Warning: This post contains spoilers from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion.
Now this is the story of how The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air cast got flip-turned upside down. As fans of the beloved ‘90s sitcom know, midway through the NBC show’s six-season run, Janet Hubert aka the O.G. Aunt Viv was unceremoniously shown the door, replaced by Daphne Maxwell Reid. And on her way out, Hubert took shots at the show’s star, Will Smith, as being one of the reasons behind her exit after he described her as being “difficult” on set. That instigated a feud that continued for nearly three decades. But Smith and Hubert hug it out, literally, in the new HBO Max special, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion. Premiering on Nov. 19, the 75-minute reunion features the duo’s first face-to-face conversation since 1993... and it’s as emotionally charged as any episode of Red Table Talk.
During their tearful reunion, Hubert revisits the circumstances surrounding her departure, revealing information that Smith hadn’t been aware of previously. “They offered me this really bad deal in the third season,” the actress says, claiming that the network sought to cut her hours and her salary heading into Season 4. Meanwhile, Hubert was also in a difficult domestic situation, having just given birth to her son and experiencing trouble in her marriage to James Whitten. (The couple divorced in 1994.) “You didn’t realize that I was going through a lot at home,” she tells Smith in the reunion special. “You guys didn’t know. [It was] a very abusive marriage.”
Hubert says that she ultimately rejected NBC’s terms, and at that point the network decided to recast her role. “I wasn’t fired,” she stresses. “The misconception was always put out there.” It didn’t help that she and Smith were having conflicts on set, with the then-21-year-old star expressing frustration with her. “We knew you were going to be huge,” Hubert says of Smith’s influence behind the scenes. “I had this baby and no one [else]. Family disowned me, Hollywood disowned me. I just stopped talking to everybody because I was banished, and they said it was you who banished me.”
Hubert also said that Smith’s interviews about her departure prevented her from finding other jobs. “Words can kill,” she tells the actor. “I lost everything — my reputation, everything. Calling a Black woman ‘difficult’ in Hollywood is the kiss of death.” For his part, a visibly moved Smith apologizes on behalf of his younger self. “I wasn’t sensitive, I wasn’t perceptive,” he says. “Now that I’ve had three kids, I’ve learned some things I did not know at the time and I would do things very differently. But I can see where I made the set very difficult for Janet.” The actor also describes being “driven by fear” at that age, and that led him to view the world around him as a threat. “I can see now the level of pain and the level of struggle that it was just for you to show up everyday,” he tells Hubert.
Smith and Hubert’s conversation was filmed separately from the star’s group hang with the rest of the Fresh Prince cast, including Reid, Alfonso Ribeiro, Karyn Parsons, Tatyana Ali, Jospeh Marcell and Jeffrey Townes aka DJ Jazzy Jeff. But after showing the ensemble footage of their chat, Smith proceeds to stage the ultimate Fresh Prince family reunion by inviting Hubert into the Banks family living room. In a history-making moment, the show’s two Aunt Viv’s share the screen as Reid and Hubert meet — and embrace — for the first time. “I cannot tell you how unbelievable and wonderful it feels,” Hubert says. And Smith makes it clear that he’s putting the past in the past: “I’m so happy that we were able to make that reconciliation, and I hope other people can take something from it.”
Smith and Hubert’s make-up session is the emotional high point of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion, but the special offers some other behind-the-scenes revelations as well. We’d like to take a moment, just sit right there, and we’ll tell you what went down on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Will Smith auditioned for the show at Quincy Jones’s house
Actors generally have days or even weeks to prepare for a big audition: Will Smith had all of 10 minutes. Recalling how he came to be cast as the title character in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Smith says that it all went down during Quincy Jones’s birthday party. At the time, Smith was a rising rap star, but didn’t have any experience as an actor. Nevertheless, Jones — who executive produced the show — saw him as the ideal leading man. When Smith turned up at his birthday shindig, the legendary producer sat him down with Fresh Prince creator, Benny Medina. “It was based on Benny Medina’s life,” Smith remembers. “He went from Watts to Beverly Hills. Quincy asked me, ‘Where are you from?’ I said ‘I’m from Philly,’ and he said, ‘Your character is from Philly!’”
