Jaleel White is on the phone, which is startling enough, seeing that he's supposed to be, well, you know, dead. Last we'd heard of the Guy Formerly Known as Urkel, he was facedown in a pool of blood, a suicide note resting next to his firearm.
That was the pitiful info streaming across the Internet over the summer with the speed of heart-breaking news. Condolences poured in by the dozens, all punctuated with exclamation points ("I feel as though I've lost a friend!" … "Can you believe he's gone!? Who will make me laugh now!?"), the authors being television watchers having an awful time believing that the guy who played the lovable nerd from Family Matters was out of our lives.
Of course the death wasn't true, not in the literal sense, anyway.
"Some computer geek in front of his terminal just made it up," White says, with a chuckle, but the kind you get right before punching somebody. "Yeah, the Internet's mob mentality was in full effect."
White - now 30, a UCLA film school grad, a man who didn't squander his money or end up on America's Most Wanted in a special fallen-child-stars segment - is alive and well and, as you might imagine, royally annoyed. Annoyed that someone was messing around with his future employment opportunities, seeing that producers and casting directors tend not to call if you can't actually show up to an audition.
When you're everywhere on TV and, suddenly, nowhere - no Dancing with the Stars, not even a Surreal Life to speak of - it's easier for the average viewer to believe you've dropped off the face of the earth. And that's a mighty long fall considering that White's character on Family Matters, a scene-stealing supergeek with trousers pulled up to his chin, was at one time the tube's most recognizable commodity, pulling in well over $100,000 per episode for much of the show's nine-season run on ABC and later CBS.
"Cursed" is what we call actors who can't get jobs after having played in wildly popular shows or invented characters so unique and lovable they are never able to shake off those on-screen personas. Question is, do you give it a few years for the character's impact to whittle away? Or is striking quickly best?
That's the quandary faced by television actors who hit pay dirt with distinct characters, from Don Knotts on The Andy Griffith Show to Jimmie Walker on Good Times to Jason Alexander on Seinfeld, whose George Costanza has stuck to him like superglue. Some are able to reinvent themselves; most, like Walker, could not. Others, such as Knotts, simply don't fight it. He made a career of playing the inept, hypertense Barney Fife, with slight variations, in shows like Three's Company. No wonder Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Elaine on Seinfeld during its eight-year run, celebrated her Emmy win last year as an insecure divorcee in The New Adventures of Old Christine by thrusting the statue into the air and yelping "Take this!" to the curse.
Louis-Dreyfus waited four seasons before Watching Ellie - a sitcom set in real time, with a ticking clock in the lower left-hand corner of the screen to prove it - crashed and burned on NBC. She waited another two to launch Christine, now considered a mild hit on CBS.
"Having a hit is difficult, and once you have a hit, getting another one is really difficult," Louis-Dreyfus said shortly before Christine aired. "But that mustn't keep you from trying, and it certainly hasn't kept me from trying. Mainly, I just love doing this. I love acting. So I just keep batting at the ball."
Neil Patrick Harris is another who found it difficult to shed his image, that of boy genius on ABC's Doogie Howser, M.D., which ended its four-year run in 1993. He waited around long enough to strike gold with the CBS comedy How I Met Your Mother, choosing to be part of an ensemble, not the show's star. Now the stealer of nearly every scene of the second-year show, he is, like Louis-Dreyfus, considered a star a second time over.
"Being the star of a show wasn't the idea," Harris admits. "It sounds cliché, but it was about the work. You do a good job with the character and people are bound to forget what you did before. People used to call me Doogie, not knowing my real name. They still don't know. Now they call me Barney."
If only White could get that. He returned to TV right after Family Matters with Grown Ups, playing a suave marketing exec, nothing like Urkel. It didn't last a season. TV, says White, who's in the feature film Dreamgirls, "is a game of patience and opportunity. Life can change in the simplest, and oddest, ways."
That’s for sure. White never thought he’d be telling fans through his website, JaleelWhite.com, “Thank you to all who have chosen to spread the truth about my mortality,” and actually be serious about it.