You may have heard or read that Reginald VelJohnson is from Raleigh, that he even has a home here.
Even the publicity team offering an interview for his latest project "Three Gifts" (Hallmark Channel, 8 tonight) pitched him as a Raleigh native.
But on the phone, the genial man who played Carl Winslow for nine seasons on the ABC hit “Family Matters” sets the record straight: he’s a native of Queens, N.Y.
“I have sisters who live in Raleigh,” he says. “I have cousins there and my mother and father are buried there.”
The truth is that when (good son!) VelJohnson was set to buy his parents a home, his sisters, who settled here after attending college in Greensboro, asked that he buy one near them. And because the house is in VelJohnson’s name people often think he lives here.
Home-base, however, is New York.
“I’m due for a visit,” he says. “My sister wants me to come for a sorority event.”
Even if his family doesn’t get a Christmas visit from VelJohnson, they, and the rest of us, can watch him as Rodney in “Three Gifts.”
The film tells the story of a childless married couple (Dean Cain and Jean Louisa Kelly) who run a wooden toy company and temporarily take in three rambunctious orphans during the holiday season. Veljohnson plays a gruff but kind veteran toy maker who aims to teach the boys a little about discipline and teamwork.
When the part came up, VelJohnson says, the Hallmark folks thought of him, something that’s only happened a few times. He took the role, in part, for a chance to work with Cain, whom became a friend during the "Lois & Clark" days.
While VelJohnson says he’s grateful Hallmark came to him, there was a time he may have turned the part down.
“I have this image with kids, this image of this upstanding guy,” he says. “I sort of backed into it because of ‘Family Matters.’ I used to fight that, but now I know I have a solid kid demographic and I can do those projects that everyone can enjoy. Now I don’t mind people seeing me and saying ‘Where’s Urkel.’ I used to say, ‘Come on. Get a life. Urkel is grown up.’”
His prior experience with young actors served him well on “Three Gifts.” When asked about working with the three boys, Veljohnson pauses and makes an effort to speak carefully and generously.
“You have to have a lot of patience when you work with children. This was particularly challenging. You have to allow the child to do what they do. Then you have stage parents to deal with.
“But I dealt with it and it was fine. I don’t mean to sound like I’m bragging but I know how to work with children. I can deal with that element. With this project I had the insight.”
One of the boys who stars is Spencir Bridges, whose father is Todd Bridges, the former child star who played Willis on "Diff'rent Strokes."
It was interesting watching Bridges with his son, says VelJohnson, and the two talked about Bridges troubled child star past.
The kids from "Family Matters" for the most part haven't met the same fate; for instance, Darius McCrary, who played son Eddie, is about to reunite on TV with Bryton McClure, who played nephew Richie, on the soap opera 'The Young and the Restless."
But then there is Jaimee Foxworth who played the Judy, the Winslow daugther who disappeared from the show after the fourth season. She ended up doing porn films and a stint on VH1's "Celebrity Rehab" for marijuana use. (She's stopped doing the films and the drugs and recently had a baby.)
"I do feel bad," says VelJohnson. "Strangers come up to you and say 'I'm so sorry about your daughter.' I heard after the fact, and it disturbed me like dealing with my own child. Hey, but it did get her on Oprah."
As for VelJohnson, he has a plan to get to those quirkier, perhaps more villianous, roles he covets.
“Hollywood has this tunnel vision,” he says. “The only way to get out is to write and do it myself.” He’s already written a small film “Sunday Evening Haircut,” which won an award.
VelJohnson’s also working on a one-man show that will feature comedy and music, and he says he just finished a workshop in New York on a project based on Quincy Jones’ ‘Q’s Jook Joint.’
Besides his ‘Family Matters’ stint, VelJohnson’s other signature role was his part as Sgt. Al Powell in “Die Hard” the man helping hero (and then film upstart) Bruce Willis.
He last spoke with Willis when the two did audio commentary for the "Die Hard" DVD. "He's still Bruce," says VelJohnson. "I would love to work with him again. It's amazing how long that film has lasted."
The part came to him at the last minute. VelJohnson’s heard that the original pick for the part was Gene Hackman.
“I was terrified,” he says of the audition. “But I said, ‘God has put this before you. What are you going to do.’”
Nowadays VelJohnson gets teased by friends who say they are sick of seeing the 1987 film on cable every other day.
VelJohnson’s feeling about the film’s longevity are more personal.
“I regret how young I look,” he says laughing. “My hair was still there. I had this youthful desire in my eyes. 'Die Hard' is something I will always cherish.”