Now, this is a story all about how Will Smith went from a bankrupt actor to the prince of Bel-Air. The 1990s sitcom created by Andy and Susan Borowitz became iconic, and with a reboot in the works, everyone is wondering where the original cast is today and what went on behind the scenes on set.
From Janet Hubert leaving the show during Season 3 to Alfonso Ribeiro struggling to find acting roles after the show, we are taking a deep look into all the secrets behind The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. People of all generations love the show, and these facts will make you love it even more.
Will Smith Only Did the Show Because He Was Broke
Although The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air shot Will Smith to stardom, he almost turned down the role. When he was rapping, he gained widespread fame but didn’t manage his money well. He was spending frivolously between 1988 and 1989 and underpaid his income taxes. The IRS said he owed $2.8 million in tax debt.
The IRS seized most of his belongings, including his income, and Smith almost declared bankruptcy. However, producer Quincy Jones thought he would be the perfect star for a new series, and Smith needed the money, so he took the opportunity. The IRS also forced him to pay them 70 percent of his salary for the first three seasons.
Smith Was an Acting Rookie
When looking back on the early episodes of Fresh Prince, Smith said he was embarrassed by his performance. He had only done one other TV production before Fresh Prince as a T-shirt salesman on ABC for an after-school special. Smith wasn’t a formally trained actor, and his lack of experience was evident.
Smith recalled that he was trying so hard. He would memorize the entire script and lip everyone’s lines while they were talking. Smith said when he watches the early episodes, he is disgusted, but that didn’t hurt the viewership. Everyone loved the show from the beginning, so he did something right.
The Pilot Was Written and Taped in Three Weeks
In just three weeks, Andy and Susan Borowitz, the show’s creators, wrote the pilot script for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. They rounded up a cast and began filming on May 1st, 1990, with the first season being aired in September of that year. Everything happened so quickly, but it worked in their favor.
Before the pilot, Jane Hubert and James Avery, who played Vivian and Phillip Banks, had never heard of Will Smith’s music act “The Fresh Prince.” While many people believe the show is based on Smith’s life because he used the name for his music before the series, it is about someone else.
The Show Is Based on Benny Medina’s Life
In 1990, music manager Benny Medina and his business partner Jeff Pollack had the idea to make a TV show based on Medina’s life. While most people joke about turning their lives into a show, Medina’s vision came to fruition. He grew up in East L.A., but his life changed when he met a rich white teenager.
The wealthy family lived in Beverly Hills, and Medina went to live with them, just like Smith’s character. Medina wanted this to be the main focus of Fresh Prince, but having a Black character living with a white family had been done before, so he changed it around to explore prejudice and class differences within the Black community.
The House Isn’t in Bel-Air
In the opening credits of The Fresh Prince, the location of the big white mansion is thought to be in Bel-Air because that is where the series takes place. However, the house is actually in Brentwood, California. The neighborhoods are just five miles apart, but The Fresh Prince of Brentwood doesn’t have the same ring.
Fans of the show had the opportunity to stay in the Fresh Prince house in honor of the show’s 30th anniversary last year. All the rooms were decked out with ‘90s memorabilia, and each guest got a pair of Air Jordans. The house was complete with a basketball court and a closet filled with stylish outfits.
Two Famous People Inspired Carlton’s Iconic Dance
Carlton’s iconic dance is instantly recognizable, and people are always asking Alfonso Ribeiro to perform it. However, you might be surprised to find out the inspiration behind it. Ribeiro basically recreated the dance that Courtney Cox did when she was pulled on stage by Bruce Springsteen.
Ribeiro also took notes from Eddie Murphy’s Delirious comedy video where he does the “white man dance” to get the perfect combination for his character’s signature moves. While it might have been inspired by two famous dances, it will forever be Carlton’s signature move.
The Theme Song Was Composed by Quincy Jones
“Yo Home to Bel-Air,” the show’s hit theme song, was composed by the executive producer, Quincy Jones. While Smith performs it, Jones also gets credit for it at the end of every episode. The music from the song is also used to join scenes together and start and end the episodes.
The pilot episode had longer introductory credits with an extra verse of “Yo Home to Bel-Air.” You can see Will’s mom packing his suitcase and Will boarding a plane and sitting in first class during the entire song. Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff also perform a five-minute extended version.
NBC Canceled the Show After Season 4
Although Fresh Prince ran for six seasons, NBC initially canceled the show after Season 4. The finale was going to be “The Philadelphia Story.” However, fans were so upset at the thought of the show ending and wrote to NBC executives to renew it. The show ended up running for two more seasons.
