'My dad told them that I would never do that character again,' the actor recalls
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Jaleel White may be best known for playing Steve Urkel — the clumsy but brilliant scientist and inventor neighbor to the Winslows on Family Matters — with his signature suspenders, oversize glasses, snort-enhanced laughs, and high-pitched, nasaly voice that often asked, “Did I do that?“
But that iconic character was just one of White’s many personae over the course of the sitcom’s 215 episodes (he appeared in 204 of them, having made his first appearance in season 1’s 12th episode). There was one, though, he wasn’t too happy to play.
“I always believe that if I believe it, they’ll believe it. So, I had to be a girl,” White says of playing Steve Urkel’s Southern belle cousin Myrtle Urkel, who visited the Winslows when Steve went away for a couple weeks. Whereas Steve was infatuated with Laura (Kellie Shanygne Williams), her brother Eddie (Darius McCrary) was the object Myrtle’s affections.
“You did a darn good job at it,” Jo Marie Payton, who played Winslow matriarch Harriette, interjects. Shawn Harrison concurs: “It was impressive.”
“At that age, I was concerned that my friends at school were gonna make fun of me. … At the end of that first episode [playing] Myrtle, I went in my dressing room and I cried. And then the producers came to check on me, and my dad told them that I would never do that character again,” White explains at EW’s recent reunion with him and his costars. “I knew I had done it so well, I was like, ‘Damn, they definitely gonna make fun of me at school for this.’ … I had gone there.”
Never say never, though. White slipped back into Myrtle’s dresses several more times, even if it took five years for her to return. And it came at the suggestion of White himself. “I was just kind of bored … and I [walked into] the writers’ room one day and I said, ‘If you guys want to do Myrtle again, I’ll do it.’ And I remember they just cheered,” he recalls. “When I did go to school after the first time I did it, no one made fun of me. Everybody just thought it was absolutely hysterical. … [A few years later] I was starting to get a good idea for what were going to be good sweeps week episodes and I just felt like we needed a [shot in the arm], and that’s how Myrtle came back.”
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Before Myrtle re-emerged, though, White made another major transformation in a November 1993 episode (“Dr. Urkel and Mr. Cool”). This time he played, well, himself. Sort of. “My favorite episode would have to be Stefan Urquelle’s first episode, and the only reason why is because it came as such a shock to me that people were so interested in seeing me as me. I thought it was boring,” White says of the character, a charming and cool alter ego of Urkel whom he created using his own DNA — all to win over Laura. “To this day, I’ve never seen such complete shock, and awe, and screaming from people in an audience.”
Stefan came back another two dozen times, eventually in permanent form when Steve created a clone of himself who was then transformed into Stefan to avoid Steve overload.
To see Steve, Stefan, and Myrtle in all their Urkel glory, 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.