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TV’s favorite doofus shares life experiences

Justin Tardiff | Thursday, November 17, 2005

Steve Urkel spoke to a full house Wednesday night.

Jaleel White, who played the goofy Urkel on the television show “Family Matters,” shared some of his experiences in show business with an ample DeBartolo audience.

Before the lecture began, students eager to meet their childhood hero discussed not only White’s unforgettable moments, but also the legacy of “Family Matters,” the second-longest running show featuring predominantly African-American characters in the history of television.

“The show itself was solid,” said seniors Blake Johnson and Annie Desir. “Its portrayal of a strong, African-American middle class family – who was also funny – really became a role model for our community.”

“Jaleel White – as Stephan or Kel – was looking fine,” senior Rhea Boyd said. “What is even more incredible, though, is that he really was a positive and prominent African-American male figure on television throughout our adolescent years.”

The “Family Matters” star opened to a thunder of applause, and touched on an array of issues that included his parents’ efforts to keep their son in school and unpretentious, despite the fact he was earning $100,000 per episode.

“My mother wanted me to know the value of a dollar,” White said. “When you earn something, when you’ve worked hard for it, you learn to appreciate it more, and I thank my parents for teaching that.”

White said he was not even aware of his six-figure salary until the third season of “Family Matters,” since his parents wanted him to act driven by “the love of the game,” rather than monetary compensation.

He also spoke of some of the difficulties he encountered throughout the nine seasons that “Family Matters” was on the air, such as the struggle in his post-puberty years to maintain the high-pitched voice that characterized Steve Urkel.

Another private anecdote he shared with the Notre Dame audience pertained to another well-known African-American family program.

White almost played Bill Cosby’s youngest offspring in “The Cosby Show,” but at the very last minute, Cosby changed his mind and decided to make Rudy a girl instead of a boy.

“Had I gotten that part, my life would’ve been different, but nobody knows in which ways,” White said. “Perhaps I would’ve missed out on countless great experiences.”

It is this same optimism that later also made him the most memorable character on “Family Matters.”

White believes Urkel’s trampoline to fame was the episode in which his character is bombarded by pies in a remarkably humorous fight.

He was hesitant at first to become the show’s buffoon, since he was already being harassed at school for his quirky performances onscreen.

However, the pie fight episode made Steve Urkel a household name.

“I decided to be a team player, a professional, and let the punches roll,” White said.

“That attitude got me center positioning in the show, and opened a world of opportunities.”

From that day on, ABC promoted Steve Urkel more than any other character on “Family Matters,” or in the network’s popular TGIF lineup, White said.

White also made reference to his reluctance to participate in shows like “The Surreal Life” or “Dancing with the Stars,” where formerly well-known actors desperately assemble for an additional five minutes in the spotlight.

“I let my work define me,” White said. “I’m not in it for the attention. Every time you see me on the screen you can be sure it is because I really do believe in what I am doing.”

Students who attended the lecture seemed more than satisfied with White’s presentation.

Junior Crystal Erwin was even lucky to do the Steve Urkel dance with him on stage.

“As an FTT major from California, I could relate to some of his Hollywood experiences, which is incredible because he’s somebody I’ve watched growing up,” Erwin said. “I feel like today I got to know him on a more personal basis.”