Bittersweet Exit for 'Family Matters'

It's a season of sitcom endings. "Seinfeld" signed off amid unprecedented national fanfare, while "Murphy Brown" made a poignant, sedate exit. On July 10 and 17 on CBS, the long-running "Family Matters" will also air its last two episodes as TV's goofiest nerd, Steve Urkel (Jaleel White), saves a space shuttle and seals his relationship with the ever-perfect girl next door, Laura (Kellie Williams).

Even Urkel's arch foil, Carl, Laura's dad, welcomes him home from space and into the family with a warm hug. While this episode may not have been meant as a farewell, it works as one. After nine seasons, "Family Matters" leaves quietly.

And though he loved doing the show, Reginald VelJohnson, for one, is just as glad as he is sad to see it go. Playing the lovable Carl has had its rewards, but no actor wants to be trapped in a type, and Mr. VelJohnson has played enough policemen for now. Remember, he co-starred with Bruce Willis as a genial, Twinkie-eating cop in "Die Hard."

"Nothing lasts 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.

"I am remembering now how the show began," he continues. "The first time we all met [the cast], we were all wearing the same colors - black and white. We all knew it would be something special. And it has been good. I think of these people as family. But in a way, I'm glad, too, that it's over. Now it is time to show what I can do as an actor."

When the show began in 1989, the approach was much more ensemble than it has since become. A middle-class African-American family living in suburban Chicago included Carl as a good dad and an exemplary cop, his head-strong wife, Harriette, their children, Laura, Eddie, and Judy, Harriette's widowed sister, Rachel, with baby Richie, and Carl's sharp-witted mother. It was one complex household. But it soon became clear that the real star of the show was Urkel.

Assertive, brilliant, and annoying as a gnat, Urkel had a crush on Laura that led to all kinds of misadventures. And they all drove Carl crazy.

"I would have preferred for some of the episodes to concentrate on some of the other characters," says VelJohnson. "It was mostly about Steve and my reaction to Steve. But other characters were just as interesting - like Harriette and her sister Rachel. They had a special relationship. And Jo Marie [Payton-Noble, who played Harriette] is brilliant. It's like a fruit bowl: If every time you go to the fruit bowl you choose a banana, you can get tired of bananas. You have to try the oranges and apples."

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."

"Family Matters" always projected a positive message, says VelJohnson. The show even said it was OK to be a nerd. Urkel represented everyone who was unsure of himself. "You can laugh, but Urkel was always the winner, and audiences learned from Urkel's mistakes and triumphs."

He points out that Carl, too, is an excellent role model - a warm, caring father. And children respond affectionately to that character. He has no kids of his own, but VelJohnson volunteers for Big Brothers of America, visiting group homes and hospitals. "Little kids come up to me and say, 'I wish you were my daddy.' These little kids have no one....

"I wish I had the kind of father I play on 'Family Matters,' and I meet kids now who are looking for that as well."

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