More than two-and-a-half decades after the show launched, fans of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air are still watching. The Will Smith sitcom aired from 1990 to 1996, and has 148 episodes under its belt. The show was a favorite among fans across the world, who tuned in weekly to witness the antics of a fictionalized version of Will, a street-wise Philly teen, trying to make it work while living with his more affluent family in Bel-Air, California. Things didn’t always go smoothly in that household, but how was it behind-the-scenes? Keep reading to find out.
1. You Could Say They Were Interchangeable Rappers
The Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff weren’t the first hip-hop duo shoulder-tapped for this sitcom. In fact, producers first had Kid ‘n Play in mind for the roles as they were developing the concept. They turned down the TV gig, and the rest is history. Interestingly enough, Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff passed on House Party, the film that Kid ‘n Play starred in.
2. Dolla Dolla Bills Y’all
Star of the show Will Smith wasn’t always the seemingly enlightened individual he is today. Before he became one of the richest celebrities around, his rap game earned him quite a few dollars as well. However, poor money management led to him owing the government $2.8 million, which he racked up by shirking income tax payments. Smith was in trouble and on the brink of bankruptcy after all his money and belongings were seized, but help was on the way. Quincy Jones, executive producer of the developing series, handpicked him to star in this new sitcom. The IRS then made Smith pay them 70 percent of his salary for the show’s first three seasons. Good thing it wasn’t canceled.
3. The Fresh Prince of Brentwood
Sure Will was pulling up to the Banks’ house in Bel-Air during the show’s credits, the only thing is, that’s not where the cab driver actually took him. He’s really “smellin’ him later” in Brentwood on N. Bristol Ave, which is close-by, but not quite where the well-to-do family was supposed to be living.
4. Inspiration for the Carlton Dance
Fans of the show know the “Carlton dance” well and Alfonso Ribeiro, the actor behind the character, is the only one who could really do it justice, or so fans think. According to the actor, “There was a video of Bruce Springsteen and Courteney Cox called ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ and Bruce Springsteen pulls her up onto the stage and she basically does that dance.” He combined it with Eddie Murphy’s Delirious comedy video featuring “the white man dance” and just like that a new, train wreck of a memorable dance was born.
5. Just Give Him A Chance
Many of Hollywood’s hottest stars have confessed to being passed over or fired, and Smith nearly experienced this early on in the series. The truth was this—his acting wasn’t that great. He had no formal training and unfortunately in early episodes it showed. Example? Look closely and you’ll see him mouthing his costars words during his first few performances. Still, the show’s producers and creators saw potential and managed to stave off the pending NBC executives’ firing. This turned out to be a good call, as the actor is now an A-lister who can pick and choose his roles.
6. A Tale of Two Vivs
“Vivian Banks/Aunt Viv” might have had a soft spot for her nephew in the show, but this was not the case in real life. The public was told that Janet Hubert, who played the character from 1990 to 1993, became pregnant, effectively breaking her contract. However, in her book Perfection Is Not A Sitcom Mum however, Hubert tells a different tale. She alleged that she was not only fired by Smith, but that he had played the role of saboteur for her career and others. Daphne Reid portrayed Vivian after Hubert’s departure.
7. Those Tears Were Real
Remember the episode where the Fresh Prince’s estranged father comes to visit him in Bel-Air only to walk out on his life again? The scene wasn’t supposed to be quite that emotional. Smith was supposed to brush off this re-abandonment, like he was a tough guy who didn’t care. However, in real life, Smith’s own father had walked out on him and so the scene struck an emotional nerve. Smith couldn’t contain himself and went off script, welling up with real tears. This resulted in an unscripted hug from Uncle Phil (James Avery).
8. The Butler Did It
Joseph Marcell played “Geoffrey Butler” (yes, that was his last name) the sarcastic butler that every fan wanted to have at their house despite his quips and low-blows. According to the character’s backstory, he was a British immigrant who’d been in service to famous stars like Chuck Norris and Led Zeppelin before coming to work for the Banks. Long before that, his story is even more interesting. After finding fame and glory as a British Olympian, he was caught up in a cheating scandal which not only shamed his country, but led to him being slapped in the face by the Queen. With a royal palm mark still burning his cheek, it’s no wonder Geoffrey turned up his nose at “commoners.”
9. Call Me Will
You probably think the actor/rapper Will Smith and his character Will “Fresh Prince” Smith share the same name. Not quite. The sitcom Will is short for William, but in real life it’s short for Willard. Just a quirky way to differentiate the two.
10. That’s What Friends Are For
In 1989 Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff, who played Will’s best friend on the show, won an Emmy for ‘Best Rap Performance.’ Their songs “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “Summertime” were also wildly successful. In a phrase, these two worked very well together and that was probably because they were best friends in real life. Apparently the two are still friends today so you can call this a lasting bromance.
11. Continuity Matters
One of the jobs of a script/continuity supervisor is to ensure that every “I” is dotted and “T” crossed during filming. They phoned it in a bit with the Jazz scene where he is thrown out of the house either by Will’s uncle or other members of the Banks’ family. Here’s why: Jazz was thrown out numerous times, yet was wearing the same shirt whenever he was pelted from that household. Think back. Now you’re seeing it! Producers only shot that scene once, even though it was a running joke during the series. Same shirt or not though, it got laughs every time.
12. Kickin’ It With The Boyz
The original “Vivian” leaving the show was preceded by the Banks family’s new addition “Nicky” in season three. He was worked into the plot to explain Janet Hubert’s pregnancy, which had been reported as a violation of her contract. Nicky’s full name is: Nicholas Andrew Michael Shawn Nathan Wanya Banks, and each middle name represented a member of the then popular R&B quartet Boyz II Men. “Can we go back to the days our love was strong . . .” Come on, it’s not like you all weren’t singing it in your heads too!
13. Another Shout Out To Musical Legends
James Avery was great as “Uncle Phil” and his character was a respected lawyer at fictional law firm Firth, Wynn, and Meyer. Like many creators of books, movies, etc, who use their mediums to pay tribute to their inspirations, executive producer of the show Quincy Jones chose the firm’s name as a nod to one of his favorite groups—Earth, Wind & Fire.
14. Dutch Life Turned Upside Down
It wasn’t just the series that was a hit with fans, but the music from the show too. The Netherlands was the first place to have the CD soundtrack released there, and residents showed their love for an extended remixed version of the theme song by taking it all the way to number 3 on their charts in 1992.
15. Be Careful What You Sing
This last story may seem like a joke, especially as it all could have been avoided if the individual at the center had worked a bit harder on good diction. When an unsuspecting receptionist from Ambridge Area High School, Pennsylvania, called a student up with an appointment reminder back in 2013, she was shocked at what she heard. His voicemail mimicked The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s theme song, but instead of the lyrics “shooting some b-ball outside of the school,” the receptionist thought he sang, “shooting people outside of the school.” Yikes! The student was put in police custody, but after the mix-up was cleared up, all was well.
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