“We will go down in history as one of the best to have ever done it.”
Thirty years after a sitcom starring a young rapper with no acting experience debuted on NBC, the cast of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air returned to the Banks mansion for a hilarious, emotional, and raw HBO Max reunion special.
Filmed on their original set, Will Smith, Alfonso Ribeiro, Karyn Parsons, Tatyana Ali, Joseph Marcell, Daphne Maxwell Reid, and DJ Jazzy Jeff came back together to reminisce — and settle a long festering family squabble. Yes, “OG Aunt Viv” Janet Hubert, who departed the series after season 3, also took part. Hubert hasn’t been shy over the years when it came to voicing her displeasure with Smith and company, as evidenced by the existence of this EW story: “All the times the original Aunt Viv slammed her Fresh Prince costars.”
There’s a lot to say about Smith and Hubert’s reunion, but let’s rundown all of the highlights from the must-see special (the Friends cast has got their work cut out for them).
Big Willie Style of Acting
As mentioned above, Smith, already a Grammy winning rapper, had never acted before Fresh Prince, and that is why he took an interesting approach to learning his lines: he learned everyone’s. Parsons and Ali both revealed that during the pilot taping they caught Smith mouthing their dialogue as he they were talking. Smith is horrified to see how noticeable it was when he’s showed an early season 1 episode where Smith is doing it as guest-star Don Cheadle speaks. “That’s painful to watch,” he says. “I knew everybody’s lines. I would have played Uncle Phil. I could’ve played Aunt Viv.”
Wild Wild Audition
Sitting in the Banks living room set, the cast watched Ribeiro and Parsons’ spot-on auditions for Carlton and Hilary, respectively. But there was no video of Smith trying out for Will, which is understandable since the character was named Will Smith and the real Smith says producer Quincy Jones “steamrolled” him through the process. Well, Smith technically did have an audition when he went to Jones’ birthday party and the music legend, already a few drinks in according to Smith, cleared out a room for the future movie star to try out in front of all the guests, including the head of NBC. “I said, ‘Quincy, I don’t know how to act, I’m not an actor. Just give me two weeks, let me find an acting coach and let me work on it and then let’s just set up a proper audition,’” Smith recalls of telling Jones. “He says, ‘Here’s the deal: Right now, everybody who needs to say yes for this show is sitting out in that living room waiting for you.’ And I was like, ‘Give me 10 minutes.’” Smith obviously impressed since the deal was done that night. Recalls his music partner and Fresh Prince costar DJ Jazzy Jeff: “We were on tour and had a day off and Will flew and came back and said, ‘I got a TV show.’”
Bringing the Real Black Experience
In 2020, Hollywood is still in need of more diversity, both in front of the screen and behind, so you can imagine what a writers' room in 1990 looked like. With a creative team that didn’t necessarily reflect Fresh Prince’s characters, the actors often spoke up to bring some much-needed truth to the situations. “We were able to share the experience, the real experience, and gave those writers our perspective,” says Ribeiro. “We would come across moments that they wrote that were like, ‘This wouldn’t happen, Black people don’t do this;' we made sure that we were authentic every episode.” Adds Smith: “It is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago, unfortunately.”
The Heart of the Show
The jovial nature of the special took a somber turn the minute that James Avery came up. The towering actor who so memorably played Smith’s father figure, Uncle Phil, died in 2013. Ali described Avery as her “teacher” and “the heart of the show," while Smith says that the veteran actor pushed him hard, emphasizing the “responsibility” he had to represent and pave the way for others. “I wanted him to think I was good so bad,” shares Smith, bringing up the famed episode in which Will breaks down in Uncle Phil’s arms over once again being let down by his absentee dad. “I wanted him to be proud of me. So the episode comes and we come to that scene and I was like, I want to deliver this scene so bad.”
