Dark secrets of the cast of Fresh Prince
It’s been nearly 30 years since The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air flip-turned the world of sitcoms upside down. It was so beloved that the NBC series never once moved from its Monday at 8 p.m. slot during its entire six-year run. Sadly, the cast made the uniform decision to end the show — which launched Will Smith’s acting career and became indirectly responsible for the national treasure that is Wild Wild West — in 1996. “We felt like it was time,” Smith told the Los Angeles Times. “We’ve all grown as actors and as people, we had an incredibly talented cast, but the show is just limiting.”
The infamous theme song was infected in the brains of older Millennials (or Will-ennials, if you prefer) like a virus since birth. Go into any bar these days and utter the words, “In West Philadelphia born and raised,” and it’s safe to say someone will chime in to finish the rest. While Smith has since adopted darker roles like Genie in the 2019 live-action adaptation of Aladdin (or, more seriously, playing the lead in 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness), he might have actually gotten some good training in drama on the set of his hit TV show. Truth be told, the cast members of Fresh Prince were hiding some pretty dark secrets.
Will Smith only became the Fresh Prince because of trouble with the IRS
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Will Smith was not chilling out, maxing, relaxing all cool when he signed on as the lead in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The ’90s show’s star was actually resting on some pretty serious IRS debt from his career as a rapper alongside DJ Jazzy Jeff. In a 2018 episode of YouTube’s Storytime, the actor admitted that he’d spent all of his money on exorbitant purchases like expensive cars and fancy clothes after the duo’s album, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper, went triple platinum and earned a Grammy.
Unfortunately, Smith neglected to pay his taxes at the time and owed the IRS a whopping $2.8 million. However, his follow-up effort didn’t really help bolster his meager bank account. “We released our next album and it was like a flop. It was a tragedy. It went like double plastic,” the actor-rapper said. “I had spent most of my money, like all of — I spent all my money. And I didn’t forget, but I didn’t pay the IRS.”
Fortunately, a random opportunity fell into Smith’s lap when he met Fresh Prince producer Benny Medina while hanging out on the set of The Arsenio Hall Show, and later had an impromptu audition during a party at Quincy Jones’ house. Smith, of course, landed the lead, but the IRS took 70% of his Fresh Prince paycheck for the next three years.
The real reason Aunt Vivian was recast
Aunt Vivian, who served as the Fresh Prince‘s beloved, sympathetic matriarch, is a woman of many faces — two faces to be exact. Janet Hubert played the role during the sitcom’s first three seasons, but was fired in 1993 and replaced by actress Daphne Maxwell Reid.
However, it apparently had less to do with the star’s rumored on-set feuds and more to do with a dispute with network executives, who reportedly had “some sort of vendetta against her,” per Hubert’s interview with Jet at the time. Years later, the actress opened up to The Grio about the real reason she was recast, claiming NBC was unwilling to negotiate her ultra-restrictive contract. “It was a negotiation that should have come back like most do,” Hubert said in 2013. “We were a very successful show and I felt like I was an integral part of that, and felt valuable, but you cannot feel valuable in Hollywood.”
Nonetheless, Hubert still sued the network and Will Smith for allegedly creating “a hostile work environment” during her pregnancy, according to the New York Daily News. This led to long-running rumors that NBC fired Hubert because she got knocked up. If that were the case, why would they have written her pregnancy into her final season with the show?
The OG Aunt Viv can’t stand Will Smith
If Aunt Vivian could, she’d send her nephew right back to the streets of West Philadelphia. Janet Hubert’s feud with Will Smith is so intense that it outlived the series by literal decades. As mentioned, it all began in 1993 when NBC failed to renew the star’s contract, which she blamed on her TV nephew. “[Smith] probably is responsible for my firing,” Hubert told Jet at the time. “He has a lot of clout. It’s too bad that it’s a Black-on-Black attack … He has gotten me fired from the show and now he is trying to snatch my career away from me (with his recent comments).”
The comments to which Hubert was referring had to do with Smith’s prior interview with an Atlanta radio station. Claiming that Hubert wanted the series to be The Aunt Viv of Bel-Air Show, Smith said, “No matter what, to her I’m just the Antichrist” (via E! News). In addition to calling Smith an “a**hole” and “egomaniac” nearly two decades later, Hubert told BVonBooks in 2009 that both Smith and Alfonso Ribiero, who played Carlton Banks, “destroyed” her career with “untruths,” presumably about her bad attitude (via HuffPost). She even reportedly begged Smith and his manager to “clear” her name.
