Life Lessons Jaleel White Learned from Playing Steve Urkel

The former child star reveals the lessons he learned from playing Steve Urkel on Family Matters and how he finally proved himself in the business.

Jaleel-WhiteABC TV/WB TV/Lorimar/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Jaleel White made the big time when he landed the role of Steve Urkel on Family Matters at just 13 years old. While being a star on a hit TV show is a dream for any actor, White reveals the years of suspenders and squealing, “Did I do that?” made it difficult for him to be considered a serious adult actor.

“There’s a bit of hazing when it comes to the youth performers and a disbelief that you’re capable of handling dramatic or comedic material on an adult level,” White tells Reader’s Digest. “It’s very frustrating, and it can literally send a lot of people by spiraling out of control. I am very grateful that I am still here.”

Accept challenges

White was determined not to be one of those tragic Hollywood child actor tales and maintained a career in the business for over 30 years. “I reached a point where I just accepted the challenge,” he adds. “I took opportunities big or small to show that I was a constant professional. I feel like the Sam Jackson of network TV drama.” White made appearances on several hit shows, like NCISBones, and Castle. Eventually, his former studio took notice of his prolific work and gave him a new project: the 2017 CBS comedy series, Me, Myself and I.

Live a balanced life

White credits his role as Steve Urkel for developing life skills that helped him transition into an adult actor. “I learned to be on time because otherwise you could miss a major opportunity,” the actor says. “Also, it’s important to live a balanced life, stay healthy, and not waste your money on things like $8 lattes. I am so wildly different from the character that I’ve played, but the role taught me to take everything in stride.”Another way he watches out for his wallet: Making sure he’s covered in case his car needs to be repaired. As part of his partnership with Enterprise Rent-A-Car, White learned that you should always call your car insurance agent to make sure you have rental car reimbursement coverage for added peace of mind.

Jaleel-WhiteCourtesy Brad Carter

Find your motivation

It was also White’s eight-year-old daughter, Samaya, who helped him keep acting even when times got tough. “She made it easy to accept the challenge,” he says. “On days when you don’t feel like doing certain things, she makes it easy to do because I do it for her.”

So, would the former child actor let his daughter get into show business at a young age? “I am going to hold off on that because I know how the business works,” he reveals. “I would like to think that daddy went through that child actor hazing for both of us. But, if she does get the acting bug, I will make sure that she gets proper instruction from someone else other than me, someone who she will actually listen to, and we will take it from there.”

Of course, we had to know if Samaya has ever seen Family Matters. She has. “Her grandmother made sure to put that in front of her early plus an Urkel doll in her bed,” White says. “But, she’s not impressed. She just sees daddy talking in a funny voice, points, and laughs, and then moves on. Nobody is going to be more disinterested in your work than your own kid.”

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Jordi Lippe-McGraw
Jordi Lippe-McGraw is a contributing writer for RD.com's travel and entertainment sections and former Entertainment Director for Life & Style, In Touch and Closer Weekly for six years. As a lifestyle reporter/editor for over a decade, she's written for various outlets including The New York Times, Travel+ Leisure, and Vogue, and has appeared on TODAY, MSNBC, and E. She's also traveled to over 30 countries, including Antarctica while five months pregnant. Follow her in Instagram @jordimcgraw and Twitter @jordilippe.