Much of the special was devoted to walking the fans of the show through the process of making the show (from Tuesday and Wednesday rehearsals, to tape nights on Fridays), as well as sharing fond memories from their time working together (and featuring a surprise appearance by Ross Bagley, who played Nicky). In doing so, both in the roundtable setting and individual interview-style talking heads, the group was able to reflect on their experience, as well as the legacy of the show overall.
“The idea that we, as a Black show on TV — one of three at the time — there weren’t really us in the writers’ room,” said Alfonso Ribeiro. “As an actor, you never had a voice — you never had a voice in the room. You were a puppet who was told what to do, ‘Say this line, move over here.'”
But by having a Black family on-screen, millions of audience members around the world tuned in and saw themselves reflected — or tuned in and saw a Black family that was just like their own family.
“Yes it’s fun to watch, but the idea of it translates to so many different places,” said Will Smith.
Here are the top 7 things learned from HBO Max’s “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” reunion:
Smith admits to being a line-mimicker
A few years ago a popular thread on Reddit discussed Smith’s apparent mouthing of other performers’ dialogue in scenes in the hit 1990s sitcom. When asked for early memories of the show, it was the first thing Karyn Parsons, who played Will’s cousin Hilary Banks, called out. Saying she was so nervous during preparation and production for the pilot that she was “praying for an earthquake,” she added that what ended up making her more nervous on the show’s tape night was Smith silently repeating her lines back to her on-set, something he had been doing during rehearsals.
To explain, Smith said, “When we were on the set of the pilot that was my first time really doing dialogue.” “So you did everybody’s dialogue?” Parsons interjected. The answer was yes, he learned everybody’s dialogue and his strong memorization skills are visible if you go back and look at those early episodes, now in streaming.
Janet Hubert left over a ‘bad deal’ but felt ‘banished’ by Smith
The first actor to play Aunt Vivian sat down with Smith to discuss why she left the show, sharing that during the third season (her last), she was pregnant but her home life was “not good at all” and she was “no longer laughing, smiling, joking” because of it.
She took umbrage with the fact that her exit from the show was reported on as her being fired, saying she was offered and rejected a “bad deal”: She wasn’t allowed to work anywhere else when working on the show. “So that meant my salary was cut, I had a new baby and a husband who was out of work. So I said no, I would not accept their offer.”
Although she was “hurt deeply” that they said they were going to recast rather than renegotiate, she felt trapped and like she couldn’t say anything.
“I wasn’t unprofessional on the set, I just stopped talking to everybody because I didn’t know who to trust,” she said, adding that she was told it was Smith who “banished” her. After leaving the show, Hubert said both her family and Hollywood “disowned” her.
“I lost everything — reputation, everything,” she continued. “Those words, calling a Black woman ‘difficult’ in Hollywood is the kiss of death. It’s hard enough being a dark-skinned Black woman in this business.”
Ribeiro auditioned in a track suit
Carlton Banks was a notoriously preppy character. An affluent teenager attending private school in the ritzy Bel-Air sub-section of Los Angeles, he was known for button-down collared shirts and sweaters (often knotted around his neck). But Ribeiro auditioned for the role wearing an Adidas track suit, a fact by which, when faced with the old footage during the reunion, he seemed baffled.
“I know I didn’t go there wearing a sweatsuit believing I was going to get that character,” he said. Maybe in his callback he spruced things up because of course he was hired and the rest, as they say, was history.
Daphne Maxwell Reid turned down the role of Aunt Viv at first. Reid, who joined the series in 1993 after Hubert departed, shared that when her team first called her to tell her about “this new sitcom with a rapper” she said, “Pass.”
She didn’t audition in 1990, but when the show premiered, she said, “Oh damn, that’s cute.” Three seasons later when the show was looking for a new Aunt Viv, this time she said yes.
Show night rituals featured a lot of music
The reunion featured some behind-the-scenes footage inside Smith’s dressing room where the cast said music would be “booming” on tape nights.
“You’d just start following like the Piped Piper,” said Parsons. The party vibe was something that brought everyone together and got them pumped to perform, but they also brought it down with inspiration speeches at times, too. The vibe extended to the live studio audience, too, who “would come to the taping like they were going to a club,” Smith recalled.
To keep the energy up for all involved, there was a basket on set full of tambourines, sticks and other items that could be used to hype up the crowd. Smith himself would grab a microphone and get everyone’s hands in the air, as well.
“It felt like it was a show — it wasn’t a TV show, it was a show,” Ribeiro said.
Black culture was not depicted as a monolith — nor a stereotype
The show started when Smith’s self-titled character went to live with his well-off aunt and uncle in California, which already showcased a Black family in a unique way. But within that family, no two characters were entirely alike, even if many of their circumstances were similar (and privileged).
Parsons recalled a particularly poignant moment for her when the writers and producers wanted to “see a switch” in Hilary to become a “strong Black woman,” and she realized she didn’t want that. “I felt there are some people who are just flawed and see things a different way, and you can [get] a lot from them too,” she explained.
Jeffrey Allen Townes aka DJ Jazzy Jeff looked back on the scene in which his character was testifying in court and at-first didn’t want to put his hands down because the white bailiff had a gun, noting that they focused on stories “that had a truth” to them.
Similarly, they looked back on the time Will and Carlton were pulled over, which gave Carlton a glimpse into how some police see Black men. “What we’d always do with ‘The Fresh Prince,’ there would be very powerful ideas under the jokes, under the comedy,” Smith said.
Sometimes the actors were able to influence these elements of the show — or at least specific lines of dialogue, as Reid recalled telling the writers at a table read that Tatyana Ali had a line that would make “her lose her teeth” if she actually said it to her father in a Black family.
James Avery taught a masterclass in acting, and in life
“I learned that what we do is not for us, it’s not about us; we are here to bring dignity, to represent, to expand, to push forward, and I learned that here, at his feet,” Ali said of working with Avery, the patriarch of the Banks family and “heart of the show,” per the cast.
Avery passed away in 2013, but because his influence and importance was so big, the cast devoted a special section of the reunion to remembering him — and his love of jazz.
“He introduced me to Black art in ways that I wouldn’t have gotten that education anywhere else,” Ali said. Smith added that Avery “pushed me so hard. His thing was, ‘I am in such a unique position, and that responsibility, you must elevate your craft. You have to represent and you are paving a way.'”
During the scene in which Will goes off on not needing his father but then ends up breaking down and asking his uncle why the man doesn’t want him, Smith also shared that he flubbed the line at first, Avery reset him by telling him to “use me,” and then at the end of the take when they were embracing, Avery whispered in his ear, “Now that’s acting.”