Many of the cast members said they had had enough and wanted to move on. Therefore, if the show wasn’t renewed, the third, fourth, and fifth season finales were written to be farewell episodes. The sixth season finale was written with full knowledge that the show wouldn’t continue.
Two Different Actresses Played Aunt Viv
During the first three seasons of Fresh Prince, Jane Hubert played Aunt Vivian, but Maxwell Reid replaced her. According to some reports, Hubert said producers offered her a 10-episode contract that prevented her from doing other work. When she refused, the producers recast the role.
Other reports said that Hubert’s pregnancy violated her contract even though the producers wrote it into Aunt Vivian’s storyline. Smith and Hubert also had a longstanding feud because they didn’t see eye-to-eye while working together. After she left, they talked poorly about each other in the press.
Jane Hubert and Will Smith Had a Longstanding Feud
For years, Hubert and Smith talked negatively about each other publicly. However, they only recently opened up about their feud when they had an interview together with NPR. Hubert revealed that she wasn’t fired, but she was experiencing many difficulties in her personal life, including an abusive marriage.
Smith was coming to terms with rapidly increased fame at his young age and didn’t care what was happening in Hupert’s life, which he regretted. However, many of the other cast members said she was challenging to work with and thought it was her show.
Two Actresses Also Played Will’s Mom
Like Aunt Vivian, Will’s mom was also played by two different actresses. The woman in the title sequence in the shower cap, who is supposed to be his mom, was allegedly never paid for this appearance. She auditioned for the role, but they only used her for the opening credits.
Will’s mom appeared in 15 episodes throughout the six seasons, played by Vernee Watson-Johnson. Watson-Johnson was just 14 years older than Smith despite playing his mother. Hubert was only 12 years older than Smith and ten years older than Karyn Parsons, who played her daughter.
Who Plays the Cabbie?
While many sites, including IMDb, credit Quincy Jones as the taxi driver in the opening credits, that is not true. According to his daughter, Rashida Jones, and Jada Pinkett Smith, the cabbie in the credits is definitely not Jones. It does look like him because the part is so short.
Jones couldn’t be the cab driver because when he was 14, he got into a car accident when he was a passenger. Apparently, he never learned to drive after that. While this doesn’t completely rule him out for the part, it wasn’t him in the cab.
Only Three Characters Appeared in All 148 Episodes
Will Smith, Karyn Parsons, and James Avery are the only cast members to appear in every episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Technically, Parsons wasn’t in the “Love in an Elevator” episode. Although she didn’t have new scenes, she was in the flashbacks.
Also, on a technicality, DJ Jazzy Jeff appears in every episode because he is one of the basketball players in the opening credits. However, he is only credited for 46 episodes. It’s also surprising that Ribeiro wasn’t in all the episodes.
Will Smith Met His Wife During Auditions
Jada Pinkett Smith initially auditioned to play Smith’s on-screen girlfriend during Fresh Prince auditions, but she didn’t get the part because she was too short. Although she didn’t get to play his love interest in front of the cameras, Pinkett Smith won her man over in real life.
The two later started dating in 1995 and got married in 1997. Smith was apparently attracted to Pinkett Smith when he saw her on the series A Different World. When the couple got married in a private ceremony, she was three months pregnant with their son Jaden.
The Banks Children Are Based on Quincy Jones’ Daughters
When coming up with the characters for the Banks children, Andy and Susan Borowitz took inspiration from Quincy Jones’ own daughters. However, Carlton was named after Borowitz’s classmate at Harvard, Carlton Cuse. Cuse is best known for writing the series Lost.
Each character had layers that prevented them from being one-dimensional snobs. Throughout the series, Hilary learns that there are more important things than shopping. Carlton doesn’t always stick to his uptight preppy ways, and Ashley becomes a mature woman who understands her privilege in her community.
James Avery Passed Away Before the Reunion
Avery, who plays Uncle Phil, had many roles after Fresh Prince. He appeared on The Closer, The Nightmare Room, The Division, and That ‘70s Show. He also landed roles in films like Raise Your Voice and Dr. Doolittle 2. Avery was very successful in his acting career.
Sadly, Avery passed away in 2016 at age 68 due to complications from heart surgery. The U.S. Army vet was honored by many of his former Fresh Prince castmates. They reflected on memories during their reunion in 2020. Everyone missed him dearly.
Alfonso Ribeiro Struggled to Find Work
Although Ribeiro, who plays Carlton, had starring roles in Extreme Ghostbusters and In the House, he struggled to get parts that weren’t like his Fresh Prince character. He has always played the nerdy character who is sometimes a snob, but Ribeiro is so much more than that.
