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Nothing about the recent, allegedly criminal behavior by Empire star Jussie Smollett squares with the dynamic young man Ralph Louis Harris remembers from their time together on the 1994 ABC sitcom On Our Own.
“I know Jussie to be a hard-working lover of the arts kid. I can’t imagine what would cause him to do this, if he did it,” says Harris, an actor, writer and stand-up comedian who played Smollett’s older brother on the show and now considers him “family.”
Smollett, who has been charged with a felony count of disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false police report with the Chicago Police Department, appeared in court on Thursday.
Harris is part of a small community of old Smollett friends who have been monitoring the recent news about the actor with a growing sense of alarm and frustration. For years, this group (some of whom also worked on On Our Own) cheered Smollett from afar — when he landed a prime role on Empire, for example. More recently, however, the group has been struggling to understand what happened.
“We’re kind of numb,” says Harris, “I’m also a comedian, and in the cynical world of comedy, I’ve watched a lot of my comedy family take shots at this thing, and they don’t realize how much it stings.”
In addition to Smollett, On Our Own featured all five of his siblings — Jazz, Jojo, Jocqui, Jurnee and Jake. The Smolletts’ TV debut was orchestrated in part by producer Suzanne De Passe, who had played a key role in the success of another family outfit, the Jackson Five, as president of Motown Productions.
According to Harris, De Passe discovered the Smolletts and helped shepherd the show into production, appearing on set for table readings and when the show was filming.
On Our Own, a 30-minute comedy, debuted after Family Matters as part of ABC’s TGIF (Thank Goodness It’s Funny) Friday evening programming bloc.
Harris says that in many ways, Smollett, who was 13 when On Our Own was filming, came of age on set. He remembers watching the budding actor — who would later come out as gay on The Ellen DeGeneres Show — share his first on-scene kiss with his TV girlfriend. Or later, when the cast and crew made a press appearance at Universal Studios, Smollett leapt up onstage.
“Next thing I know he’s singing,” Harris recalls. “I didn’t know he could sing, but he was doing it like he’d done it a million times. I was like, ‘Who are these kids?’”
Jurnee went on to a successful acting career, appearing in episodes of True Blood and Underground. Jack cultivated a career as a celebrity chef and went on to co-author a family cookbook. Jussie became a key character on five seasons of Empire.
“They were the most disciplined kids I’ve seen on set,” says Harris, largely due to the parents. A studio teacher home-schooled the Smolletts on set. Harris says all the kids were straight-A students. Their mother, Janet, was strict and attentive. Their father, Joel, was a quiet, polite and consistent presence. The family was also biracial (Janet was African-American; Joel was white and Jewish), which he believes gave them an additional sense of their own uniqueness.
“They were a clique,” Harris says. “Siblings that played with each other all day every day.” Whereas other actors had their own rooms, Harris says the Smollett clan all shared one giant room that had been filled with toys, desks for doing homework and places to rest and eat. “They had to have a playroom because she [Janet] wanted the family to all be together,” Harris recalls.
“Their parents knew how the world saw them and all the stigmas,” says Harris. “They did a good job of getting the kids ready for that.”
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