In a total non-coincidence, NBC executives Warren Littlefield and Brandon Tartikoff happened to be on the invite list for Jones’s party, and midway through the evening, the guest of honor informed them that they were about to watch an audition. There was just one problem: Smith didn’t want to do it. “[Quincy] grabs me and sits me down in his office,” the actor remembers now. “I told him, ‘I’m not an actor... just give me two weeks.’ And he said, ‘Here’s the deal: Everybody that needs to say ‘Yes’ is sitting out in that living room waiting for you.’ I was like, ‘All right, give me 10 minutes.’” It’s safe to say that Smith rocked his audition: Littlefield and Tartikoff struck a deal with Jones to make The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that night.
Nobody can do The Carlton like Alfonso Ribeiro
Smith can get jiggy with the Men in Black bounce and the Wild Wild West stroll but as he freely confesses during the Fresh Prince reunion, he could never master Ribeiro’s signature dance, The Carlton. To be fair, Ribeiro took some time to crack it as well. “I had to figure out how this character would dance,” he explains. “What would be the actual move that would hit it perfectly.”
As it turned out, Smith’s inability to master The Carlton played nicely into the characters’ onscreen dynamic. Early on, the writers thought that much of the comedy would emerge from the generational divide between Smith and Uncle Phil, played by the beloved James Avery, who died in 2013. But as Smith tells it, the focus shifted to cousins Carlton and Will after it became clear that they could play off each other in a variety of ways. “We understood that someone had to be the straight man for the other person’s silliness,” Ribeiro explains. “It was never, ‘This has to be a Carlton moment and this has to be a Will moment.’ The show came first, and we knew we could rely on each other.”
Uncle Phil took Will to (acting) school
Avery may not be physically present in the room with his co-stars, but his spirit is felt throughout the reunion special. “James is the heart of the show,” Ali says at one point. “He was my teacher; I learned what it meant to be an artist from him.” Avery was also a mentor for Smith, who remembers how the older actor would challenge him to “elevate your craft.” Sometimes that challenge came in the form of tough love. Smith recalls a pivotal episode in Season 4, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse,” where Will’s father visits him for the first time in 14 years, only to leave him again. The episode climaxes with an emotionally-charged encounter between Uncle Phil and his distraught nephew that required Smith to up his acting game in a big way.
“I wanted [James] to be proud of me,” Smith says now, tearing up at the memory. But during the scene, he flubbed a line and couldn’t find his way back into the scene. “My mind snapped,” he admits. “James said, ‘Get yourself together,’ and then said, ‘Action.’ And the scene that we do is the scene that ended up being in the episode. I fall into his arms at the end of the scene, and he’s holding me and the shot pans off. He whispered into my ear: ‘Now that’s acting.’”
Fresh Prince changed the game for Black representation on television
Although The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was first and foremost focused on making audiences laugh, the cast was also committed to tackling the experience of being a Black family in America in the early ‘90s. During the show’s six-season run, it focused on such topics as interracial marriage, racial profiling and gun violence. As Ribeiro explains, the actors played a big role in making sure that both the comedy and the drama was authentic, since the majority of the show’s writing staff was white. “We were able to share the real experience, and give the writers our perspective whenever we came across moments were it was like, ‘This wouldn’t happen.’”
Reid remembers one episode where she had to explain to the writers why young Ashley couldn’t mouth off to her father and get away with it. “I said, ‘Excuse me — if she says that to her daddy, she’ll lose her teeth,’” she remembers. “I had spent my career being on shows that showed the variety of the Black culture, [and] that we were not just a monolithic group of people. When I got here, we had the freedom to express to the writers the cultural aspects of what they had in the written word.” And Smith notes how that exchange of ideas helped give The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air its staying power. “Part of the power is that there would be these very powerful ideas under the jokes and comedy. It’s as relevant today as it was 30 years ago, unfortunately.”
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion is currently streaming on HBO Max.
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