After competing on Dancing with the Stars during Season 19, he started hosting America’s Funniest Home Videos in 2015. In 2012, Ribeiro married his second wife, Angela Unkrich, and they have three children together. He also has a daughter from his first marriage.
The Theme Song Caused a School Lockdown
While it might seem strange because the Fresh Prince theme song is such a jam, it caused a school to be put on lockdown. A receptionist from Ambridge Area High School in Pennsylvania called a student to remind him about an appointment. He didn’t answer, and the receptionist got his voicemail.
The student imitated the theme song for his voicemail, and the receptionist thought he said “shooting people outside the school” instead of the correct lyrics. She called the police, and he was brought in for questioning but later released.
Will Smith Gave Ideas for Some of the Episodes
Smith was more than just the star of the sitcom; he also helped with storylines and produced some of the episodes. He encouraged the writers to branch out into more serious and dramatic episodes after being inspired by the more emotional moments on the show Roseanne.
Some of the episodes he worked on included “Ain’t No Business Like Show Business” in Season 3. He also helped with some of the tender moments, like when Will’s dad tries to come back into his life only to abandon him again.
Uncle Phil’s Law Firm Was Inspired by a Band
In Fresh Prince, Uncle Phil works for a law firm called Firth, Wynn, and Meyer. It was a play on the band Earth, Wind & Fire. Executive producer Quincy Jones was a massive fan of the group, and the reference to the band is mentioned in the first season of the series.
During the pilot episode, Uncle Phil has a party at their house for his colleagues, and he introduces Will to his partners at the firm. When Will hears the name Firth, Wynn, and Meyer, Will responds, “Hey, Earth, Wind & Fire, when’s your next album coming out?”
Karyn Parsons Created Her Own Show
After Fresh Prince, Karyn Parsons, who played Hilary Banks, co-created, co-produced, and co-wrote the show Lush Life. However, the series was canceled after just four episodes. Despite her failed series, Parsons landed roles on The Job, Melrose Place, and Static Shock.
Parsons also appeared in films, including 13 Moons and The Ladies Man. In 2019, she published her first children’s novel titled How High the Moon. Her second book, Flying Free, was released in December 2020. In 2003, Parsons married Alexandre Rockwell, and they have two children together.
Karyn Parsons Kept a Prop From the Banks’ Kitchen
Parsons told ABC News about a notebook kept in the Fresh Prince set’s kitchen island drawer. She took the notebook after the show finished because it was filled with special memories. Now and then, a camera person or the cast would write poetry or notes in it.
It was even more sentimental than she thought because after Avery passed away, she pulled out the notebook to look at old things he had written in there. Parsons said some people would write, “James is getting on my nerves,” which made her emotional after his death.
The Writing Room Was Notoriously Difficult
According to Jenji Kohan, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air writers’ room was a “toxic mess” and a challenging work environment. It was her first writing job, and in 2017, Kohan revealed that the staff included Smith’s bodyguard and his cousin, and they worked ridiculous hours.
Kohan also revealed that they would pull cruel pranks on each other, like the time someone peed in a colleague’s bottle of tequila. She was just one of two female writers and the only white woman. She said people were sexist and would give nicknames to each other based on race or religion.
Their Real Names
In the Banks family, many characters never said their full name. The loyal family butler played by Joseph Marcell only went by Geoffrey throughout the series. However, it eventually came out that his full name was Geoffrey Barbara Butler. Most viewers had no idea he had a full name.
Another character who didn’t use his full name was Vivian and Phillip’s youngest son, Nicky. His full name was Nicholas Andrew Michael Shawn Nathan Wanya Banks. He was named after the four members of the band Boyz II Men after they performed at his christening.
Tatyana Ali Had an Awkward Moment
Like most of her costars, Tatyana Ali, who played Ashley Banks, looks back on her experience with a positive attitude. However, there was one moment that terrified her. When her character had to kiss someone, it was also her first kiss, and she was so nervous.
Since the show, Ali has had an abundance of film and TV roles, including November Rule and Jawbreaker. She also released music in 2014. In 2016, Ali married Vaughn Rasberry, and they share two children. Little Ashley is all grown up now.
There Was a Crossover With In the House
Fresh Prince and In the House had the same executive producers: Quincy Jones, Winifred Hervey, and David Salzman. During Season 2 of In the House, Ribeiro, and Ali crossed over for an episode. In “Dog Catchers,” the pair played their Fresh Prince characters.
Later in the season, Avery starred in the episode “Love on a One-Way Street” as Phillip Banks. After Fresh Prince ended, Ribeiro joined In the House as a different character for Seasons 3 and 4. Avery and Reid played his parents in the show too.
