Long before he became Hollywood royalty, Will Smith was the star of hit 1990s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The young rapper-turned-actor and his television family became a pop culture phenomenon that still holds relevance today. But all was not fresh behind the scenes, as Smith fell out with one cast member so badly that it led to almost three decades of mutual hostility. In fact, the full story was only revealed fully in a 2020 TV reunion special.
The story of how Fresh Prince came to be – and how Smith became involved in the project – is pretty unconventional. The show began life as a concept created by the music producer Benny Medina. And it was based on his real-life experience of living in Beverly Hills with a rich white friend’s family.
In a stroke of TV genius, though, Medina realized that the concept of a black character in a white family’s world had been done before. So, he decided to change their race. He told Ebony magazine in 1991, “That way we could explore black-on-black prejudice as well as black class differences.”
Medina presented his concept to the legendary music and television producer Quincy Jones, and the latter loved it. Elsewhere during this period, Smith’s career as a rapper had crashed after the failure of an album, and he was in a financial pickle. As he told People magazine in 2018, “Before I was in trouble with Uncle Phil, I was in trouble with Uncle Sam.”
Smith’s girlfriend at the time encouraged him to attend a taping of The Arsenio Hall Show. Here, the star could mingle with Hollywood types and try to sniff out new career opportunities. Smith subsequently met Medina, who pitched him the show idea. The former reportedly explained that he wasn’t an actor. But that didn’t seem to bother Medina, who brought him to one of Quincy Jones’ Hollywood parties anyway.
Jones reportedly recognized the rapper. And according to People, he said, “Hey man, I saw your music videos, I love what you’re doing, I love what you’re doing. Tell me what your rap name was again?” Smith replied, “They call me the Fresh Prince,” and, to his surprise, Jones said, “All right, good, that’s what we’ll call the show.” A stunned Smith was then apparently handed the pilot script and asked to audition on the spot.
Smith apparently responded that he wouldn’t be ready to audition there and then. So, Jones gave him two options. He could wait two weeks to audition, or he could spend 10 minutes with the script and potentially change his life forever. Smith seized the moment and blasted through an audition that had everyone at the party clapping for him.
Smith told People that an allegedly intoxicated Jones then sent his lawyers out to his limo to write up a quick contract for him to star in the show. The former revealed, “We took a picture, and we signed the basic deal for Fresh Prince and three months later we were shooting the pilot…” He then added, “The moral of the story is always say yes and, I guess, listen to your girlfriend.”
Smith admitted on The Graham Norton Show in 2017 that he couldn’t watch those early Fresh Prince episodes. Apparently, all the actor sees nowadays is how inexperienced he was at that time. Smith explains to the host, “It was my very first role, and I was very, very focused on being successful, so I learned the whole script and everyone else’s lines.”
“If you watch the first four or five episodes, you can see I’m mouthing other people’s lines,” Smith laughs. “It’s terrible and I can’t bear to watch it.” In spite of how green he was, though, the show became a huge hit and ran for six seasons. During that stretch of time his star grew immensely, but he also formed a close bond with his on-screen family.
And Smith had some touching words for his old castmates during an April 2020 episode of his Snapchat show Will From Home. He tells them, “You guys are my second family. I’ve been shaped by my interactions and relationships.” The actor added, “When I look back, the best times in my life will have been on that set.”
In 2019 Karyn Parsons – who played Hilary Banks on the show – put forth the same sentiment when speaking with The Scottish Sun newspaper. She said, “We don’t see each other as often as we’d like to. But when we do, we just pick up where we left off. It’s amazing how fast we all became a family.”
But this wasn’t the last we’d see of the ’90s TV stars. No, they actually returned in November 2020 when The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion debuted on HBO Max. The 74-minute special brought the core cast of the show back together for the first time in decades. Smith led proceedings and reminisced with cast stars Alfonso Ribeiro, Tatyana Ali, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Joseph Marcell, Parsons and Daphne Reid.
