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Jaleel White shares favorite 'Family Matters' moments, inspiration for Steve Urkel

White, who has a new podcast, "Ever After," looked back on his time on the hit 1990s sitcom in an interview with TODAY.
/ Source: TODAY

Jaleel White has a new podcast, “Ever After,” that takes listeners inside the lives of former child actors and their transition into adulthood. Though some young stars have struggled with the fame and pressure that come with showbiz, the main purpose of “Ever After,” White says, is to shine a light on the entertainers who have persevered in the industry.

“Something that's just always kind of irked me about the business, about show business, is that there are far more success stories than there are hard-luck stories,” White, who became a TV superstar as a teen when he played the nerdy Steve Urkel in the 1990s sitcom “Family Matters,” told TODAY in a Zoom interview. “But the hard-luck stories sell better.”

He said his podcast is “not just about child stars. ‘Ever After’ celebrates perseverance, and what it is to keep doing something that you love, and overcome obstacles.”

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White, 43, shared with TODAY a challenge he said he faced after “Family Matters” went off the air in 1998.

“When ‘Family Matters’ ended, I'd say I was in college. My letters of recommendation for UCLA and USC — those are the two schools that I applied to — came from Bill Cosby and Leslie Moonves (the former executive of Warner Bros. Television, a producer of ‘Family Matters.’) My mother found those letters of recommendation, too, in her garage. And the letters of recommendation are just, ironically, more important than the degree at this point. And what I didn't know was I should've been demanding put pilot deals from Leslie, instead of letters of recommendation to go to college.

“But I was naive. I was young. I was well-intentioned,” he continued. “And I was honored to have received those letters of recommendation to go to college. But, truthfully, if I wanted to continue working with the Warner Bros. family uninterrupted, after (Moonves’) departure, I needed to have had a business connection to them on the books that says I was going to get paid no matter what.

“And that's an unfortunate lesson for somebody who has contributed so much to that studio that I still revere. And that's the other thing — you can't have sour grapes for regimes that came after, that may not have treated you so well.”

"Family Matters" cast
"Family Matters" aired for nine seasons, from 1989 to 1998.Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

So far, White’s guests on “Ever After,” produced in collaboration with Audio Up Media, have included Keke Palmer, Haley Joel Osment and Raven-Symoné. He hinted that a future episode with “Family Matters” co-stars, including Kellie Shanygne Williams (Laura Winslow) and Darius McCrary (Eddie Winslow), is a possibility.

“I guess at some point I'm just going to have to do a reunion show. Actually, yes. I would love to do an episode with Kellie and Darius in particular. But I want to do it around a particular topic and circumstance. And I'm going to wait until that happens.”

White had several TV credits to his name by the time he landed the role of Steve Urkel on “Family Matters.” He recalled that the character “wasn’t described to me at all. It was just nerdy kid, guest spot. It wasn’t thought to be anything. It was co-star. It was one episode and done.”

He drew inspiration from white comedic characters from that time period, such as Pee-wee Herman, Ed Grimley and Lewis from “Revenge of the Nerds.”

“I actually wanted the glasses with the tape in the middle and my father procrastinated and I didn't get them and I was really bummed about that, to be quite honest,” he said. “Because my inspirations were white, the character came off being very authentic and original, like something nobody had ever seen.”

White went on to star on “Family Matters” for nine seasons. Among his favorite moments during that run: his first episode as Steve’s suave alter ego, Stefan; shooting episodes in Paris and at Disney World (“those things meant a lot because Black shows didn't get a chance to do those types of things back then”); and an episode featuring NBA star Larry Johnson as his popular sneaker commercial character, Grandmama.

“That was my first time writing. I wrote that episode. I wrote the story for it,” White proudly noted about the 1993 episode titled "Grandmama."

Larry Johnson with Jaleel White in "Grandmama" episode of "Family Matters"
White wrote the story for a "Family Matters" episode that guest-starred NBA player Larry Johnson.Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

White also remembered an emotional scene he filmed with Williams during a season-two episode in which Steve and Laura pretend to be married for a school project.

“Kellie was so underrated as an actress. We really pushed each other. I think there's a crying scene where I'm waiting on her hand and foot. And I have an apron on, as a matter of fact. And she just is like, ‘Steve, go home. Get out. Please. Don't ever come back.’ Like, she just unleashes a tapestry of just, ‘Get the hell out of here.’ And we had never intended that to be a scene where she and I teared up. But in the moment it just happened. And — I'm almost tearing up even thinking about it. …

“And I remember telling her, I said, ‘Loving you, Laura, is like reaching for a star. You know you'll never touch it, but you keep trying.’ And it was, like, we both just started bawling (laughs) right there in front of the audience. It was like, in that moment, even when we walked out, it was like, ‘Ooh. We're actors (laughs).’”

Jaleel White
White and Williams shared an emotional moment while filming a pretend-marriage scene.Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

While he considers the idea of a “Family Matters” reunion for his podcast, will we ever see a TV revival of the sitcom with the original cast?

“I've hinted at it. There’s something I would really love to do,” White said. “I'm much more interested in creating a show that I know people would just eat up. That’s what makes our business unique, is as much as it can be satisfying for us, I'm making it for you.”

He added, “The vision that I have for what can be done — I'm still developing it. I'm still crafting it. And, when it's ready to be shared, hopefully it will be as welcomed as anybody else's reboots.”