Blossom and Fresh Prince Shared an Episode
On Monday nights between 1991-1992, Blossom would air after Fresh Prince on NBC. Both shows were widely popular, so the producers decided to do a crossover with some characters. Smith appeared in Blossom’s “I’m with the Band” as his character Will.
Karyn Parsons also played Hilary Banks’s character for Blossom’s “Wake Up Little Suzy” episode. Hilary was also in a crossover episode on the sitcom Out All Night. However, the Blossom characters weren’t on an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Two Actresses Made Their Acting Debut on Fresh Prince
Queen Latifah made her acting debut as two different characters. In Season 1, she plays Marissa Redman, a demanding celebrity who hires Hilary as a personal assistant in the episode “Working It Out.” This was her first-ever acting role outside of music videos.
In Season 2, Latifah played Dee Dee in “She Ain’t That Heavy.” She was Will’s overweight love interest. Besides Latifah, Tyra Banks also made her acting debut on Fresh Prince for four episodes as Smith’s girlfriend. He had many girlfriends throughout the series.
The Mowry Sisters Auditioned for the Series
Many of us know Tia and Tamera Mowry from Sister, Sister, but the twins wanted to be stars before they got their prominent role. They both auditioned for the part of Ashley Banks, but we all know it went to Tatyana Ali.
We wonder what it would have been like if one of them got the role and the other didn’t. Like Jada Pinkett Smith, the actresses went on to have great careers even though they were turned down from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Alfonso Ribeiro Had a Dancing Background
Long before we saw Carlson’s signature dance move, Ribeiro was making money as a dancer. He served as a backup dancer for Michael Jackson during the 1984 Pepsi commercial, which was a massive deal at the time. However, he took his dancing one step too far.
Ribeiro decided to use his dance knowledge to create a book titled “Breakin’ and Poppin’.” It was supposed to help people learn to dance. He even starred in an amusing commercial for the book that aired on MTV. We are positive that he looked just as nerdy as his character Carlton.
From Butler to the Big Stage
Joseph Marcell, who played Geoffrey, might be known as the Banks family butler, but he did much more with his career after the show ended in 1996. Marcell earned guest spots on shows like Holby City and Ratched. He also had a role in the movie Return to Zero.
However, Marcell took his acting chops to the stage. Much like his character on Fresh Prince, he had the theater bug for a while. Marcell appeared in Sam Wanamaker’s Playhouse production of The Tempest in 2016 and Shakespeare’s Globe Theater’s 2014 King Lear rendition.
It’s Almost Impossible to Get the Soundtrack
While most people listen to their music through Spotify or Apple Music these days, it is nearly impossible to find a CD soundtrack of The Fresh Prince. If you really want one to add to a collection, you will have to take a trip to the Netherlands.
The soundtrack was initially only released in Holland, with an extended remixed version of the title song reaching number three on the singles chart in 1992. Today, the songs on the soundtrack are only available through music streaming services. You won’t really find a tangible version.
Prisoners at Guantanamo Bay Love the Show
While this might not be something Smith is bragging about, the series is the entertainment of choice in the prison. For a while, Harry Potter books were the top choice for inmates on the island prison, but they soon became fans of The Fresh Prince.
Inmates can watch the show on large televisions in medium-security cell blocks on a near-constant loop. We wonder if they ever get tired of watching reruns. It has been a syndication hit in the U.S., with long runs on TBS and local stations. It is also on HBO Max now.
The Show Endorsed a Pair of Sneakers
You might have noticed that Will was almost always wearing basketball sneakers. To be specific, he was rocking Air Jordans by Michael Jordan. His look was so closely associated with those shoes that the show endorsed a pair of the sneakers.
The sneakers were called The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Jordan 5. Well, they were really called Air Jordan 5 Bel-Air, but that name isn’t as good as the full name. Will wore them on the show, and they can be found on certain online sneaker retailers.
The Show Is Still Making Money
Although the series ended in 1996, it continues to make a great deal of money. Many people buy merchandise with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air logo on it because graphic T-shirts are trendy. However, that is not the primary source of money.
Most of the money today comes from syndication and streaming services such as HBO Max and Netflix. Also, in October 2019, Will Smith launched a Fresh Prince clothing line. The website sells merchandise inspired by the clothing the cast wore throughout the series.
Daphne Maxwell Reid Was on Other Hit Shows
Daphne Maxwell Reid is known for replacing Hubert after Season 3 to play Aunt Vivian. After her time on Fresh Prince, Reid scored a recurring role on Jaqueline and Jilly, Eve, and Let’s Stay Together. She also made guest appearances on The Cosby Show and Sister, Sister.