The cast spoke about Smith’s chemistry with co-star Ribeiro – better known as Smith’s nerdy but lovable cousin Carlton. Ali – who played the latter’s little sister Ashley – says in the video, “I remember our first table read, [Smith] and [Ribeiro] were chasing each other around the table. They were just playmates from the very beginning.”
Smith adds, “We started to see the dynamics between the other characters and Uncle Phil, Aunt Viv were holding the base and Will and Carlton being able to run wild. It became clear very quickly that that became the most powerful comedic asset of the show.” Indeed, Will and Carlton’s relationship is one of the most beloved aspects of the show to this day.
For his part, Ribeiro felt he and Smith were a great double act. The star adds, “We knew that we could rely on each other and there was always a respect and trust.” Smith then pinpointed the familial bond on the show that felt genuine. He says, “What happens on family shows like this, it’s one of those things you cannot buy or fake chemistry. It’s just the way we all came together as a group was very special.”
Another topic of discussion was James Avery, who portrayed patriarch Uncle Phil. He unfortunately died in 2013 following heart surgery, but Smith paid tribute to him. The star sheds a few tears and adds, “[Avery], he pushed me so hard. His thing was, I’m in such a unique position and [with] that responsibility you must elevate your craft. People don’t even know when they’re shaping you and forming you and crafting you…”
The biggest talking point that emerged from the reunion, though, was Smith burying the hatchet with a cast member he reportedly hadn’t spoken to for 27 years. Janet Hubert – who played Aunt Viv for the first three seasons – left the show under a cloud and over the years she has publicly blamed Smith for her exit. In fact, even in 2011 Hubert had shot down the idea of a reunion – indicating the cast wasn’t always one big happy family.
Hubert told TMZ at the time that she believed Smith was “still an egomaniac and has not grown up. This constant reunion thing will never ever happen in my lifetime unless there is an apology. He doesn’t know the word.” Something must have changed in the intervening nine years, though, because Hubert did attend the HBO Max reunion.
Hubert said, “[Smith] was young. He was out of control in his own way. He had all this power.” The actress claimed that while Smith would joke around on set, she maintained a level of professionalism. Perhaps this led to an unfair perception of her, as Hubert added, “The misconception of me was that I was haughty, difficult [and] wanted to be the star of the show.”
In the HBO Max show, both Smith and Hubert are slightly nervous at the beginning of their conversation. The latter admits, “This has been tough. Has it been tough for you?” And Smith responds, “Yes, it has.” Hubert goes on to explain that she was pregnant during the show’s third season, and it led to some unrest on-set. She was also unhappy at home, due to her husband allegedly being abusive.
“Home life was not good at all,” Hubert says. “I was no longer laughing, smiling, joking because there were things that were going on that nobody knew about.” Unsurprisingly, the unhappiness she was experiencing outside work began to affect Hubert’s behavior on-set. And Smith is able to acknowledge that he didn’t treat her well during this period.
“During that time of her pregnancy, I wasn’t sensitive,” Smith candidly admits in the show. “I wasn’t perceptive, and now that I’ve had three kids, I’ve learned some things that I did not know at the time, and I would do things very differently. But I can see where I made the set very difficult for [Hubert].”
In the midst of this turmoil, Hubert claimed she was offered a new deal by the producers of the show. It would have seen her screen time and salary reduced, but she would also be contractually prevented from looking for other acting jobs. As her husband was out of work at the time – and with a newborn baby at home – Hubert rejected the offer and left the show.
“I was never fired, but the misconception was always put out there,” Hubert continues. “I was trapped – what could I do? They said, ‘Okay, then we’re going to recast your role,’ and I said, ‘What can I say?’ I was hurt, deeply.”
Soon after Hubert’s departure, Smith made some pointed remarks about her during an incendiary interview with an Atlanta radio station. According to E!, he said, “I can say straight up that Janet Hubert wanted the show to be The Aunt Viv of Bel-Air show… She’s mad now, but she’s been mad all along.”
Smith reportedly added, “She said once, ‘I’ve been in the business for ten years and this snotty-nosed punk comes along and gets a show.’ No matter what, to her I’m just the Antichrist.” Smith later apologized for these comments in an Essence magazine article, but Hubert told the outlet that his negative sentiment still lingered with her.
