The 1990s represented a heyday in family sitcoms. Family values paired with sometimes relatable and often ridiculous plot-lines were plenty, but a few shows stand out as memorable among the blur of brightly coloured syndicated programming.
It’s hard to believe, but it’s been over 25 years since Will Smith made that epic cab ride into the lives of Aunt Viv and Uncle Phil. While Will Smith was known to the younger viewers for his music career, this show is what introduced many people to the rapper turned actor. Show stars James Avery and Janet Huber have mentioned in interviews that neither of them had even heard of The Fresh Prince before they signed onto the series. Over the six seasons the show received two Golden Globe and one Emmy Nomination. The show remains a popular choice in syndication, as new generations are exposed to the street-smart yet sensitive teenager Will Smith as he acclimatizes to his new life with his wealthy cousins, aunt, uncle, and smart alecky butler.
The retro appeal of the show is overwhelming, but beyond the obvious sentimentality of the show there’s a lot more to enjoy, the stuff that even the fans don’t know about, and that some of the cast doesn’t want to talk about. Let’s dig into the amazing Easter eggs, celebrity guest spots, and moments that happened both in front of and behind the scenes — secrets behind The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
15. Will Smith Took On The Role Because He Was In Serious Debt
When someone makes it big in the music industry they don’t always make the best financial and management decisions. Will Smith was no different. When he gained celebrity for hit songs and a solid image, he enjoyed a hefty paycheque with little thought to consequences of his fat wallet. He didn’t manage his money wisely, and ended up owing the government 2.8 million dollars in income taxes that he couldn’t afford to pay back. Most of his possessions were seized by the IRS and he was moments away from declaring bankruptcy before being offered the starring role in a new TV series by Quincy Jones. Smith used the role to fund his debts and paid the IRS 70 percent of his earnings for the first three seasons of the show.
14. Will Smith Was Such A Newbie To Acting He Memorized All Of The Script
Will Smith wasn’t an actor when he took on his Fresh Prince role, and this was painfully obvious to many people. The only other TV work he had was in an after school special. Today Big Willy is pretty mortified by his earliest TV performances on the hit series and his lack of acting training is very apparent. Smith has said, “I was trying so hard, I would memorize the entire script, then I’d be lipping everybody’s lines while they were talking. When I watch those episodes, it’s disgusting. My performances were horrible.” Smith wasn’t the only one to notice, NBC execs wanted to fire him, but the creators and producers of the show saw a diamond in the rough and convinced them to let him stay on. Will’s TV cousin and child actor Tatyana Ali has said that she was also skeptical in the early days because Smith would fumble his lines so often.
13. The House Featured Wasn’t Really In Bel-Air
The McMansion shown throughout the series isn’t really located in Bel-Air, but it isn’t too far a drive away. The big house with the giant white columns is in a closely located, and equally well-off neighbourhood called Brentwood. Anyone who wants to see the house in real life can go and visit, the address is 251 North Bristol Avenue. The house has five bedrooms and five bathrooms and is 6438 square feet. The producers of the show selected this particular mansion because of the classic old school, “waspy” type of money it represented, and some have even compared it to the White House. When searching for the Banks’ family’s humble abode they approached the setting for Will’s fish out of water experience as casting a specific house and not a neighbourhood.
12. Geoffrey Had A Last Name
Geoffrey was known for his sharp wit, dry sense of humour, and for being both a voice of reason and pillar in the Banks household. Most people don’t remember this but Geoffrey’s last name was (drum roll) Butler. His middle name was Barbara, another joke on the show. The actor, Joseph Marcell, who portrayed Geoffrey is a genuine Shakespearean actor who calls London, England his home nowadays, and is on the Board of Directors for the Globe Theatre. He trained in acting at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, and attended the University of Sheffield. Everyone’s favourite butler has starred in plays including Othello, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and King Lear. He also has had recurring roles on dramatic series including The Bold and The Beautiful, Brothers and Sisters, and EastEnders.