Reid has been married to actor Tim Reid since 1982, and they are still going strong. Her most recent film was in 2019’s Harriet as Miz Lucy. Most people don’t know that she was the first Black woman to be on the cover of Glamour magazine.
Carlton Was Almost Recast
Towards the end of the series, the chemistry between Smith and Ribeiro was the show’s highlight. The two played off each other so well; it was like they were related in real life. However, Ribeiro almost missed out on the opportunity to play Carlton.
After the pilot, the producers decided to fire Ribeiro for some unknown reason. Luckily, they quickly came to their senses and rehired him before it was too late. It would have been a much different show without Ribeiro and his killer moves.
It All Happened by Chance
Will Smith recently started his own YouTube channel, and he has been talking about his career in many videos. In one video, he posted about landing the lead role on The Fresh Prince. He said he was broke at the time, and he was getting on his girlfriend’s nerves.
She wanted Smith to do something with his life, so she told him to go on the Arsenio Hall Show. While he was there, he met Benny Medina, who took him to Quincy Jones’ house. He had an impromptu audition, and the rest is history.
Karyn Parsons’ Side Job
Like most struggling actors trying to find work, Parsons was a waitress when she landed the role of Hilary Banks. It’s an easy way to make money while still being able to go on auditions due to the flexible schedule.
Although she got one of the main parts on the series, Parsons held on to her waitressing job until she knew the show would be a hit. She didn’t want to leave her primary source of income without having a backup plan in case the show went south.
DJ Jazzy Jeff Is Doing Alright
The famous artist Jeffrey Allen Townes, aka DJ Jazzy Jeff, was successful in his music career with Smith before the NBC series aired. He also continued with music once Smith went into acting. The Grammy winner established himself as a music producer.
DJ Jazzy Jeff has worked with some big names in the industry, including Eminem. He continued to work on solo music and put out an album in 2018 called M3. Jeff and Smith have reunited for collaborations throughout the years, and they are still an iconic duo.
Ross Bagley Is All Grown Up
Ross Bagley played the youngest Banks sibling, Nicky. After his role on The Fresh Prince, Bagley appeared in Blockbuster hits, including Independence Day, The Little Rascals, and Dead Ringer. He had guest roles on shows like The Wild Thornberrys and Judging Amy.
The Little Rascals star graduated from California State University, Northridge, and landed an internship at Smith’s production company. He is also the father to a son named Reece. In 2015, he shared with fans that he was working as a realtor for Keller Williams Realty.
Nia Long Was One of Will’s Many Girlfriends
Famed actress Nia Long had a role as one of the many love interests in Will’s life on Fresh Prince. Her acting resume is quite long, including appearances on NCIS: Los Angeles, Empire, House of Lies, and The Cleveland Show.
Long has also appeared in hits like The Best Man Holiday and Big Momma’s House in the film world. Although she wasn’t Smith’s girlfriend in real life, she has been dating Ime Udoka since 2010, and they share a son. She also has a son from a relationship with Massai Z. Dorsey.
There Are Parodies of the Series
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air has been a popular show for decades now. People loved it so much that there have been several parodies of the series. Mad TV produced the animated series called Fresh Prawn of Bel-Air. Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie made a parody as well.
A pet adoption group produced The Fresh Pup of Bel-Air to help dogs get adopted. While these are just two examples, there have been many references to the series in pop culture. Saturday Night Live has done skits based on the series, and there was also a quarantine version.
There Were Many Famous Guest Stars
While Queen Latifah and Tyra Banks are well-known names today, they weren’t when they guest-starred on the series. However, there were many famous people to have had guest roles on The Fresh Prince. Quincy Jones made an appearance as well as Bo Jackson and Naomi Campbell.
Other notable names included Zsa Zsa Gabor, Hugh Hefner, Oprah Winfrey, Stacey Dash, Dick Clark, Karim Abdul Jabbar, Jay Leno, and William Shatner. There was also mention that the Banks lived next to the Cheneys in the pilot episode. However, he turned down Phillip Banks’ invitation 16 times.
The Reboot Already Got a Second Season
Smith might have thought it would be impossible to make a reboot of The Fresh Prince, but in 2019, he saw Morgan Cooper’s mock trailer for a darker version of the series named Bel-Air, and they started writing the script. In 2020, Netflix, NBC’s Peacock, and HBO Max were all bidding for the series, with Peacock winning.
The streaming service has already ordered a second season. The darker version will focus more on Will’s complicated journey from the streets of West Philadelphia to the gated communities of Bel-Air. Acting newcomer Jabri Banks is set to star as Will in the upcoming series.