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Five years before Family Matters debuted on ABC in 1989, The Cosby Show was entertaining NBC audiences with its stories about the Huxtable family: Cliff (Bill Cosby), Clair (Phylicia Rashad), Sondra (Sabrina Le Beauf), Denise (Lisa Bonét), Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), Vanessa (Tempest Bledsoe), and Rudy (Keshia Knight Pulliam).
But one of the female Huxtables was almost male, and the character was almost played by Family Matters star Jaleel White, who ended up bringing to life the iconic TV nerd Steve Urkel. It’s something even his TV family didn’t know.
“Really? You’re telling us something now,” says a shocked Telma Hopkins, while Kellie Shanygne Williams exclaims, “You what?!” when it’s revealed that White was this close to playing the youngest Huxtable child, Rudy.
“In 1984, I auditioned for The Cosby Show. And that was a very emotional audition,” White recalls at EW’s recent reunion with him and his costars. “[Then-NBC president] Brandon Tartikoff was in the room. And Mr. Cosby, obviously. They brought everybody that made the show, all the kids — they probably had us audition over the course of like five or six hours. My agent had been told that they’ve pretty much settled on [me], so I went to the audition thinking I was just going on a last audition. And then, all of a sudden, this little girl walks in.”
Groans, “ohs”, and “mmhmms” surround White as Reginald VelJohnson, Jo Marie Payton, Darius McCrary, Shawn Harrison, Bryton James, Hopkins, and Williams hear the crushing story that’s playing out.
“Now that I’m adult I understand — you’re never going to [present the show to the] network without options. … That was a complete lie just to get me to come back,” White continues. “They were flying everybody out the next day to New York to begin rehearsals to do the show. … We were planning, we were packing; my mom and dad were trying to figure it out, ’cause my dad was in dental school at the time — ‘How are we going to do this, Gail? Are you going to New York with Jaleel to shoot the show?’ And [the producers] came out after about six hours and they said to a bunch of little kids and their parents, ‘We will take you, you, you, and you.’”
White wasn’t one of the kids they pointed to. “That’s harsh,” Payton mutters.
“I went home, and I just … I cried my eyes out. But I did things that a kid does when they’re hurt, and they’re acting out. My mom had to grab me and shake me. She was like, ‘If you ever react like that again to an audition, you’re done [acting].’ She was probably more rattled that I was reacting this way,” White admits about the heartbreaking experience.
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But all wasn’t lost.
“The very next year I got cast in another show that was called ‘The Cosby Clone,’ Charlie & Co., with Flip Wilson and Gladys Knight, that only lasted for one season,” he says. “I continued to work, going to school constantly. I worked my entire youth. And then, [Family Matters] comes along, literally, probably about six months before I was absolutely dead set on quitting [acting] because I was going to the NBA.”
But White’s professional basketball dreams had to take a back seat to his newfound fame that came with the TGIF comedy, one that lasted nine seasons (eight of those on ABC before the series moved to CBS for its ninth and final year).
To see White in the character that arguably wouldn’t have been the same had he not been the one wearing the suspenders and oversize glasses, check out 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.