When it comes to iconic television characters of the 1990s, few got bigger than Family Matters‘ Steve Urkel.
Starting as the annoying neighbor of the Winslow family, Urkel quickly became the series’ unofficial star. However, despite a cultural explosion that resulted in toys, other television appearances, and actor Jaleel White’s eternal thumbprint on pop culture, the road to getting there wasn’t always easy.
What was ‘Family Matters’?
According to Mental Floss, Family Matters was a rare case of a series spinoff finding more success than the popular show that spawned it. Jo Marie Payton’s Harriett Winslow began as a popular character during season three of Perfect Strangers. However, while she remained a focal point of the new series, the spinoff still made her husband, Reginald VelJohnson’s Carl, the show’s star.
Family Matters began as a series about the Winslow family as they guided their way through the Chicago suburbs. However, after a young actor named Jaleel White was cast in a one-off role, the series suddenly became less about the titular family matters and more about the issues regarding their quirky, geeky neighbor named Steve Urkel.
‘Family Matters’ and the rise of Urkel
As Tulsa World notes, Urkel was written as a single-episode character infatuated with the Winslow’s eldest daughter, Laura. The episode, which premiered halfway through the first season, changed the course of the series. White’s commitment to the catastrophic geekiness and boyish romance made him too good to let slip into the wayside.
Urkel was a young savant whose parents were never actually seen during the show. What started as a grounded character with wacky science experiments quickly became the focus of the show. As Urkel’s fame rose, however, the series tone took a shift. By series end, he wasn’t just an intelligent scientist. He had cloned himself multiple times, gone to outer space, and put the family in danger with his ever-growing slate of mad scientist inventions.
As fun as this was for audiences that ate up Urkel as a character, the shift in focus wasn’t always easy. White spoke about the not-so-easy impact of being the face behind such a popular character.
Jaleel White had to look the part
White believed that the actors behind the Winslow family initially struggled with the focus on his character. He spoke about this with Vanity Fair in 2011.
“Things were definitely strained in the early going. There’s no sense in hiding that. There was a division between myself and the rest of the cast, but over nine years and 215 episodes, obviously relationships get better. I still talk to certain cast members to this day,” the actor told the magazine, looking back.
He couldn’t disagree with their disdain. Even White struggled to stay in love with the character. After all, Urkel worked better as a pre-teen character than the young adult and part-time astronaut of the later seasons. This made him put too much into the character and not enough into himself.
He even had to refrain from working out to keep up Urkel’s notorious look.
The fact is that I was maturing,” White told Vanity Fair about outgrowing his signature character. “I knew physically I had made certain sacrifices to keep that property alive that just couldn’t be made anymore. I wasn’t changing my hair; I was staying out of the gym. To be honest, I was retarding my own growth as a man in order to maintain the authenticity to what I thought that character should be.”
Luckily for White and the rest of the cast, the series remains beloved by many fans. From Urkel to Carl and everyone else, the characters helped form the iconic TGIF brand and marked an important chapter in television history. While it may have been an onerous burden to hold in the nineties, it remains a quintessential sitcom for the young audiences who clamored for their remotes each Friday night, not just for Urkel but the entire Winslow family.
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