Jaleel White was pretty much done with acting when he was just 13 years old. By that point, he had already guest-starred on shows including The Jeffersons and Mr. Belvedere and starred on the short-lived Flip Wilson and Gladys Knight CBS sitcom Charlie & Co.
But an audition in late 1989 for a show called Family Matters changed everything.
“I was actually on my way out of the business,” White tells EW. His agent wasn’t really sending him out anymore to meet for roles, but because he had braces, it made sense that he audition for the role of a nerdy next-door neighbor.
“I was excited, though, because I knew I was going to quit acting to play on a basketball team the next year. But this role I felt like I could get,” he explains of his NBA dreams. Those were put on hold, because not only did he get the gig, but he turned what was supposed to be a one-episode appearance into a nine-season starring role playing Steve Urkel, who quickly became an iconic TV nerd before The Big Bang Theory gang was even a particle in the pop culture universe.
Dressing himself to match how he envisioned the character — he donned a pair of his dad’s dental school glasses, which “didn’t fit me and they just wobbled … they really were prescription, so I couldn’t really see out of them too great,” White, who’s currently starring on CBS’ Me, Myself & I opposite Bobby Moynihan, recalls — he says he also made a conscious decision: “Go in this room and never let them meet Jaleel White.”
That meant “walking like a geek” and talking with what became the character’s signature high-pitched voice.
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“Jaleel White walked in the casting room with some sort of character that none of us had ever considered and brought something to what was supposed to be a one-episode, small role and we were blown away,” says show co-creator and producer Bill Bickley.
“I was just a 12-year-old black kid doing an [impression of Martin Short’s Ed Grimley on Saturday Night Live] … but what was so funny about that,” White explains, “is that because I’m African-American, at this time, people were not thinking that my influences were white. So what I was doing was coming off completely original.”
VIDEO: How Jaleel White turned a one-episode role into one of the most iconic TV characters
Within 24 hours, he landed the role, and producers were already trying to figure out how to make this more than a one-episode thing.
“Jaleel was made an episode regular based on the first cast reading. When we sat there and saw this kid read that role in the body of the script, instantly, we wanted him to be a regular on the show,” Bickley says. “We just got together after that table reading, privately, and said we have to have this kid and this character in this show. This doesn’t come along very often in television… you don’t pass those opportunities up.”
All nine seasons of Family Matters — plus other ABC comedies and TGIF titles including Full House, Step by Step, and Home Improvement — available now on Hulu.