‘Family Matters’: Jaleel White Cried After Playing Myrtle Urkel for the First Time

In the ’90s, sitcoms reign supreme on television. From The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to Friends, sitcoms were witty, exciting, and captured fans’ imagination for countless seasons. One of those series was the Chicago-set TV show, Family Matters. The series followed the Winslow family. There was Harriet (Jo Marie Payton), Carl (Reginald VelJohnson), and their three children Laura (Kellie Shanygne Williams), Eddie (Darrius McCray), and Judy (Jamiee Foxworth).

Though Family Matters was initially supposed to focus on the family, it soon became a series centered on the family’s annoying nerdy neighbor, Steve Urkel (Jaleel White).

Quite quickly, White became the star of the show, even playing other characters like the dapper Stefan. However, there was one character that he portrayed on the show, Myrtle Urkel that reduced him to tears.

The cast of 'Family Matters' pose for a photo
Bryton McClure (Richie), Telma Hopkins (Rachel), Reginald VelJohnson (Carl), Darius McCrary (Eddie), Jo Marie Payton (Harriette), Shawn Harrison (Waldo), Kellie Shanygne Williams (Laura), Jaleel White (Urkel) Rosetta LeNoire (Estelle), Jaimee Foxworth (Judy), from ‘Family Matters’ | Craig Sjodin/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Steve Urkel was never supposed to be a major character on ‘Family Matters’

Originally, Steve Urkel was only supposed to appear on Family Matters for one episode. At the time, White wasn’t doing much acting, he’d just gotten braces, and his agents felt they would make him very challenging to cast.

However, when he showed up to audition on the series as the clumsy nerd, the directors and producers were absolutely blown away by his performance. He stuck around for seasons, eventually becoming the series lead.

Family Matters co-creator Michael Warren came up with Steve’s character after taking inspiration from his longtime friend, a man named Steve Erkel. According to Mental Floss, the character’s popularity became an absolute nightmare for the real-life Erkel because no one took him seriously.

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Jaleel White played eight different characters on ‘Family Matters’

In addition to Steve, White portrayed eight different characters on Family Matters. Though he excelled at playing the clumsy nerd with the high-pitched voice with the signature catchphrase, “Did I do that?” The series writers knew how talented he was and didn’t hesitate to give him more roles.

White played the very sexy Stefan Urquelle in later seasons who appeared in dozens of episodes. He also played Steve’s cousins Cornelius Eugene and Myrtle Urkel as well as Albert Einstein, Bruce Lee, and Elvis Presley.

However, White’s portrayal of Myrtle Urkel caused him the most grief.

Jaleel White cried after playing Myrtle Urkel

In Season 1, Episode 12, Steve’s Southern Belle cousin Myrtle makes her first appearances. She is ultra sassy, feminine, and draped in a yellow dress as she mercilessly flirts with a visibly uncomfortable Eddy. As brilliant as the performance was, it took a lot out of White.

“I did run into an issue,” he revealed on a recent episode of TV One’s UNCENSORED. “Jo Marie and Reggie at that time were very sensitive to putting Black men in dresses. They heaped that on me that day, they let me know that I was not doing our race a service by putting on that yellow dress.”

Seeing his co-stars’ disapproval, White took things up a notch to give the best performance he could. However, by the time the episode wrapped he was in tears from the stress. In the end, his dad had to intervene. “My dad just rose up like a lion and was like ‘I’ve watched my son deal with this all week to pull out this performance and he will never play this character again. You got it once it’s done, but he shouldn’t have to carry the burden of some adults making a child feel bad for playing a girl just in fun,'” he recalled.

White would play Myrtle again, but not for five years. “I was just kind of bored … and I [walked into] the writers’ room one day and I said, ‘If you guys want to do Myrtle again, I’ll do it.’ And I remember they just cheered,” he told Entertainment Weekly