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White: Nerd with a knack for success

Published Oct. 10, 2005

Steve Urkel may be a super nerd, but he's got a knack for bringing success to others.

After Family Matters introduced Jaleel White's character in its first season, Urkel became an immediate sensation _ pumping life into a series that was headed toward possible cancellation and turning it into a ratings winner.

Now the nerdy neighborhood kid who frequently pops over to the Winslow household is boosting White's career. Urkel has paved the way for White's own television special, in which he gets to act out one of his dreams.

During the comedy special White fantasizes about writing, directing and acting in his own movie, which he said is the main goal of his career.

The hourlong variety special, which airs at 8 p.m. Saturday on ABC, features White portraying screen legends, from Humphrey Bogart at Rick's Place in Casablanca, to Clark Gable as Rhett Butler to Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp. Vanessa Williams, who portrays his older sister, sings Pure Imagination, and Kid 'N Play perform Ain't Gonna Hurt Nobody.

Although viewers can see White out of the guise of his alter ego, the ubiquitous Urkel makes several appearances in the special. "Urkel's in it, naturally," White said. "It was ABC's request that Urkel be in the special."

Although White's identity is closely tied to the nerdy character, he is not concerned about being typecast.

"People say, "You should try to get away from him.' He's my best friend as far as I'm concerned. Later on in life I'll show I can do other things as well," he said.

"I don't worry about being typecast. I'll look different and be different five or six years from now. At this point I'm a child actor. People knowing me as Urkel doesn't bother me. It gets my name and face out there. That's important. When I become an adult I'll have to prove myself all over again."

The Los Angeles native who lives in Pasadena is optimistic about his ability to make the jump from successful child actor to well-adjusted adult, despite the problems of other former child stars, including Todd Bridges, Dana Plato and Gary Coleman from Diff'rent Strokes, who have had trouble with that transition.

"There are two different types of actors: One that looks at it like a business and enjoys what he does, and another is concerned about the glamour end of it. Parents should instill in their kids: This is a business. Don't get wrapped up in the perks. They're only there when you're a hit," White said.

By the time he got the role that made him famous, White was a veteran actor who had been performing for 12 years. At age 3 he appeared in his first commercial, for Goodyear tires. He was in the second grade when he earned his first role in a television movie, appearing with Charlie Sheen in Silence of the Heart in 1984. Guest appearances on series and television movies led to his first regular character on a series _ Robert on Charlie & Company (1985-86) opposite Flip Wilson and Gladys Knight.

Before White joined the cast of Family Matters he had been planning to postpone his career to concentrate on his studies. "I made a deal with my mom I would come out of the business at the beginning of ninth grade," he explained. "At the end of eighth grade I auditioned (for Family Matters) and had an "I don't care' attitude. Because of that (I got the part)."