The end of
- CBS closes show
with little matter 1998
CBS closes show
with little matter
"I hold no bitterness against anybody," says VelJohnson, who plays Urkel's exasperated foil, Carl Winslow. "I sincerely want to take away the good memories. I don't have a bad word to say about anybody."
Still, VelJohnson says, he wishes the cast had gotten the opportunity to say goodbye.
"More so for the fans," he says. "When they come up to me in the street and say, `Oh God, we heard your show is over. How come they didn't have a big final episode?' I thought we should have had one, the fans thought we should have had one, but the powers that be didn't. That's the sad thing about it. But you dwell on it for a second or two and then you press on."
Created by William Bickley and Michael Warren, "Family Matters" was actually a spinoff of the then-popular ABC comedy "Perfect Strangers," in which Carl's wife, Harriet (JoMarie Payton-Noble) was an elevator operator.
"Family Matters," which premiered in September 1989, revolved around the loving, middle-class Winslow family, which included Harriet, Carl and their children (Darius McCrary and Kellie Shanygne Williams). Though the series came out of the starting gate slowly, it was a winner by the end of the first season after the addition of Jaleel White as the Winslows' nasally voiced neighbor, Urkel.
A top ratings performer as part of ABC's "TGIF" Friday family night, the series moved to CBS in its last season as part of the network's plan to build its own Friday night family lineup. The ratings, though, plummeted. During the 1996-97 season, "Family Matters" was No. 50 with an average of 13.73 million viewers. On CBS, the comedy only attracted 8.82 million viewers, placing a dismal 108th.
"We had a show that we felt at best at ABC was only in it for another year," explains Tony Jonas, president of Warner Bros. Television.
"Looking at what we could do to protect what we knew was a great show, CBS rolled the dice with us and gave us a great shot at trying to keep the show alive. We had no intention of producing the show for one year. We wanted to keep that thing going for as long as we could."
Jonas says it was a combination of elements that caused the series' demise.
"The on-air promo at CBS was terrific, but there were no kids watching CBS to begin with to even know that the promos were there to talk about the show," he says.
He agrees it would have been nice if "Family Matters" had gotten a big send-off. "I can certainly tell you it's a show that deserves it, but the show didn't find the audience we all hoped it would. So it really wasn't a platform for giving a great, big send-off. It was sort of vanishing into the sunset with numbers that were, unfortunately, quite low."
Though "Family Matters" never won Emmys nor was a critics' darling, audiences loved it, says VelJohnson, because "we weren't a black family or a white family, we were a family. Families are universal. Everyone compared us to `The Cosby Show' (saying) we were the blue-collar version and wouldn't last very long."
But what people found in "Family Matters" that they didn't find in "Cosby," VelJohnson says, "was a special warmth that was rare. There were a lot of secondary plots as opposed to Urkel (stories) which were special to a lot of people. A lot of people came up to me and said, `We love the way you handle your son.' It actually taught things -- every week."
VelJohnson has kept busy since the series stopped shooting. He's currently appearing in the musical "Purlie" at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and has written a two-hour movie, "Alive in Las Vegas," for producer Fred Silverman, which may become a series.
'Tis a far, far better place you go, 'O misunderstood genius. And I'm not talking about the ubiquitous, brilliant Steve Urkel -- I'm talking about his equally brilliant creator: the modest, soft-spoken Jaleel White.
I interviewed the "Family Matters'" star during a lunch, three or four years ago, when he was preparing to enter his freshman year at the University of California Los Angeles. At the time, I was writing a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times which was also syndicated. I often found myself opposite many a TV star -- but none generated as much fan interest (and interruptions) as White.
Australians, Japanese, several tourists, and even jaded L.A. locals interrupted our meal to ask White whatever came to their minds (which, frankly, wasn't much). But the fact is, White was -- and is -- an international star. That's saying a lot for White, who has done very little in Hollywood, save for his unique creation of a very different kind of boy-next-door. (For the record, White comes across as a very polite, sweet, if not slightly sheltered boy-next-door himself -- but a completely different breed from his TV alter ego.)
Suspendered Steve Urkel began as a one-shot spot on the Warner Bros. television series, a fairly standard-issue sitcom that centered on an upper-middle class African-American family. But White's bespectacled, besotted, high-water pants-ed, whiny, nasal neighbor caught the fancy of the public and soon the entire shift of the series transferred to the teen. White, like many an actor before him (Ron Howard being the most notably successful), literally grew up on screen.
Like Christopher Reeve, whose marvelous transformation from superhero "Superman" to bumbling Clark Kent is largly ignored, White has always gotten the bum rap.
First, that bad rap generated from envious castmates (White became recurring the first season then a regular in the second season in 1990) -- and understandably so -- their show was turned around for his Urkel. But mostly, White's clever characterization of a lonely, misunderstood, annoying, persistent neighbor, and kooky genius has been verily under-estimated.
If you've seen "Family Matters" -- and for that matter only if you've seen it (and we're not talking just promos, but the real show) -- you've seen White's brilliance at work. No matter how annoying you find his Urkel, no matter how corny you find the sitcom's humor -- you will also find this -- great comic timing.
White, was, no doubt, bolstered by a strong supporting cast which featured such unique little gems as Shawn Harrison, who played the utterly sweet and utterly clueless Waldo Faldo from the second to the seventh seasons. (Where is Harrison by the way??)