11. Aunt Viv & Her Darling Nephew Hated Each Other IRL
Although it seems like Janet Hubert played Vivian Banks for most of the series, the character was portrayed by Hubert for the first three seasons and Daphne Maxwell Reid for the final three seasons. Hubert has commented that she was offered a 10-episode contract that hindered her ability to pursue other projects, and that when she refused, there was no negotiation, and they simply re-cast the role and awarded it to Maxwell Reid. Others say that there was always bad blood between Janet Hubert and Will Smith and this was the real reason for her departure from the show in 1994. Hubert was in the news just last year for her negative comments about Jada Pinkett Smith’s Oscars boycott. Apparently old feuds die hard. At the same time Hubert denies any rumors of a rift between her and Smith, and says they worked things out.
10. Jazz Only Got Thrown Out Of The House Once
A long running bit in the show was when Will’s extravagant friend Jazz, played by Smith’s real life musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff, is tossed out of the Banks’ house, most of the time by Uncle Phil. The frequency of the gag would have required costly on-site filming outside of the home, so instead they decided to only shoot the bit once and re-use it in all future clips. In order to keep continuity correct viewers can get a pretty good idea of when Jazz is going to get the boot, since he’s always wearing the same thing in the scenes where he’s about to be thrown outside. If you see Jazz in his brown shirt with two gold bars on it, he’s going to get tossed. Jazz isn’t thrown out of the house nearly as often as you might remember. He was thrown out 15 times over the course of the 148 episodes filmed. Jeff Townes (Jazz) told Huffington Post shooting the one clip was painful, as he was, “Literally, black and blue by the time they say, ‘We got it’, and it got so bad the last time, and I was like ‘I can’t do this. I’m not a stuntman. I can’t do it.'”
9. There Was A Cast Diary In The Kitchen
Rumour has it that there was a notebook that was kept in the drawer of the onset kitchen in the Banks home; this was a kinder version of the slam book from Mean Girls, only everyone on set knew about it. Karyn Parsons confirmed the existence of this mythical notebook and also says that she took the notebook with her following the final episode as a keepsake. The cast and crew would routinely use this notebook to write silly poetry, doodles, or playfully vent about each other writing things like “James is getting on my nerves”. Karyn Parsons commented that she needed to take some time to wander down memory lane and re-read the notes and musings in the notebook because her onset souvenir was particularly meaningful since the passing of James Avery.
8. Will Smith Is Now Older Than Uncle Phil
Be prepared to feel old, Will Smith is nearly 50 years old, which means he’s significantly older than James Avery was in 1990 when he took on the role of Uncle Phil. Avery was 45 years old when he was cast for his most famous role as the Banks’ family patriarch. Fans recently were amused to see a photo posted online of Will Smith bungee jumping and looking shockingly similar to his TV uncle. The character of Uncle Phil was voted 34 on TV Guide’s ranking of the “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time”. James Avery was often cast as legal professional throughout his career, and was known for his deep, booming voice, and tall six foot five height and broad frame. He died in 2013, due to complications from open heart surgery.
7. Fresh Prince Is Popular In The Big House
Being popular in prison isn’t just for Johnny Cash, other forms of media can also make it big behind bars. Pretty recently, in August of 2012, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air became the number one entertainment choice in Guantánamo Bay Prison, dethroning the Harry Potter series of its former title. Prison Librarian Milton, a Defence Department Contractor noted that he’d just ordered all six seasons because of the ongoing recent popularity and requests for the series from the 168 captives serving time. Commanders have credited entertainment, including shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, books, art classes and other recreational activities a key to a reduction in friction between captives and the guards. Another famous “bad guy” with Fresh Prince ties is actor James Avery who voiced Shredder in the 1987 cartoon series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
6. The Most Emotional Monologue On the Show Was Unscripted
One of the best rated episodes in the series was ad-libbed by Will Smith. In the episode, “Papa’s Got A Brand New Excuse”, Will Smith’s character’s absentee biological father returns only to ditch him again with a bogus excuse. According to the script, Smith’s character was to brush it off like he almost expected it, but Will Smith who was also abandoned by his own father when he was young was very emotional during filming and began an angry, raw and real monologue. When Smith completed his emotional speech James Avery gave him an unscripted hug. If you listen closely you can even hear audience members crying at the end of the speech. It remains in its original entirety because the show producers knew they had the best possible shot.
