On the air until 1996, this was one of the cult TV shows of the nineties. Not to mention launching the career of one Will Smith…
Thirty years on from the first, historic episode on NBC (the anniversary falls on September 10th Stateside) we decided to hunt down some of the fun facts about the popular sit-com “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” played, at the time, by a young and yet to become famous Will Smith.
The series – as you all know – revolves around the main character, Willy, played by Smith (a troublemaking student from a tough part of Philadelphia) who is sent by his mother, worried sick about his lifestyle, to live with his wealthy uncle Phil (the actor James Avery) in the exclusive California suburb of Bel-Air and the ensuing series of memorable gags based on the juxtaposition of rich vs. poor..
“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” ran for six long seasons (the last broadcast in spring 1996 and there has been talk for years of a sequel) and the cast included – among the most famous roles – aunty Viv (Janet Hubert-Whitten and later Daphne Maxwell Reid) and Willy’s three cousings : Hilary (Karyn Parsons), Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) and Ashley (Tatyana Ali). All utterly different and great comic foils for the irrespressible Fresh Prince.
What spurred Smith (51 years old last year) to get into acting for the first time in his life was the always convincing motive of debt. At the end of the ‘80s, in fact, despite his mainstream success as a rapper (under the stage name of Fresh Prince, as chance would have it), the future Hollywood actor was in dire economic straits (i.e. two and a half million dollars to cough up to his creditors). It was the legendary producer Quincy Jones, who handled the music for sit-coms, who suggested that he rush over to the auditions for the main role.
Auditions where Smith made an immediate impression on the director and producers at NBC with his naturalness in a role that had literally been written for him. Though Smith himself had quite a different opinion of his performance, at least for the episodes in the first season where he described his acting as “horrible: “All I was good at was learning the script by heart and in some episodes I was really terrible!”. Maybe just a tad self-critical?
It went much better for him from a romantic point of view since it was during the glorious years of the sit-com that Will Smith met his future wife Jada Pinkett Smith. Jada – who did not yet know Smith personally at the time – turned up for the auditions for the Willy’s girlfriend (just on screen, of course). She never made it onto the set, but ironically, started to meet up with her future husband who finally proposed in 1997.
The mansion where the story is set is not actually in Bel-Air, but in Brentwood, an area of Los Angeles notorious for the fact that on the night of 4-5 August 1962, it was where the lovely Marilyn Monroe met her mysterious end (read here about the entire sorry story).
There was no end of special guests who appeared on the show, all celebrities in their own right and produced some hilarious iconic scenes. Guests ranged from singer Tom Jones (one of the idols of Carlton, Willy’s earnest cousin, who together with the Welsh star danced to It’s not unusual) and big names on the black music scene such as Dr. Dre, Boyz II Men and Queen Latifah; not to mention American celebrities like the comedian Chris Rock, presenter Jay Leno, opinion leader Oprah Winfrey and top model Naomi Campbell.
And then, the most famous of them all, the current president of the United States,Donald Trump, who appeared as himself in episode 25 of the fourth season.
Last but not least, despite the enormous success all over the world, at the end of the third season in 1992, NBCnonostante no longer felt like investing in the Fresh Prince, believing that particular vein of comedy had been exhausted. But fans in the US were not having any of it. There was a revolt, and they launched a public petition “Save the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (Internet was still a long way off back then…) so that their favourite sit-com could go on air for another three years and be seen in reruns up to the present day.