It was 31 years ago, back in his hometown of Queens, N.Y., and there was little Reginald VelJohnson -- in what surely was a harbinger of things to come -- dressed up as a teddy bear.
The distinction and indignity had come to the 7-year-old by virtue of winning a part in a school play. His job: To roll across the stage. He was excited, nervous and reluctant. It was now up to his mother, who had made his costume, and his grandmother to encourage and cheer him on -- and to push him onto the stage if it came to that.
"They said, 'Roll, baby, roll!'" recalled VelJohnson. "I did it, and everybody cheered. I was hooked."
VelJohnson now owns a company named Baby Bear Productions and has given his bearish presence to numerous plays ("Staggerlee," "The Dream Team"), movies ("Crocodile Dundee," "Glory Days") and TV shows ("The Bride in Black," "When Hell Freezes Over, I'll Skate") to name a sample.
But in the past two years, VelJohnson has become a star. He has put his signature to two radically different portrayals of policemen: The steadfast, villain-killing Al Powell of "Die Hard" and the jocular Carl Winslow in "Family Matters" (Fridays on ABC).
Is it mere coincidence that his two highest-profile parts have been policemen? Well, yes, Winslow was to be a policeman before VelJohnson was cast in the part, but "they always sneak things in that are reminiscent of 'Die Hard.' The fact that my character eats doughnuts," for instance. Powell loved Twinkies. "They're played by the same actor, and they're both cops, but I try to make them different."
What they have most in common is that they are both hit characters in hit shows. While "Die Hard" was a box office blast in 1988, "Family Matters," now in its second season on ABC, has snuck up the Nielsen ratings lists. Last year it was 29th. This season its average is in the mid-20s, and the week of Nov. 5 it finished 17th. Suddenly, "Family Matters" is a success.
VelJohnson is a bit pressed to explain the show's emergence. "The storylines are getting stronger every day," he said. "I'm able to pay the part now, to settle down and give the character some depth and meaning." Then it occurred to him that he was talking about a formulaic show from the Miller/Boyett sitcom factory and not a Shakespearean production.
"The idea of the show is not totally original," he said. "The backbone of the sitcom genre is based on the family situation. I think what makes ours special is that we're not just a black family, but blue-collared, which is more universal ... It speaks to people who have to struggle everyday. We're not that rich or that pretty, like the Cosbys, and not that crazy like Roseanne. We're in between -- we're regular guys.
"And people love Urkel," he said, perhaps getting closer to the show's secret. "I get letters telling me not to be so mean to him."
That would be Steve Urkel, played by Jaleel White, ardent and delightfully nerdy pursuer of Winslow daughter Laura, played by Kellie Williams.
VelJohnson was younger than Urkel and a class cut-up of a different kind when he got the urge to act. "I've always been a creative person," he said. "I was a born actor, I believe." There was a moment of truth, he recalled, at the age of 10 when he saw "To Kill a Mockingbird." Robert Duvall inspired him. "I said, I can do that."
Despite his stage roll as the teddy bear at 7 and the role of Captain Hook in "Peter Pan" at 12, and despite his referral to the school psychologist for bringing his performing instincts to class, it wasn't until after graduation from Cardozo High School in Queens that he decided to pursue an acting career.
He went on to New York University, where he had a chance to work with Joseph Papp's Black/Hispanic Shakespeare Company -- Morgan Freeman and CCH Pounder were among his fellow actors -- while getting his bachelor's degree in theater.
With the sudden success of "Die Hard" and a TV role that's showing staying power, VelJohnson has relocated to Hollywood. That's put distance between him and his family (his mother, two sisters and two brothers are all in the East). But he's carved a life of his own, sharing a condo with Johnny and Sammy, his cats; walking, writing, and taking in flea markets and street fairs. And he's bought his first car, a 4x4 combat-ready vehicle that's already showing a few wrinkles and creases. "I'm hard on cars," he said. "But I think you need a Jeep in Hollywood. These people can't drive."
Playing the head of a family on television has prompted him to consider assuming such a role in real life.
"It's time for a woman," he said. "Playing Carl, I consider myself a daddy in training. When you do a show with all those people and then go home to only two cats, you can't wait to get back to the set the next day. It's lonely sometimes."