important person they know in this city. Everyone’s kind of living a version of a lie to ascend to the top in this show. It’s kind of like, nobody’s business card matches their hustle, and people kind of have the “I’ll know you as long as I need you” L.A. mentality. The comedy in all this is these people take themselves and their endeavors very seriously. When I started writing the webisodes, they came out of me really quick. I hooked up with my favorite web series director, based out of New York, named Todd Pellegrino. I knew once I landed Todd, and we combined our production companies, we would make magic. I could just tell by the way the scripts were coming out, and lo and behold we landed Hulu. That’s kind of like our badge of honor. Not everybody’s web series gets to come out on Hulu. It’ll be coming out on June 8, the same day as the DVD. That’ll be Jaleel White Day, I guess, on the web or your local store, or wherever you want to appreciate what I do. [Laughs]
I think I’ll ask for the day off from work.
You should do that! You probably won’t get it in Arizona, but in California you might stand a shot!
Your new web series is about this former child actor, and of course you yourself were a child actor. When you see the difficulty that so many former child stars have now, how does that make you feel?
It’s really sad, but the thing I can attribute it to is family. I never felt like a child star when I was a television star. I never felt like one, I just felt like somebody who was funny on TV. It’s weird in the afterlife of pop culture, when the culture officially pops. It really boils down to family. I have a great family. My mom and dad have always supported me. They stressed education. The other thing is I’m passionate about more than just one aspect of the business, and I’ve always been that way. When you watch Fake It Til’ You Make It, you’re going to get a chance to see me the producer, me the writer. I wrote every episode. This isn’t me again getting other people to do my work for me. That’s the thing in comedy, you want to ultimately have a voice. I used the whole former child star thing as a conduit into what Los Angeles is, and I kind of built a character that should feel like a fully fleshed out character. It just fit with the time, what was coming out, and it’s really the first of many forays I’ll have in web series production.
You enjoy writing, so do you see yourself ever writing a memoir about your time as an actor?
I don’t know. Jay-Z’s one of my favorite personalities out there, and he said he tried to write an autobiography and it just got too personal. I’m kind of old school, in that I like the mystery of certain things remaining behind the scenes. But we’ll see. In this world, you’re really not allowed to never say never. I can definitely see having some chapters if I ever wrote a book like that.
Is there anything else you’d like fans to know?
I’m happy to be known for all the right reasons. When I click on the Internet, you can be known for some crazy stuff here. For all the people who think, “I wonder what that guy thinks his legacy is,” I’ll always take a legacy of giving people laughs. That’s what I do socially, that’s what I do intimately, that’s what I do professionally. As long as I can give you some laughs, whether it’s through what I have done or what I’m currently doing, I feel like I’ve given something good to the world.