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Will the Real Steve Please Stand Up? : Television: When the co-creator of 'Family Matters' named the nerdy guy after a pal, it was supposed to be a one-time thing. No one dreamed it might create a problem.

February 04, 1992|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A fidgeting Kinikki Fullerwood waited in the studio audience for a glimpse of her favorite TV star.

So naturally, the 14-year-old squealed with delight when she was told she could personally meet Steve Urkel.

That's the name of the nerdy, bespectacled character that has become the surprise star of ABC's "Family Matters."

On the show, wisecracking Steve is a scrawny, brainy boy who relentlessly pursues Laura, the cute girl next door. He has junior-high enthusiasm and energy, and a laugh that sounds like a high-pitched snort. Teen-agers across the country have taken to him like quarters take to arcade games.

"Can I meet him? Can I?" Kinikki pleaded breathlessly. "He's so cute. He's fine. I have his doll."

But the Culver City resident's face fell when Steve Erkel stepped forward to shake her hand.

"\o7 That \f7 doesn't look like him," she said as she eyed Erkel. "That's not him."

Erkel said with a shrug: "It's me."

A lot of people don't believe Erkel when he tells them his name.

The 42-year-old Van Nuys resident gets the third degree instead of a reservation when he calls restaurants. Ordering something with his credit card over the phone can be out of the question.

"Last week at a bank in Encino, they even balked at depositing cash," Erkel said. "The teller looked at the deposit slip and then she looked at me and then she looked at the slip again. Then she looked over at the manager."

People don't always believe him when he explains that the TV character is named after him, either. But it's true.

Erkel is a writer-director who works on movie scripts and on educational films and videos. One of his friends is Michael Warren, co-creator of "Family Matters."

For the situation comedy's 10th episode in 1989, Warren and partner William Bickley wrote a script about Laura going on a blind date. The story line called for her date to be a nervous, gangly boy who was infatuated with her. As a lark, Warren named the character Steve Erkel.

"The part was written to be a one-time thing," says Warren, who spelled the name \o7 Urkel \f7 in the script. "We named the character after Steve Erkel strictly as a joke."

But when actor Jaleel White, now 15, borrowed a pair of eyeglasses, hitched up his trousers and recited his lines in a whiny, nasally adolescent voice, the character clicked with viewers. White was signed up to be a regular cast member.

Fifty-eight episodes later, the nerdy neighbor boy has become a mainstay of the show.

The sudden fame has put White's face on T-shirts, jigsaw puzzles and on a talking doll that spouts his character's stock phrases, such as "No sweat, my pet." White is even set to star in his own prime-time special Feb. 22 on ABC.

Celebrity isn't as fun for Erkel.

His telephone frequently rings with calls from giggly teen-aged girls. "They'll say, 'Is this Steve?' When I say, 'Yes,' they'll say, 'This is Laura. And I love you!' and they'll hang up," he said.

But then there was the recent day when he shopped at a San Fernando Valley furniture store. The salesman seemed ready to tear up the order form when Erkel gave his name. Hurriedly, Erkel explained everything.

"The salesman ended up taking me to the back and introducing me to all the warehouse people. I was King for a Day at Wickes," he said.

Erkel said he is a fan of the show, however. At a recent filming, he shook hands with White on the sound stage--after he managed to talk his way past suspicious studio guards.

Producer Warren said that the Erkel episode has taught him a lesson.

"This has caused a number of awkward situations for Steve. It's made his life difficult. Had I known this would go on for years, I wouldn't have used his name. I'm going to be very careful about naming characters after my friends in the future."

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