To be perfectly honest, this is one of those people who most clearly straddles the line between “I should really write about them” and “do I actually have five paragraphs in me about them?” Because he is, alas, one of the most iconic black television actors of my own generation—and we’ll talk in a minute exactly how “my own generation” he is—and I doubt there’s a single person who watched TV in the ’90s who wouldn’t recognize him from the height of his fame. He had his own breakfast cereal, for pity’s sake, and there’s an extended MST3K host segment where Mike pretends to be him and everyone thinks it’s funny. On the other hand, I hate that character almost as much as he does.
Jaleel White is a week and a half older than I am. For a while, we went to school in the same district, though I grant you I never actually knew him—the only time I tended to cross paths with kids from that school was during All-City Orchestra practice, and to my knowledge, he doesn’t even play an instrument, having gone for acting instead. But I have no doubt that I could have, with a little effort, used my connections with people I still talk to from junior high and found stories about him from that age from people who did know Marshall Fundamental School people. They might’ve been third- or fourth-hand, but I could have actually done independent research, here.
I mean, I didn’t, because that would have been kind of weird. But, yes, he was still a student of the Pasadena Unified School District while being Urkel, believe it or not. Certainly before then, while he was having a quietly successful career as a child actor. He’d been the first choice for Rudy Huxtable, before they decided to make the character a girl, and he was on the CBS attempt to do a working-class version of The Cosby Show, a show I don’t even remember that only lasted one season. He was on the pilot of Good Morning Miss Bliss, the show that would lose Hayley Mills and become Saved By the Bell.
In fact, even without Urkel, Jaleel White was pretty solidly in place in ’80s and ’90s pop culture. Yes, I have no doubt that Urkel got him the gig voicing Sonic the Hedgehog, for a show I’ve discussed hating before. But I really do believe that, had Urkel (blessedly) not taken off, he would’ve ended up doing a lot of other minor parts, as many as there were available for a black actor of his age. I’ve seen him in things, mostly guest spots—appropriately for this month’s inadvertent theme, his first TV role was actually on The Jeffersons, which as established I haven’t seen—and it convinces me that he’s not a bad actor.
But he was . . . limited. Typecast in the worst possible way, as an obnoxious character with no possible development. You figure he could’ve talked to Larry Linville about it, though Frank Burns was odious in a different way. A lot of undeserving actors get career revivals when it’s been long enough for people to forget their turkeys; maybe someone could write a nice, interesting role for Jaleel White. Actually, from what I’ve read, he might well be able to do it himself. And let us talk about something else he’s done, which would surely be nice for all of us.