Laura, the object of Urkel's avid affections, is played by the competent and charming Kellie Shanygne Williams, who's had the role since the show's inception and premiere Sept. 22, 1989. Big brother, the earnest Eddie, played by Darius McCrary, was himself almost written out of the series (his part was considerably shrunk) until Eddie resurfaced or re-emerged as Urkel's best friend -- and one-time roommate. TV's long-standing parental role models, the Winslows, are played by the venerable Reginald VelJohnson and Jo Marie Payton-Noble.
At the forefront of the series was the developing and evolving relationship between Urkel -- whose parents were never seen on screen -- and Carl (Veljohnson). Carl's relationship with Urkel surpassed his relationships with his "real" children.
However cartoonish the series was, and most certainly eventually became, it had a positive portrayal of a sharp-witted elderly person, Grandma Winslow, played by Rosetta LeNoire. Changes are inevitable when a series has been on as long as "Family Matters" has been, and cast members not only came, but went, too. Telma Hopkins, who played Harriet's sister Rachel, left in 1993 to star opposite Cindy Williams in the short-lived "Getting By." After many threats (begun the first season when Urkel took over), Payton-Noble, who played Harriette Winslow, left "Family Matters" this year and was replaced by Judyann Elder. One mostly ignored daughter, Judy, played by Jamie Foxworthy, was written out without an explanation in 1993 (although official word is the separation between actress and series was the proverbial "mutual").
And now, an era comes -- very -- quietly to a close. Despite a long, successful run at ABC, anchoring its "TGIF" lineup, the series moved (along with ABC's "Step By Step") to CBS last fall, with the high hopes of beginning and initiating a new era. It wasn't meant to be. Whether youthful and family audiences were too accustomed to tuning into ABC on Friday nights, or whether "Family Matters" just finally -- after nine years -- got "old," we might not ever know. But we know this: CBS canceled the series.
And fans of "Family Matters" have chosen to express their grief somewhat quietly. Unlike fans of UPN's "The Sentinel," and CBS' "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," or "Magnificent Seven," there were no sign-carrying protests outside CBS studios, no letter-writing campaigns (at least not high-profile ones) and no full-page ads were taken out and paid for by fans furious at their show's cancelation. Rather, fans, like maybe even White himself, seem content to understand that Urkel and his "Family Matters" have had their time.
Now, the alphabet net airs a two-part episode where Urkel, now engaged to his beloved Laura (goodbye gal pal Myra, a hilarious, geek gal -- albeit a pretty one -- who since 1993, adored Urkel and was played by pretty Michelle Thomas), Urkel goes off to space.
White, 21, still at UCLA and anxious to himself say goodbye to Urkel, aspires to direct and produce (and maybe even bid adieu to acting altogether). White, the most underrated comic actor of his time, created a unique hero for TV. Sure the series was often way over the top. Sure, it was silly. Sure it was, especially in the last couple of years, pure, undadulterated fantasy (think of Urkel and his alter ego, suave and debonair Urquelle -- courtesy of a switchy changy machine Urkel invents).
But still, if the French can adore Jerry Lewis, we can adore Urkel...pardon us, Jaleel White.
Good luck, "Family Matters" cast. Good luck, Urkel. But mostly, good luck, White. May you be as ambitious and successful in your next venture as you have been in this one.
"Family Matters'" two-parter, "Lost in Space, Part One and Part Two" airs Friday, July 10 and Friday, July 17 at 9 p.m. on CBS. Rebroadcasts air widely in syndication through the U.S. and also on TBS.
Bittersweet Exit for
'Family Matters' 1998
forever," he says, "but there must be endings
before you have beginnings, so I think I'm at a beginning.
I'm ready for a new challenge. What do I do next? It's
like starting your career over.
Still, the nine years he
has been on the show have left happy memories. One of the
best rewards, says VelJohnson, is the respect he has
received from policemen. "They thank me for giving
the police force a good image," he says. "Especially
black police officers thank me. You know, they have a
heavy load to take home every night. I don't think the
general public realizes what they go through every day."
Off Camera - Dissing
`Family' Goodbye / CBS buries finale of show
FAMILY MATTERS CBS (Fri., July 10 and 17, 9 p.m. ET) 1998 People
Why it's enough to make you picket your CBS affiliate with an "Unfair to Urkel" sign. After his network lured Family Matters. away from ABC last year, CBS Television president Leslie Moonves called it "one of the great television shows in history." But its ratings suffered on CBS, and the canceled series ends ist nine-season run with a two-part episode dumped in the summer dog days. Doesn't Jaleel White's supernerd character Steve Urkel deserve as much farewell fanfare as that smug Seinfeld guy and his friends? Before you get carried away, know that the finale is not very funny. Urkel is chosen to be the first student in space--which makes sense, since his geekiness is out of this world. But the spacecraft collides with a satellite, and our oddball hero--who says he's so upset he's "about to blow chunks"--must save the day. Urkel's fiancee, Laura (Kellie Shanygne Williams), prays hard for his safe return, while her family busies itself with a boring subplot. "I can't watch this," Laura moans as TV covers the space crisis. Fear not; the end is near. Bottom Line: Goodbye already.
- Where Are They Now? About the former cast of Family Matters today, June 2000
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