5. The Show Loved Featuring Other Celebs
There were numerous guest stars who appeared on Fresh Prince over the years, some even showed up for two roles. Queen Latifah played Hilary’s boss, and then later went on to play a love interest of Will’s. Sherman Hemsley also played two separate roles on Fresh Prince, one as Judge Carl Robertson, who passes away in the third season. He later plays his best known role, George Jefferson. Model Tyra Banks sunk her teeth into acting with her first role off the runway being on the show. Evander Holyfield, Don Cheadle, Bell Biv Devoe, Jay Leno, and Boys II Men all had appearances on the show. There was even an episode when the daytime TV Queen Oprah made a guest appearance in an episode where the Banks family were guests on her show.
4. Will Smith Met Jada Pinkett During Auditions For The Show
Will Smith met Jada Pinkett when she auditioned for a role as Will’s TV girlfriend. Although she didn’t get the part, because they said that she wasn’t tall enough (Jada is only five feet tall) that didn’t stop Smith from pursuing her romantically. Pinkett has always been appreciated for her looks, and not just by Will. She was Miss Maryland in 1988, and in 2000 she was voted one of the top 10 Sexiest Women of the Year by the readers of Black Men Magazine. Jada attended Baltimore’s School of Arts, where she and her classmate friend, Tupac Shakur, lip synced to her future husband’s song, “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” Will and Jada began dating in 1995 and were married in 1997. They have two children together, Jaden and Willow Smith.
3. The Name Advice That Bit Carlton Back
Both Will Smith and Alfonso Ribeiro were permitted to select their own character names for the show which is a pretty cool event for young actors. At the time Ribeiro, a veteran childhood actor who was known for his role of BFF to Rick Schroder on another series about a wealthy teenager called Silver Spoons, advised Smith to be really careful when deciding on the name since if the show were to become a hit he may always be known as that particular character’s name for the rest of his life. In a money move Will Smith named his character Will Smith, meanwhile Ribeiro is probably still haunted by people calling him Carlton Banks. Will Smith the actor’s full name is Willard Caroll Smith Junior, whereas the show character is Willard Smith.
2. Musical Inspirations Were Big, Punny & Funny On The Show
Music was a huge influence on the show, which is fitting considering Will Smith’s musical background. The name of Uncle Phil’s Law Firm, Firth, Wynn and Meyer is a play on words for the band Earth, Wind & Fire (who is not coincidentally one of Executive Producer Quincy Jones’ all-time favourite groups). Alfonso Ribeiro credits Courteney Cox, Bruce Springsteen, and Eddie Murphy for his iconic dance “The Carlton”. Ribeiro has said he combined Cox’s dancing from the video for Springsteen’s hit “Dancing in the Dark” and an Eddie Murphy comedy skit on how white people dance to create the signature dance. In season three of the show, when cousin Nicholas is born his full name is Nicholas Andrew Michael Shawn Nathan Wanya Banks. This name pays tribute to Boys II Men band members, who performed at little Nicolas’ Christening.
1. Will Smith Was Inspired By Roseanne To Push The Show Further
Will Smith used the show as a vehicle to grow his range and skills both in front of and behind the camera. Not only did he first begin acting via the show and grow into the Blockbuster movie maker we know today, he also began to help with stories and even produced some of the episodes. Will Smith has commented on his encouraging the writers of the show to tackle some more serious and dramatic episodes after he was inspired by serious and meaningful moments captured on the hit show Roseanne. Will produced the episode “Ain’t No Business Like Show Business” in the third season, where his friend Keith who is a comedian from back home in Philadelphia comes for a visit and makes stand-up look like a snap, so Will decides to follow in his footsteps.