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Category Archives: Television
The polished and familiar face of Jaleel White caught my eye recently on an episode of Boston Legal. He played a law school graduate interviewing for a position at Crane, Poole and Schmidt, matching wits with Denny Crane.
His first television role was on the CBS series Charlie and Company, starring Gladys Knight and the forever fantastic Flip Wilson, but it was his appearance on The Jefferson’s, as stalwart competition for Jessica, Lionel and Jenny‘s daughter, that I distinctly remember.
Not long after, at the tender age of twelve, the young professional began administering scene stealing performances that made waves in the prime time pool. What was intended to be a one-shot appearance caused sensations too fantastic to be ignored; White was granted a regular place on the roster by the end of the season, forever changing the dynamic and direction of the show.
His portrayal of underdog Steve Urkel on Family Matters, the Emmy nominated show about a middle class family living in Chicago, sent audiences reeling. At two hundred fifteen episodes, Family Matters is one of the longest-running U.S. African-American comedies, sandwiched neatly between The Jefferson’s and The Cosby Show.
In addition to portraying a multitude of additional characters, including Myrtle Urkel and his alter ego, the ultra smooth Stefan Urquelle, there was further marketing that helped to imprint and redistribute his likeness throughout the general consciousness: a cereal (Urkel-Os), an Urkel doll….and if you want to do the Urkel Dance, all you have to do is hitch up your pants, bend your knees and stick out your pelvis; I’m telling you, Baby, it’s better than Elvis!
He carried the role for the duration of the series, stretching and modifying the character through a puberty that brought with it the typical voice change and growth spurt, all while maintaining his trademark nasal delivery. The fearless and uninhibited conveyance he executed as a young man brought about sweetness of character and invoked empathy. By the time the series ended its nine year run in 1998, he had grown weary of the role. Due to the immense popularity of the character, he was severely typecast.
Being typecast is a tragic and mysterious downfall of television showmanship and usually comes with the best and most beloved; people know what they like and are reluctant to part with that which is familiar. More often than not, people lack faith that the individual can move beyond the character that they perfected.
Mention typecasting and a herd of people scamper through my mind, from Bill Shatner to Will Smith. Not much to say here. Will Smith is good…..MUCH too good to be typecast. He entered America’s homes, lowering their rap threat level. Beyond that, the man can act: powerful teen drama scenes with Ben Vereen……tears on tap at the drop of a hat.
William Shatner, in another spectrum, took typecasting and worked it like a Thighmaster. The infectious icon’s methodic larger than life take on Denny Crane was awesome enough to cement his snapshot on the continuing generation, his articulation masterfully losing the ‘herky-jerky‘ rendering that has long been the parody since the inception of James T. Kirk on through to the cancellation of T.J. Hooker. Say what you will about Bill, his showmanship has allowed him to maintain a consistent level of visibility for over four decades.
When I think of typecasting, I also think of Gary Coleman. I’m truly sorry for the way things turned out for the man. His height notwithstanding, he might have had a better chance had They not tried to milk him for everything that he was.
For the record, by They I’m referring to The Machine, the television industry…..not his parents.
……..moving right along.
In his youth, pint sized Gary Coleman would make his entrance and take over the scene with a hip, overpowering burst of energy, as witnessed by his own turn on The Jefferson’s and also on subsequent appearances of Good Times (during the Penny Era). By the time Strokes was on its way, he had progressed in the direction of a gentler delivery that garnished the Arnold Jackson character.
His image was stretched on The Heavenly Kid and, beyond that, Strokes lasted for entirely too long. Sam, his Strokes’ step sibling, while not as useless as The Brady Bunch’s Cousin Oliver, was just not necessary……….and that whole ‘Mister D’ getting married, switching wives, the show switching networks fiasco was also for the birds.
While Mr. Coleman’s early performances were full of explosive energy, Mr. White’s execution was harnessed calculation. Even more notable was the pure physicality of his performances. I’m not talking about nuances; I’m referring to his fantastic pratfall, spectacular room wrecking in epic proportions with maneuvers rivaling those of Dick van Dyke or Jerry Lewis.
The catchphrase, “Did I do that?” was an homage to Curly of The Three Stooges who uttered the phrase as a punch line in the 1934 film short Punch Drunks. This King of the High Waters was also known for his distinctive chortle followed by a snort double clutch.
His cherry stealing pass at Ashley Banks was unpretentious and memorable.
The 2001 graduate of UCLA also wrote several episodes of Family Matters, one of which was the series’ highest rated when he was nineteen. Post Family Matters, he made a return to primetime in the vehicle Grown Ups, broadcast for one season on the now defunct UPN; his appearance in Dreamgirls was short and sweet. His reach also extends into animation, being the man that provided the voice for Martin Luther King, Jr. in Our Friend, Martin, and also Sonic the Hedgehog in most of the American TV incarnations.
And he hangs out with Charles Barkley.
All the cool dudes must hang together.