M.Y.O.P.I.A. #18: Why is Reginald VelJohnson Always a Cop?

One might think that if an actor so perfectly fits the mold of portraying a certain profession in T.V. or movies, said actor may therefore have real-life experience in such a profession. In the case of Reginald VelJohnson, it’s almost difficult to picture the guy out of a cop uniform. He played a cop many times, and years later, people have pondered why he so often portrayed a cop. Even VelJohnson has said in interviews that he had no idea why he was so often cast as a police officer. The reason for his frequent reprisal of cop roles is probably more obvious than the actor himself seems to realize.

Of course, everyone clearly recalls VelJohnson, correct? If not, here’s a little refresher. He’s probably best known for portraying Carl Winslow on the 90’s sitcom, Family Matters…yeah, the one with Steve Urkel. In it he played a loving father, a husband who put his foot in his mouth far too often, and yes, a cop. VelJohnson is also fondly known for his work in Die Hard 1 & 2. VelJohnson is easily the best side-character in the first movie, and scenes in the sequel seem contrived just to include him.

His cop-ography doesn’t end there though. He was a detective in Turner & Hooch. He filled a very minor role in Ghostbusters when he let the team out of jail. Family Matters was a spinoff of the sitcom Perfect Strangers, where he seemed to have played more of a security guard. Speaking of security, he was a limo driver in Crocodile Dundee, but he filled in as a sort of bodyguard at times. He guest starred in many other TV shows, sometimes but not always, playing a cop in his early days. VelJohnson continued acting after Family Matters ended. He sometimes seemed to reprise cop-roles out of people’s nostalgic love for his Carl Winslow or Al Powel days. Audiences, and people on the production side of Hollywood, obviously love the guy as a cop. So what is it then that makes him such a perfect cop?

Physically, VelJohnson is a little round. This fits the donut (or Twinkie) loving stereotype. But VelJohnson holds his weight fairly well; he looks like he could be fairly strong. Similar traits are also obvious in his face, where his smile can seem extremely endearing, and his scowl can make the guy a little scary. As for his typical facial expressions, he appears fairly jovial most the time, and this likely made him a sure choice to portray a father on a sitcom. Anyone who watched Family Matters also saw that his expression ranged anywhere from mildly annoyed, to downright furious when Urkel trashed this working-class family’s house on an almost weekly basis—seriously, any family would have been bankrupted by fallout from Urkel’s clumsiness. Of course, the caterpillar in the room does need to be addressed…VelJohnson has a mustache. This might help fit another aspect of that stereotypical cop look, but nothing about his physical traits makes VelJohnson all that overly unique in the acting world. But something else about his acting ability, perhaps does.

Remember being a kid and thinking cops were good guys out to protect everyone? That optimism might wear off as we age, or the first time were pulled over for some minor traffic infraction by a grumpy police officer. In a time where news stories between police and minorities clearly show some cops are racist, in an era where simple police encounters can end tragically for the innocent, perhaps everyone would like to feel some more optimism about cops. And that’s where Reginald VelJohnson is so perfect. Over and over in his various cop roles, he’s kind and cool, and has the capacity to seem stern and strong but the best aspect of his acting ability is that he really seems to care about the people around him. Perhaps VelJohnson’s empathy for others shines most when he plays a cop. Perhaps this is why he was so often cast in cop-roles. He never played the dirty-cop, disgruntled-cop, or even a too-old-for-this-shit-cop. He just always seemed like a cop who cared.

Some actors have a lasting legacy for playing an extremely memorable starring role. Some actors win lots of awards. In Reginald VelJohnson’s case, he played the best of what people wanted to see in the police. He may not have been the star in Die Hard, but his role is one of the most memorable. He may not even be what people first remember in recalling Family Matters, but if Urkel was the main source of comedy in that show, then VelJohnson was the heart and soul, the glue that brought that family together. VelJohnson has played other roles on TV and movies over the years. He’s proven he’s not typecast only as a cop, but if people do tend to remember him thus, it’s really just because he’s exactly the kind of police officer many people would like to have help them in a time of need, and that’s quite an honorable position for any actor to obtain.