As the promotional materials foretold, the cast of The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air reunited for the first time since the subtly subversive sitcom came to an end on May 20, 1996. Will Smith hosted the gathering on the re-created set of the Banks home, which was the site of many a lesson and laugh over the course of six seasons. The Fresh Prince’s 148-episode run wasn’t without some tension, as anyone familiar with the story of Janet Hubert, “the O.G. Aunt Viv,” will tell you. Smith seemed prepared to meet that part of the series’ past head on, when he arranged to meet Hubert for the first time in 27 years.
Their conversation, which brimmed with Hubert’s vulnerability and candor, probably drew as many viewers to the reunion special—which is now streaming on HBO Max—as the promise of seeing Alfonso Ribeiro do the Carlton one more time, or watching Karyn Parsons’ spot-on audition for the role of Hilary Banks. But there were several other memorable moments in the hour-and-change-long special, which featured archival footage from the taping of the two-part series finale, “I, Done,” and a loving memorial of the late James Avery, whom the cast agrees was “the heart of the show.” So just sit right there and we’ll tell you about the most notable moments and revelations from The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air Reunion.
Will Smith landed the role of “Will Smith” after an impromptu audition at Quincy Jones’ birthday party
For the first time, Smith told his former castmates—Tatyana M. Ali, Joseph Marcell, Karyn Parsons, Daphne Maxwell Reid, and Alfonso Ribeiro (Ross Bagley, who played Nicky, shows up toward the end and therefore misses this anecdote)—just how he came to be the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Music industry insider Benny Medina was the actual inspiration for the story of a working-class teen who moves to a swanky Los Angeles neighborhood; he worked hard to convince Smith that he could carry the story on a sitcom. The only kind of audition I had was Quincy’s birthday,” says Smith. “Benny Medina had pitched me the idea. I was making music. They were like, ‘Come to Quincy’s house, we have this idea for a TV show.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ll go to Quincy’s.’” Smith agreed to audition for the part—which he’d just learned about—at Jones’ birthday party, where the guests included Brendan Tartikoff, then the president of entertainment at NBC, and Warren Littlefield (at the time, Tartikoff’s right-hand man.) Smith admits to being skeptical of his own ability to move from music to acting; he initially asked Jones for two weeks to prepare. But when Jones pointed out that everyone the actor needed to sell on the idea was at the party, Smith got down to business. He tells the rest of the cast that he ended up taking only 15 minutes to prepare for the impromptu audition, which he nailed.
Parsons tells the group she was so nervous about the first taping that she wished for an earthquake. It didn’t help her nerves that Smith appeared to be saying her lines back to her. (Apparently, he did that with all his scene partners. Smith was so anxious about learning his dialogue that he learned everyone’s lines.) But the actor was even more worried that viewers would despise Hilary, who began the show as a beautiful, self-centered teen and grew into a beautiful, self-assured professional. Parsons recalls the response from the studio audience to all the shenanigans in “Knowledge Is Power.” In the episode, Will and Carlton take turns blackmailing Hilary (who dropped out of college without informing anyone.) The dinner scene, where things came to a head and Hilary’s humiliation peaked, had the audience “stomping” their feet in approval. Ribeiro and Smith are quick to tell Parsons that she was just good at her job.
The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air Reunion pays touching tribute to James Avery, who played high-powered lawyer and jazz fan Philip Banks. In footage from the final table read, Avery gets the last word, telling the cast and crew just how much the show has meant to him and to fans. Everyone from Smith to Ali to DJ Jazzy Jeff, whose onscreen interactions with Uncle Phil almost always ended in being tossed on his ear, says the late actor helped them to understand their art. The season-four episode, “Papa’s Got A Brand New Excuse,” was an especially moving installment of the show; it featured Ben Vereen as Will’s father Lou, who pops back into Will’s life after 14 years just to exit stage left again. Smith says he flubbed one of his lines during an emotionally fraught scene, wherein Will writes off his father. As Smith let his frustration show, Avery urged him to channel it into the scene, and their slightly improvised material made it into the final cut. “That’s acting,” Avery told Smith as they embraced at the end. There’s a moment of silence, as the reunited cast members tear up. DJ Jazzy Jeff then talks about all the musical recommendations he got from Avery, while Ali says she “learned what it means to be an artist from him.”
The series creators of The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air were Andy Borowitz and Susan Borowitz, both white creatives. The former has said Quincy Jones’ stories of raising his children in Bel-Air helped inspire the show, while the latter has said she was inspired by a series of articles about “being black in America.” They say they aimed to break up the notion that there’s a monolothic Black experience, so they hired Black writers and crew members. But during the reunion, Ribeiro makes it clear that the cast played a significant part in ensuring that the story of the Banks-Smith family rang true. They took every Tuesday and Wednesday during filming weeks to weigh in, noting to the writers that “this wouldn’t happen. Black people don’t do this.” Ali and Parsons recall a time they pointed out that a young Black girl would never make some disrespectful remark to her mother because “she’d lose her teeth.” “Culturally, we don’t do that.” The cast felt a shared responsibility, one that James Avery was quick to spell out, Ali says: “What we do is not about us. We are here to bring dignity, to represent, to expand, to push forward.”
While it’s certainly enjoyable to reminisce on how “the Carlton” came to be (all Ribeiro saw in the script was “Carlton dances,” and he took it from there), or to learn that the show banked takes of DJ Jazzy Jeff being thrown from the house (the actor-rapper notes that you can always tell by the shirt Jazz wears that a toss is coming), the tête-à-tête between Will Smith and Janet Hubert is easily the most anticipated moment from the special. Smith introduces the segment to his castmates by acknowledging that there’s no way to celebrate the show and its legacy without also celebrating Hubert’s contributions to the series. In a previously taped segment, Smith sat down with Hubert, who played Vivian Banks in seasons one through three, to talk about what many in the public have viewed as a feud, even if that suggests the two actors had equal influence.
Over the years, Hubert and Smith have made comments about each other in the press; Hubert even wrote a book about her experiences on the show, which includes a less than charitable depiction of Smith. Smith and Hubert say they’re both ready to talk things through, but though the former initiated the conversation by inviting Hubert to the taping, it’s the latter’s candor that illuminates the discussion. Right off the bat, Hubert asks Smith, “I just wanted to know one thing: Why? Why so far? You guys went so far. I lost so much. How do we heal?” She’s the one who opens up about what was going on in her life during season three—she was in the midst of a difficult pregnancy and an abusive marriage. Hubert says she wasn’t unprofessional, she just felt like she couldn’t trust anyone on the set because she’d been “banished” by Smith. Hubert, who was in the cast of General Hospital from 2018 to 2020, shows tremendous vulnerability in telling Smith, “Calling a Black woman ‘difficult’ in Hollywood is the kiss of death. And it’s hard enough for a dark-skinned Black woman in this business.” The Oscar-nominated actor looks chastened, but he doesn’t attempt to rebut Hubert when she says, “You took all that away from me with your words, and words can kill.” Smith also doesn’t shed much light on his actions at the time; when asked about seemingly pushing Hubert out of the show, he acknowledges that he was driven by “fear and jokes” and the need to succeed. Hubert apologizes first, then Smith, and Hubert says it’s time to heal. She reiterated that call on Twitter Wednesday night, so we’ll let the “Original Aunt Viv” have the last word.