Smith says that he flubbed his line in front of the studio audience and “my mind snapped.” He was riled up, prompting Avery to tell him to get himself together and “look at me” and “use me.” And the next take is the one that made it into the episode. “I fall into his arms at the end of the scene and he’s holding me and the shot pans off and he whispered in me ear, ‘Now that’s acting.” This memory leads to Smith tearing up and pulling out a tissue. “Come on, don’t do this, Will,” he says. “People don’t even know when they’re shaping you and forming you and crafting you.” Reid, who played Avery's wife, Vivian, interjected: “He knew.” The cast then sat in silence and watched clips of Avery, making everyone tear up, including yours truly.
You’re Still My Aunt Viv
And now to the main event. The Fresh Prince cast has reunited many times over the years, but never with Hubert. For the first three seasons, she played Will’s whip-smart, loving Aunt Vivian. But the actress was replaced by Reid for the rest of the sitcom’s run. Ever since, Hubert has expressed anger over her departure and belief that Smith was responsible. In the past, the actress has slammed Smith for being an "egomaniac,” while he’s fired back with claims that Hubert wanted the show to be "The Aunt Viv of Bel-Air."
During the special, Smith surprised even his castmates with the reveal that he sat down with Hubert for the first time in 27 years. “As a family, we have our things that we talk about and then we have our things that we don’t talk about,” he told them. “We never really, together, publicly talk about Janet. And what happened. And, for me, it felt like I couldn’t celebrate 30 years of Fresh Prince without finding a way to celebrate Janet.” He then played their honest and raw conversation.
After exchanging a long hug, the “OG” Aunt Viv opened by saying how “tough” this has all been for her. “I just wanted to know one thing: Why?” she asked. “You guys went so far. I lost so much. How do we heal that?” Smith says it would be helpful for him to know her story. “You have no idea,” she responds. “It was insane.” Hubert reveals that when she got pregnant during the third season a lot of things were going on in both her and Smith’s lives. For her, it was an abusive marriage, which the cast didn’t know about. “During that time of her pregnancy, I wasn’t sensitive, I wasn’t perceptive, and now that I’ve had three kids I’ve learned some things that I did not know at the time and I would do things very differently,” admits Smith in a separate confessional to the camera. “But I can see where I made the set very difficult for Janet.”
Warner Media/HBO MAX
Hubert further explained that she wasn’t fired, instead she just didn’t accept the “really bad deal” offered to her that meant a reduced salary and not being allowed to work elsewhere. The mother of a newborn and wife of an out-of-work husband, Hubert turned it down and was subsequently recast. “I was hurt deeply,” she says. “When I left the show, I had this new baby and no one. Family disowned me. Hollywood disowned me. My family said, 'You’ve ruined our name.' And I wasn’t unprofessional on the set. I just stopped talking to everybody because I didn’t who to trust because I had been banished. And they said it was you who banished me. Because you were Will. It was hard.”
Smith says that as a 21-year-old he felt like “everything was a threat" to him. “I was so driven by fear,” he admits. “I have children. I’ve been divorced and I have a second marriage, and I can see now the level of pain and the level of struggle that it was just for you to show up every day.” Retorts Hubert: “But you took all of that away from me — with your words. Words can kill. I lost everything. Reputation. Everything. And I understand you were able to move forward, but you know those words, calling a Black woman difficult in Hollywood, is the kiss of death. And it’s hard enough being a dark-skinned Black woman in this business. But I felt that it was necessary for us to finally move forward. And I’m sorry that I have blasted you to pieces.”
Smith thanked her for sharing all of that with him as they both were on the verge of tears and Hubert tenderly put her hand on Smith’s face. “You’re still my Aunt Viv," he declared. The duo ended by apologizing and embracing.
But the emotional reunion isn’t over! With the permission of the rest of the cast, Hubert joined them on the set. This marks the first time that Hubert and Reid have ever met. “Seeing Daphne and Janet, my two moms, the two Aunt Vivs, come together," says Parsons, "seeing them meet for the first time and embrace was the most incredible thing." For his part, Smith says of the family healing, “I don’t want to be that guy. I go out into the world and talk about understanding and human relationships and then have somebody that I haven’t spoken to in 27 years. I’m so happy that we were able to make that reconciliation, and I hope other people can take something from it.”
Now that is the story all about how The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air cast reunited in full.