As part of the reunion episode, Hubert tells Smith, “I lost everything – reputation, everything – and I understand you were able to move forward, but you know those words – calling a black woman ‘difficult’ in Hollywood is the kiss of death. And it’s hard enough being a dark-skinned black woman in this business.” Hubert claimed her life after the show became extremely difficult and it was Smith’s fault.
“When I left the show, I had this new baby and no one,” Hubert says in the video. “Family disowned me, Hollywood disowned me, my family said you’ve ruined our name and I wasn’t unprofessional on the set. I just stopped talking to everybody because I didn’t know who to trust. I had been banished. They said it was you who banished me.”
Despite this hurt, though, Hubert wanted to put their differences aside. She says in the clip, “I felt it was necessary for us to finally move forward, and I’m sorry that I have blasted you to pieces.” This was a reference to the times she slammed Smith and his behavior over the years in interviews and on social media. The latter then thanked her for telling her side of the story.
The box-office superstar then muses, “When I look back now it’s obvious that you were having a hard time and I felt like you hated me. I could not do a 30-year celebration of this show and not celebrate you, celebrate your contribution to the show, celebrate your contribution to my life. The person I want to be is someone who protects you, not someone that unleashes dogs on you.”
All in all, Hubert felt their conversation was about healing. She says in the video, “I feel like this is a dream. I didn’t come here to have animosity. I came here to resolve, [because] it’s time.” The pair then apologize to each other and hug. Hubert subsequently asks, “We good?” and Smith replies with a smile, “We good.”
Even though Smith and Hubert agreed to heal their broken relationship, the latter still wanted to examine the reasons behind his actions as a young man. So, he recorded a special episode of Red Table Talk. The Facebook Watch talk show is usually hosted by his wife Jada, mother-in-law Adrienne and daughter Willow. Though this episode was just Smith and Dr. Ramani Durvasula – a clinical psychologist and regular on the show.
“I’m not arrogant enough to think that my actions and behavior were perfect,” Smith states. “My actions and behavior were flawed and hurtful.” The reflective star then thought about Hubert’s disdain for him over the years and admitted, “There’s nobody on earth that would say I hurt them that badly.”
“That’s not how I want to be and how I want to make people feel,” Smith then declares. “My whole life and career has been centered on aggressively trying to make people feel the opposite of that.” So why does he think his relationship with his on-screen mother went so badly south? Well, part of it might have been his youthful insecurity.
Smith says that as a young actor, he felt intimidated by Hubert’s talents and by her experience in the entertainment industry. He adds on the Facebook Watch show, “[Hubert] was Juilliard trained. [Hubert] can sing. She can dance. She can act. She’s brilliant and she was in the parental figure. So, my little boy desperately needed her approval.”
Though Smith claimed that he didn’t get Hubert’s approval. Not only that, but their relationship also became cold and distant. He believes this brought up painful memories of his troubled childhood. The Bad Boys star tells Dr. Durvasula, “My father was violent in my house.” And he now wonders if he created his entertaining persona to combat that violence.
“So, a part of the whole creation of Will Smith – the joking, fun, silly – was to make sure my father was entertained enough not to hurt my mother or anybody in the house,” Smith goes on. “So, that plucked a childhood space of inadequacy and when someone comes at me like that, the little boy is fully in that space. And I would perform and dance and tell jokes.”
“People laughing and people having fun was my defense mechanism,” Smith admits. “I just notice now in this moment that I fell back into my family dynamic with my television family. That I was the jokester, and I was laughing, and I was playing, and I needed everybody to be joyful so I could feel safe.”
Dr. Durvasula then helps Smith understand how he operates in relationships with women. The latter subsequently explains in the video, “Because of my dynamic with my mother as a little boy – my father beat my mother and I couldn’t protect her – female disapproval is unbearable. My body can’t handle it.” Ultimately, it’s possible this may have caused him to lash out when Hubert didn’t give him her approval.