Interview: Jaleel White

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Folks forwarded a fabricated AP story announcing that former child star Jaleel White had shot himself in the head, leaving behind a suicide note which simply read, “Did I do that?�

(Jaleel White--no longer Urkel).

Earlier this year, one of those inaccurate urban legends spread like wildfire around the Internet, as folks forwarded a fabricated AP story announcing that former child star Jaleel White had shot himself in the head, leaving behind a suicide note which simply read, “Did I do that?� That saying was the trademark catch phrase which White would whine each week as the bespectacled, nasal nerd Steve Urkel on his hit TV series “Family Matters.�

The fully-grown, almost-30 year-old White is not only alive and well, but still guest starring on television sitcoms, writing scripts, and co-starring in a movie arriving soon on DVD called “Who Made the Potatoe Salad?� So, what better time to track Jaleel down for a tete-a-tete about his career and how he managed to avoid the road to ruin which seems to await so many other kid actors after the cancellation of their TV shows.

BSN: I guess the first question I have to ask is: How has it been for you since Family Matters, since so often you hear of child actors having nightmarish lives after their shows were cancelled. How is it that you’ve managed to adjust so well?
JW: By just keeping to myself, and being difficult to find. [laughs] Nah, I got a great family, man. I’ve always had one. It’s unfortunate that in order to sell papers and to get people’s attention, negativity overpowers positive stories. I remember it upset my mom terribly back in 2001 that when I graduated from college, I only had one person from the press there to take my picture.

BSN: Where from?
JW: Jet magazine. My mother was like, “If you were coming out of jail right now, the shutterbugs would be all over you.�

BSN: So how did that make you feel?
JW: It made me understand that sometimes, when you’re not getting a whole lot of attention, you’re actually walking the right path.

BSN: But didn’t you miss the limelight?
JW: I’ve never really been an attention hound. I just like doing my job, period. Even when Family Matters was running, I was not somebody who was all over the place and incredibly visible beyond the show itself. So, I haven’t really changed in any way in that area.

BSN: So, how was studying film at UCLA?
JW: That was cool, man. I kinda caught the writing bug when I was about 17, and at 18 started writing on the show. Really, UCLA was just about getting the degree for my mother, and at the same time seeing what was going on in my peers’ heads.

BSN: Do you consider it time well spent?
JW: It definitely helped me tremendously.

BSN: How so?
JW: When I graduated, I sold screenplays to everybody from Imagine Entertainment to Disney to PBS.

BSN: Do you enjoy scriptwriting?
JW: It’s a grind. It’s a business. I wish I had that $100 million movie that I could be like, “Oh, yes, I’m only 29 and I wrote that.� But, I’m taking good care of myself and I continue to write to this day.

BSN: There are crazy rumors on the Internet about you being dead, but the actress Michelle Thomas [late daughter of Kool and the Gang’s J.T. Thomas], who played your girlfriend Myra on Family Matters, really has passed away. What was your relationship with her?
JW: I had a great relationship with Michelle. That was a sad deal when that went down. She died of stomach cancer. We were all kind of there for it to happen. And we still hold her dear in her hearts. I don’t know what else to say.

BSN: Do you keep in touch with anybody from the show?
JW: Not really, beyond Darius [co-star Darius McCrary], the crew, and the producing staff, for the most part, because these people watched me grow up. So, they’re kinda like aunts and uncles. Beyond that, it’s a workplace like any other. I mean, how many people are you still kickin’ it with from your last job? There are a lot of very successful people who moved on from our show.

BSN: Is it true that you brought your father’s oversized glasses to your audition and came up with the Urkel persona on your own?
JW: Yeah.

BSN: How do you feel about having created this iconic character that’s part of the fabric of American culture?
JW: It feels great. It really does. But I’m not going to live in the past. It’s like the guy sitting in the bar talking about the home runs he hit in high school. He needs to move on. I’ve always focused on the work, and I just want to continue to add to that. I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’m still continually searching for those new creative platforms for myself right now. And I’ve got time on my side. I’m only 29.

BSN: It must be strange to have been so famous as a child. I guess the key is always to have new challenges, new goals.
JW: That’s it, new endeavors. Fame will take care of itself. One thing I’ve learned about fame is that, hey, you can’t control it. You don’t know how you’re going to be received or perceived when you step out of a car, when you arrive some place. And you never really know how big something is going to get, so you have to set some standards for yourself, and just abide by those, like I did with Who Made the Potatoe Salad?

BSN: How did you get involved with this movie?
JW: I really wasn’t keen on acting at the time, but I had just hooked up with my current manager. He was like, “Jaleel, I found this project. It’s called, Who Made the Potatoe Salad?“ So, I read it, and I only have one rule that I adhere to when it comes to performing.

