A leading man, no. A lawman, yes. With his no-fuss decency, the 39-year-old actor has played one cop after another—including Carl Winslow, the good-natured, ample-bodied Chicago police sergeant on ABC's warmhearted hit sitcom Family Matters. He has worn badges in both Die Hard movies and in Turner and Hooch. This week (Feb. 24-25), VelJohnson will be on view as an ex-cop in the NBC miniseries Grass Roots, a political thriller about a white supremacist group. "Hollywood tends to typecast you," says VelJohnson, "and only you can change that."
Indeed he is trying to branch out, developing a comedy special for cable and working with his musician brother, Barry, 35, on a rap album. But why mess with success? After years of scrabbling for parts on the New York City stage and in minor Hollywood screen roles, VelJohnson now has a visibility that many aspiring hunks would give their chiseled chins for. He does his grocery shopping in his Hollywood neighborhood around midnight to avoid being mobbed by his series fans.
Still, though VelJohnson now tools around in a Mercedes, his errands include delivering clothes and food to the homeless on skid row. And, he insists, recalling his New York City upbringing, "I'm still Reggie who rides the E train and the F train."
Not that he ever wanted to settle for being just plain Reggie Johnson. (Reggie added his middle name, Vel, to his original surname in the early '70s because there were other actors named Reginald or Reggie Johnson; brother Barry has since added the "Vel" too.) Growing up in Queens, he dreamed of fame—partly, he says, because being the third of five kids made him crave attention. "People didn't understand him," says Barry. "In those days it wasn't normal for a black kid to want to act, and he didn't play football or basketball." Instead, Reggie wrote his own plays, staged them in the garage and used the admission money to buy candy.
The garage theatrics were also a way of escaping the hurt of a real household drama: His father, Dan, walked out on his mother, Eva, a nurse, when Reggie was 13. "To this day I don't know why he left," says VelJohnson. He and his father were reunited in 1986 when Dan, whose peripatetic careers included hospital attendant and cab driver, was dying of heart problems in a veterans' hospital in Queens. "I felt a lot better," says VelJohnson, who cried and forgave his dad, "but all those years I harbored a feeling of loss." He credits his stepfather, John Riley, who married Eva when VelJohnson was 15, with raising him right. "I rebelled against him," says VelJohnson, "until he sat me down and said, 'Look, this is the way it is.' "
Maybe Riley should have been called in when, in 1989, Jaleel White was introduced as the Winslows' nerdy neighbor, Steve Urkel, on Family Matters—and quickly upstaged the rest of the troupe. VelJohnson, remembering his initial reaction, says he wasn't thrilled. "I've done theater, movies, got an acting degree [from New York University], and here comes this 13-year-old—and he steals the show!" A bull session with cast and producers resolved the tension, he says. And Jaleel? "A sweetheart," says VelJohnson.
Director Rich Correll compares the interplay of White and VelJohnson to Laurel and Hardy's. Be careful, though, about weight references. VelJohnson is frank about being a food lover since childhood ("People say Christmas is their favorite time of year. Thanksgiving is mine"). But he won't play along with cruel fat jokes. He walked off the set once because he wanted the line "I want to lie here and dent the sofa." softened to "I want to lie here and dent the sofa." The line was changed. "I've always had respect for people who don't let their weight get in the way of their work," says VelJohnson, who reveres such hefty figures as Orson Welles and Jackie Gleason.
But if he's at ease with "Herman"—his name for his avoirdupois—he must also live with the emotional side he calls "Ralph." "Ralph is my evil twin," he says. "I have my mood swings. Sometimes I come home after a week's work and just sit and cry. It's a lot of pressure."
Ralph might be more agreeable, admits VelJohnson, if he had a wife sharing his three-bedroom condo. "I wish I had someone to say, 'How was your day?' and to hug me," he says. "You need a woman to do that. Your dog can't. Your cats ignore you." He has been dating several women, he says, but none is "the one."
In the meantime Family Matters is a constant reminder that, well, family matters. "After being a father on the show and being like a family, it gets weird when I'm on hiatus—and I miss them," he says. "I gotta do something about that."
LOIS ARMSTRONG in Los Angeles