WTF Happened to Jaleel “Steve Urkel” White?

We take an affectionate look back at one of the most iconic characters of the 90s, Steve Urkel, and the many who played him, Jaleel White.

As fans of movies and TV, we have seen thousands of guest stars grace our screens only to disappear forever after their purpose has been served. But once in a while a performer gives life to a character that can not be contained to just one or two episodes. Once in a while a performer brings to life a character that doesn’t just perform in a show, but comes to define it. Thus is the story of Steve Urkel, the lovable nerd from next door that was only meant for a single episode but in the hands of the talented Jaleel White became one of the most iconic characters in television history. But sometimes when you craft a character so beloved, it is hard to shake them, as audiences, and casting directors, only see that character in you. Sometimes you work so hard to shake that character from audiences minds that eventually you grow to fully embrace it. It’s time we find out just WTF Happened to Jaleel White…. the dude who played Urkel!

But as always we must begin at the beginning and the beginning began on November 27, 1976 in Culver City, California. White would begin acting at just the age of three where he got his start in commercials before graduating to TV when he was cast in an episode of The Jeffersons for which he would be nominated for a Young Artist Award. White would then be cast on the CBS sitcom Charlie and Company. The show was not a hit and would be cancelled after one season. The next year he would appear in the pilot episode of the Saved by the Bell precursor show Good Morning, Miss Bliss while also appearing in a guest spot on the show Mr. Belvedere. In 1990, White would appear in the TV movie Camp Cucamonga on NBC that featured many performers from popular TV series of the early 90’s, as well as some soon to be household names and Jaleel got to show off his rapping skills.

It seemed that at the age of just 12 years old, White was destined to forever play the guest role in other people’s projects. But then White would land an audition for yet another guest spot, this time on the Perfect Strangers spinoff series Family Matters that was midway through its first season, a show that Jaleel said he didn’t think was funny but was just happy to get another shot to be on TV. White says that most kids his age were going in to audition for the handsome guy who takes out Laura, but he and three others were vying for the “geek” role. White nailed the audition by using a pair of dental glasses given to him by his dentist father.

When it came time to film his one off spot on the ABC sitcom that was struggling in the ratings, White crushed the role. So much so that there was a group of Fraternity members in the audience who started chanting “Urkel! Urkel! Urkel!” In the stands as well as yelling “We want the nerd!” In scenes that didn’t feature Urkel. That led producers to realize this character should be far more than just a one off guest star and they would make Jaleel White a series regular, something that many say saved Family Matters from being cancelled after its first season. White says that he wishes he could find that group of Frat boys and thank them.

Steve Urkel family matters

The series would go on to run for nine seasons with Urkel proving to be one of the most popular characters on TV with guest spots on other ABC shows such as Full House and Step By Step while also landing his own ABC primetime special titled The Jaleel White Special and creating a national craze with the Urkel Dance. Although his popularity was soaring with audiences, one place White didn’t seem to be as popular was on his own set. He would later recall that the adults on the set all felt this was their show and didn’t appreciate this guest performer coming on and becoming the break out character. Many cast members said that working with White was difficult because he lacked the on set etiquette that the more seasoned performers had. With Jo Marie Payton even saying that at one point White and her almost got into a physical altercation. But it would seem alls well that ends well as White says by season 3 and 4 the cast all felt like one big family while Jaleel White would be nominated for several awards including 4 NAACP Image Awards, winning three times, 1 kids Choice Award and winning the 1991 award for Outstanding young comedian at the Young Artist Awards. For Jaleel White, the character of Urkel would be the gift that kept on giving…

It wasn’t just on camera where White thrived, before Ben Schwartz took over the role on the big screen, White was the voice of Sonic The Hedgehog on the animated series based on the hit video game. It would seem White’s talent for voice work would prove a successful one when he would land roles in the 1998 Warner Bros animated film Quest For Camelot followed by voicing a young Martin Luther King Jr in the direct to video Our Friend, Martin

It wouldn’t be long after Family Matters took its final bow for White to find his next role when he landed the lead on the UPN sitcom Grown Ups that was unfortunately cancelled after just one season. Luckily his voice work was still going strong as he would land gigs on the animated series Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales For Every Child and the TV movie Inspector Gadget’s Last Case (2002).

Despite those roles, White says he could feel that his legacy as Urkel was keeping him from growing as an actor. The character became so popular that to audiences and casting directors, that is all they saw in him. So, White would head back to school where in 2001 he would graduate from UCLA with a Degree in Film and Television.