BSN: What’s that?
JW: Is it funny? If it’s funny, I almost feel compelled to do it. I gotta do it, because so much of the stuff that does come my way is just unwatchable, unreadable material. The one thing this was was damn funny.

BSN: What the movie about?
JW: It’s basically an African-American Meet the Fockers.

BSN: Tell me a little about your character.
JW: Michael is a straight-edged cop who goes home to meet his fiancee’s [Jennia Fredrique] parents and relatives for Thanksgiving weekend, and he discovers that her father, who’s played by Clifton Powell, is a former Black Panther leader, and hates the police. So, from the minute I sit down at the table they cannot stand my black behind. And I meet her criminally-involved relative played by DeRay Davis, and her ex-boyfriend who’s been pursuing her from jail. That’s Eddie Griffin.

BSN: And Tiny Lister’s in there, too.
JW: Exactly. And throughout all these hijinks, I can’t find the right time to tell Pops that I’m marrying your daughter. So, it’s a fun romp, man.

BSN: What’s your intended audience?
JW: It’s something to pop in when the kids are already in bed, but it’s definitely funny. I can stand by that.

BSN: You’re in Dreamgirls which is getting some phenomenal prerelease buzz.
JW: Yeah, from what I’m told, yes, I’m in the movie, but I’m not supposed to be talking about that.

BSN: Why not?
JW: I’m very humble about it, because I don’t sing, so I have one of the non-singing roles. I can say, speaking as a spy on the set that it is a tremendous project, it’s going to be so well-received when it arrives in theaters in December.

BSN: Is it Academy Award material?
JW: If I had to guess, I’m looking at a couple people getting Oscar nominations out of it, quite honestly, from what I saw. When you’ve been in the business as long as I have, you know when you’re on the set with something special.

BSN: How did you get your start in show business? I remember seeing you on The Jeffersons when you were seven or eight.
JW: I started doing commercials and guest spots when I was three years-old. So, I’ve been in the business for twenty-six years.

BSN: That’s already a full career. Ever think of quitting to try something else?
JW: It just seems like a game. Every time I make an effort to get out of the business, it kinda pulls me back in. When I was twelve, I wanted to quit so I could play high school basketball. And that’s when I got Family Matters. Then about three years ago I kinda got the feeling that I was done with acting, and then a figure from my childhood came back into my life, and became my manager again. And now things couldn’t be looking better.

BSN: What advice would you have for any aspiring child star who wants to follow in your footsteps?
JW: For one, it’s very important that your parents have careers of their own. When the kid becomes the breadwinner of the household, that’s when you have problems.

BSN: Your father’s a dentist, so your folks weren’t dependent on you.
JW: That’s really the difference, because, then, your parents can still raise their voices in their own home. And that’s imperative, as far as a kid learning what it is to grow up. The minute a child knows he’s running the household, whether the parents will to admit it or not, they’re walking around on eggshells.

BSN: You also have the problem of parents ripping off their kids, too.
JW: That sucks because the kids ultimately bear the brunt of the bad publicity, even though the parents are really responsible, because they failed to maintain their own dreams and their own standing in their home. And this is the result. That’s unfortunate. Luckily, I never had to deal with that. I can sit back, just like you, and analyze it, but it’s definitely sad. So, the advice that I would always give is make sure you’ve got your own career, babe, before you put your child in the business.

BSN: Do you have a website on MySpace or somewhere else where female fans can email you?
JW: No, no, no, we’re not doing that. You need to let people know that I am not on MySpace. If you see my name on MySpace, that’s an impostor.

BSN: Can you walk around in public and go to a mall or a supermarket without being bothered?
JW: Oh, definitely, here in L.A., especially. When you get outside of the city, and into other areas of the country, it doesn’t get hectic, but it certainly gets a little more “Point, point, ooh, ooh.� In L.A., the waiters think they’re stars. Everybody’s always trying to pretend that they see stars every day, so there tends to be a false blasé about celebrity sightings in L.A. In some ways, that’s a good thing, because it allows you to walk around.

BSN: One last thing. Are you willing to answer the Jimmy Bayan question and tell me where in L.A. you live?
JW: Yeah, I live in Santa Monica.

BSN: Well, thanks for the time, Jaleel. I feel honored for the opportunity to speak with you. In my mind, I have you on a pedestal as that child star icon, but after speaking with you, I realize that, hey, you’ve got lots of other aspirations that you want to work towards. And I have no idea that you can be a very big star again as an adult.
JW: Thank you, man. I appreciate that. Do enjoy my work, but just take me off that pedestal.

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