Actor Reginald VelJohnson Discusses His ‘TV Dad’ Progressive Commercials And His Professional Mindset At 70

Between 1989 and 1998, actor Reginald VelJohnson brought the heart and the laughs to our television screens on a weekly basis, playing Carl Winslow on the beloved sitcom Family Matters. These 25 years later, VelJohnson is back on TV in the form of new “TV Dad” commercials for Progressive Insurance.

In these new video ads, VelJohnson is featured back in his 90s ways, giving out “fatherly” advice and finding himself once again in familiar sitcom scenarios. I sat down this week with the longtime working actor, beginning our conversation by asking VelJohnson how he initially got involved with these Progressive commercials.

“Well, first of all, they asked me and I said yes,” VelJohnson tells me with a laugh, then opens up about his on-set experience with Progressive. “We had a good relationship. I think that it was nice. It really was warm and I had a good time and they had a good time with me, I hope. We just meshed together.”

Remi Kent, Chief Marketing Officer of Progressive Insurance, also shared with me why she believes VelJohnson was the right person for the job to star in their latest commercials.

“We continue to evolve and build characters that resonate, and who will be meaningful and representative to all consumers,” says Kent. “That’s the way forward for our brand’s future. For this campaign, we wanted to cast a familiar and loved TV dad, and we recognized the opportunity to celebrate a positive black father figure. With this in mind, who better than Reginald VelJohnson to play the role?”

Before Carl Winslow was introduced to the world in a small role on the sitcom Perfect Strangers, shortly before Family Matters would begin its nine-season run, VelJohnson first began turning heads as Sergeant Al Powell opposite a young Bruce Willis in the 1988 film Die Hard.

Getting to dress again in the retro sweaters and living room sets similar to those from his Family Matters years, I wondered if he felt as if he was being transported at all back to yesteryear while filming this Progressive commercials.

VelJohnson reveals, “A little bit, I sure did! Yeah, it was kind of a nostalgic kind of thing – just without the family there but it was fun.”

The sitcom Family Matters centered around Chicago police officer Carl Winslow, his wife Harriette and their working class family – and who could forget their invasive neighbor, Steven Urkel? According to Kent, Family Matters was streamed by over two billion people in 2020 alone. So in VelJohnson’s own opinion, what is it about Family Matters that continues to make it such a fan-favorite show to watch?

“I think that Harriette being Harriette was the first thing that attracted people to it and then they realized that her husband was me and I had the Die Hard thing going. It was comfortable and easy-going and people liked us. We meshed together really well. I think that’s why people enjoyed watching us.”

When speaking about Family Matters being the mainstream sitcom it was within the coveted “TGIF” Friday night line-up on ABC for much of its run, VelJohnson says of the show’s significance, “I can remember that it opened up everything. I think having a black family on Miller-Boyett’s [production] roster was kind of a unique thing, and we got used to being around each other. It just felt good and people seem to like what we were doing and that’s why it lasted so long, I think.”

As VelJohnson continues to be remembered as such an admired father-like presence on-screen, his mindset about the position he finds himself in with pop culture is rather opposite from his actual real-life.

“It has taken off in a direction I didn’t expect and whatnot, being a father,” VelJohnson says of playing Carl Winslow. “Since I don’t have any kids of my own, playing a father was a unique and different thing. I got used to being a father (laughs).”

Living in an entertainment world today where rebooting shows seems to be all the rage, VelJohnson has his own thoughts on whether he would be open to reprising his Family Matters character in modern times, saying, “If they asked me to do it again, if they came back and had a nostalgic kind of thing, I think it could work. I wouldn’t say no but it would be a different thing because I’m older – we’re all older and we have history behind us. To do it again would be a weird thing but I would do it again, sure!”

Speaking of on-screen favorites, the age-old question that much of social media and our society still argue about is whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie. Sure, it is an action film but it does in fact take place during the Christmas season. So, I decided to shut down the internet by going straight to the source and asking the actor behind Sargent Al Powell for his own two cents on the much-discussed matter.

VelJohnson reveals, “Well, you know, when I was doing the movie, it didn’t seem like a Christmas movie but now that people accepted that, I’m all for that. That’s fine. I didn’t realize the Christmas theme was so heavy until after the movie came out. I was just doing the role. Now that people accept it as a Christmas movie, I do too. So yes, it is a Christmas movie.”

Now at the tender age of 70, I was curious what VelJohnson would say are his greatest priorities in his life today.

“Well, my priority is to stay healthy and I’ve been working out,” VelJohnson reveals. “I lost 50 lbs and I’ve been using my time to workout and do things like that. That has become an important part of my life. I workout three days a week. That’s the priority for me right now, is to stay healthy and stay strong.”

Since his years starring on Family Matters, VelJohnson has remained a working actor, both with on-screen characters and voice work, often taking on more supporting roles, a position he does not mind at all being in today.

“To sit and watch other people go through what I went through is fine by me,” VelJohnson continues. “I don’t have to get involved in a major way as I did before. I did another commercial before this one. I did a couple of movies and I just hope that they work out and if they don’t, it’s okay because I had my fill. It’s okay to be – I wouldn’t say retired, I hate that word retired. I just slow down a little bit and that’s what’s good – accepting life as it comes to me and just being quiet. That’s what I like.”

As for his resurgence in making us laugh all over again from our television screens today with these “TV Dad” ads from Progressive, he has nothing but gratitude for the ongoing opportunities that are presented to him.

“Being with the Progressive people for so long, watching it as a watcher, I’ve accepted them and now that they’ve asked me to be a part of it, I’m very happy,” says VelJohnson. “As long as they want me to do it, I will do it. I had such a good time on the commercial shoot. The people were so accepting and loving and giving to me. I appreciated that and they made me feel comfortable. As long as they want me, I’m with them!”

Looking ahead to the years still in front of him, I concluded my conversation with VelJohnson by asking him if there are any particular projects or roles he is still interested in taking on in his lifetime.

VelJohnson responds, “Wow, that’s a good question. Whatever comes along that they want me to do, I’m willing to do, as long as I stay healthy and stay able to do the moves they want me to move to, I’m fine with that. I’m very easy-going and as long as they accept me, I’ll be with them. I’m very happy with what I’m doing right now, what I did and what I’m going to do.”