The thing with Jaleel White is that, even though he felt the role of Urkel stifled his career due to its immense popularity, it is what endeared him to audiences world wide. And he would turn that popularity into a string of interesting guest spots on shows where he was able to show the type of range he had as an actor such as The Game, Boston Legal, Psyche, House, NCIS, CSI, Castle and Bones while also continuing to show us the type of gifted comedic performer he always was in shows such as Half & Half, Are We There Yet?, Love That Girl, Drop Dead Diva, while also appearing on the more grown up and hilarious shows Drunk History, Children’s Hospital, Atlanta and playing Muhammad Ali on the Comedy Central limited series Historical Roasts

Steve urkel

In the world of movies, White would appear as himself in the 2002 film Big Fat Liar before landing a small role as a stoner Tenant in the Mekhi Pfifer directed Puff, Puff, Pass. He would follow that up with a starring role in the romantic comedy Who Made the Potatoe, toe with an E, Salad that went direct to video in 2006. Luckily that wasn’t his only output of 2006 as he would land a cameo spot in the Academy Award Winning musical Dreamgirls. Sadly, his in theaters output hasn’t been plentiful with White only appearing in 2 more theatrically released films: 2011’s Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer which only made about $20 million at the box office and the 2018 Clint Eastwood misfire The 15:17 To Paris. Outside of those films, White has been relegated to direct to video and TV movies such as Kissing Cousins, Call of the Wild, Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus, Dumbbells, The Santa Con, Rhymes With Banana and Mommy, I didn’t do it.

Many were incredibly happy to see White show up as a series regular on the series Me, Myself & I. I was nice to see him appear in the pilot episode, it made many smile. People were happy to see this actor they had grown up with back on the screen in a prominent role on a show. Sadly, CBS cancelled the series after just one season. But it does seem that series may have reintroduced White to the world as he would go on to appear as a recurring character on the short lived series Trial & Error while also appearing in shows such as Fresh off the Boat, Ravens Home and The Big Show Show.

For Jaleel White, the role of Urkel seemed to stick with him forever. Never able to truly break away from that character to land another iconic role. Of course, that doesn’t mean White has faded away into obscurity, quite the opposite. Since his series regular role on the doomed Me Myself & I, White has acted in over 20 projects including voicing a movie director in the hit video game NBA2K20 as well as appearing on the hit anthology series The Afterparty. His voice work is also going strong as he has voiced roles in such hit series as Teen Titans Go, Ducktales and American Dad. In 2022 you may have even noticed him opposite Adam Sandler in the critically acclaimed Netflix film Hustle.

Of course when it comes to the crazy world of acting, any performer would love to have a character that became iconic. The type of character that remains in the pop culture zeitgeist for years after it was relevant. Jaleel White seemed to run from his legend making role as Urkel for so long, never truly being able to embrace the happiness that character brought so many of us. Family Matters went off the air in 1999, but the enduring legacy of the character could not be ignored, not even by the man who turned the character from a one note guest star into one of the most iconic characters in television history. So after over 20 years, Jaleel White would finally embrace the legend that is Urkel. On November 21, 2023, Jaleel White would give fans what they have been waiting for by bringing Urkel back to life in the animated film Urkel Saves Santa: The Movie. The film has actually garnered some decent reviews that say the animated Christmas tale has some solid laughs and gives fans that nostalgia kick they have been yearning for, while fans have given it a solid 90% audience score, although some say that the voice of Urkel in the animated film does sound a bit… off. But what do you expect? It has been over 20 years since White last played the character, voices change! Of course if the animated special isn’t enough Urkel for you, Hallmark has you covered a just this year they have released a Steve Urkel keepsake ornament as part of their yearly line of new and relevant pop culture ornaments.

Jaleel white urkel now

To answer that iconic question that Steve Urkel always asked; Did I Do that? The answer is: yes, you did do “that,” if “that” means carving out a career in the entertainment industry that has been going strong for over 30 years. Jaleel White did “that” by creating one of the most iconic characters in the history of television. Proving that the GEEK will inherit the Earth. A lovable nerd who falls in love with the girl he can’t have (until the later seasons of the show, which just weren’t that good to be honest). But there is a heart breaking moment when Steve gives his “reach for the stars” monologue that really showed that Mr. White can really act.

It seemed he may have been a bit young and immature when he got that role and that could get on the nerves of some of his costars but with age comes wisdom and Jaleel White has used that wisdom to carve out a solid career in front of the camera. And for all the failed series that he had been a part of over the years, it seems that he has a new live action series in the works that should be a surefire hit as Jaleel White will next be seen in the Disney+ series: Star Wars: Skeleton Crew. It is for that reason, and so many more, that no one should give a F**k WTF happened to Jaleel White, because Jaleel White is doing just fine!

About the Author

314 Articles Published

Brad grew up loving movies and wanting to work in the industry. Graduated from Full Sail University in 2007 before moving to Los Angeles where I was fortunate enough to join SAG-Aftra in 2012. I love every second I get to write about movies for Joblo!