30 Years Ago: "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" Premieres
By Stereo Williams
On September 10, 1990, a teenager born and raised in West Philadelphia moved into the posh digs of "his Auntie and Uncle in Bel-Air," and the result was a classic sitcom and a watershed moment for Hip-Hop and Black television.
The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air would become a monster hit for NBC and it turned Will Smith (aka The Fresh Prince of Grammy-winning duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince) into an actor and screen star.
The show was conceived by veteran Hollywood agent and producer Benny Medina as a reflection of his own life, and it was fast-tracked into production by Quincy Jones and his production company. Jones had seen Smith in DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince videos and was impressed with the rapper's charisma.
The show's premise is straightforward: a rambunctious high schooler (named "Will Smith," incidentally, right?) from West Philadelphia moves in with his wealthy relatives in luxurious Bel Air. His Aunt "Viv" Vivian Banks (Janet Hubert Whitten) dotes on her nephew, much to the chagrin of her gruff husband, attorney Philip "Uncle Phil" Banks (James Avery). Their three children are all products of their wealthy upbringing and react in different ways to Will; young Ashley (Tatyana Ali) looks up to him, eldest Hillary (Karyn Parsons) is too self-absorbed to care, and uptight Carlton (Alfonso Ribiero) sees Will as something of an unpolished buffoon and rival. Their long-suffering and wisecracking butler Geoffrey (Joseph Marcell) often gives Will and the others advice, but mostly just seems annoyed by everyone in the mansion. And Jazzy Jeff himself had a recurring role as Will's hapless buddy, Jazz.
The show was a ratings success immediately, and evolved from a basic fish-out-of-water comedy into something more character-driven; tackling serious issues like racism, gun violence, health, police harassment, teen sex, body positivity, and, perhaps most memorably, absentee fathers.
Over the course of its six seasons, The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air also featured an endless list of guest stars; including Heavy D, Tyra Banks, Tom Jones, Sherman Hemsley, Quincy Jones, Vivica Fox, Queen Latifah, Malcolm Jamal Warner, Don Cheadle, Jaleel White, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jasmine Guy, Boyz II Men, and even Donald Trump.
The series underwent its most noteworthy change in 1993, when Hubert was replaced by Daphne Maxwell Reid as Aunt Viv due to conflicts with Smith and the producers. The Fresh Prince... arrived in the waning years of NBC's previous centerpiece The Cosby Show, and its run coincided with other Hip-Hop-leaning shows like the popular sketch series In Living Color and sitcoms like Martin and Living Single, which all aired on the FOX network. Smith soon made the transition to the big screen, with supporting roles in Where The Day Takes You and Made In America, as well as a critically-acclaimed turn in the drama Six Degrees of Separation; before making the leap to blockbuster leading man with box office smashes like 1995s Bad Boys, 1996s Independence Day and 1997s Men In Black.
With the increasing demands of Smith's movie career, the show wrapped in 1996. The cast remains close (James Avery died in 2013), and it was announced that The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air cast would reunite for a 30 year reunion on HBO Max in September.
Smith reflected on Avery, in particular, while recalling that iconic "How come he don't want me?" scene from Season Four. Will has to face the fact that his estranged father Earl (memorably played by guest star Ben Vereen) has abandoned him again and tearily breaks down to Uncle Phil.
“So we’re doing that scene and I’m having a hard time,” Smith explained during a 2018 interview with TIDAL's Rap Radar Podcast. “‘Cause we were rehearsing and everything so…and then it comes to the moment and we’re in the scene together, right. So I’m doing it, I’m messing up the lines ’cause I want it so bad and I’m in front of the audience and I’m doing it and I’m furious and he holds on to me and he says, ‘Hey, relax. Relax. It’s already in there. You know what it is…Look at me. Use me. Don’t act around me. Act with me.'
“So he’s talking me through it and everything. I get it together. So I do the scene and then he hugs me at the end. While he’s hugging me he whispers in my ear. He says, ‘That’s fucking acting right there.'”
Despite its final episode having aired almost 25 years ago, The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air has maintained a hold on popular culture. There's even been discussions surrounding a reboot. Filmmaker Morgan Cooper reimagined The Fresh Prince of Bel Air as a gritty drama. He released a trailer, simply titled Bel Air, that showed his fresh (and darker) take on the popular show's basic premise.
Will Smith was so impressed with the trailer that he took a meeting with Cooper in 2019.
“The dramatic version of these ideas means that you can use existing storylines, but it’s not going to seem like you are redoing an episode because the storyline’s going to be brand-new from a dramatic perspective," Smith said in a vid praising the trailer.
“The Internet’s the Internet and you never know if something’s gonna catch a spark or not,” Cooper told IndieWire in 2019. “I’m very excited for everything that has happened and receive it humbly. But at the end of the day I’m a Black creative and representing my culture and expressing myself authentically is of the utmost importance to me.”
We don't know yet if this idea has moved from "talks" to "development," but wouldn't you like to see this thing get fleshed out? Of course you would.*
*UPDATE: It was announced this week that the dramatic reboot of The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air has been picked up via 2-season order by NBC's streaming service, Peacock. You can read all about it HERE.