While the jury is still out on that, Smith did call Hubert “brilliant” and a “really powerful artist” in an interview with BBC Radio 1Xtra in 2016.
Carlton has no problems trash-talking his TV mom
Janet Hubert has undoubtedly had her issues with Will Smith, but she might actually have more beef with her on-screen son — and for pretty good reason. Alfonso Ribeiro, who went from dancing as Carlton Banks to literally winning Dancing With the Stars in 2014, went after his TV mom with a scathing comedy set in 2009.
In a since-deleted video of the stand-up performance unearthed by Perez Hilton, Ribeiro claimed Hubert was “crazy” and “went nuts” during her time on Fresh Prince (via E! News). Even though he admitted he wasn’t legally “allowed to talk about it,” the actor dished, “There were days when we were all on the set and she would literally go off on people, and they got to a point by the time the second season came around where we’re like, ‘This is unacceptable.'” He added, “We felt like, when we were doing The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, that we were a family … She, at that point, ruined that, and she made it very difficult for us to work.”
This may have been what led to Hubert’s claims about Smith and Ribeiro helping to “destroy” her career with “untruths.” Considering the show aired during an era before text-message receipts and cell phone cameras, we’ll probably never know the exact truth of the matter.
Alfonso Ribeiro was fired after the pilot
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As much as Aunt Vivian might have a problem with Carlton in real life, the preppy, dance-happy nerd is one of Fresh Prince‘s most iconic characters. Carlton certainly wouldn’t have had the same magic if he was portrayed by anyone other than Alfonso Ribeiro, but that was almost exactly what happened: Ribeiro was actually fired before he really got started.
In an interview with Digital Spy in 2017, the actor admitted that he landed the role after an audition, but after filming the pilot, producers decided that Carlton should be recast. It’s almost inconceivable, but they did eventually come to their senses. “There was a moment where essentially I was hired and rehired – you may look at it that way!” Ribeiro said. “There was a large chance that the Carlton character would have been played by somebody else. But luckily enough, the decision was made to continue to have me do it –- and I guess the rest is history.”
History, indeed. It takes someone very special to pull off a v-neck sweater and bow-tie combo.
Donald Trump was a nightmare on set
Long before Donald Trump was eating “hamberders” in the White House, he enjoyed the most bizarrely random acting career with cameos in dozens of major motion pictures and TV shows, like Home Alone 2: Lost In New York and The Nanny. One of these appearances was actually on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air … but the so-called billionaire reportedly wreaked minor havoc on set.
Trump appeared in the 1994 episode “For Sale by Owner,” and according to an anonymous crew member who spoke to Newsweek, the future president was apparently pretty peeved about something that probably had to do with the script. Earlier that day, he’d reportedly expressed concern to executive producer Gary H. Miller that his lines weren’t funny enough. Miller claimed he’d never give Trump advice about real estate, but he does know comedy, and told him, “Trust me, you’ll get a laugh.” Later, the real estate mogul allegedly ended up throwing the clipped-together pages of his script all over the floor, leaving then-wife Marla Maples to clean up the mess.
“I started to help her pick them up,” the anonymous crew member told Newsweek. “And she goes, ‘I got ’em, I got them, I’m so sorry.’ It was such a really rude thing, the way he did it. So terrible. So disrespectful … He just wasn’t pleasant.”
Alfonso Ribeiro sued Fortnite over the ‘Carlton dance’
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Carlton Banks wasn’t too pleased with Fortnite: Battle Royale in the late 2010s — but he took the fight to court rather than a TV screen. Were we looking at a potential dance-off? Unfortunately, things didn’t seem to get gotten that far. According to Business Insider, Alfonso Ribeiro decided to sue the game’s creators for allegedly copying his “Carlton dance” in 2018. The lawsuit claimed the dance was written into an emote called “Fresh” in January of that year. The emote could be purchased for around $8 (or 800 v-bucks), which meant Epic Games seemed to be making money from the actor’s moves — that is, if Ribeiro actually owned them to begin with.
A side-by-side comparison does show the two dances to be nearly identical. However, a supervisory registration specialist in the U.S. Copyright Office’s Performing Arts Division by the name of Saskia Florence later explained that Ribeiro’s copyright request “must be refused” because his choreography was just a “simple dance routine” (via The Hollywood Reporter). Even so, since the dance was created for Fresh Prince, it’s likely that NBC would own any related copyright if it was indeed allowed to be copyrighted. All of this boded poorly for Ribeiro’s case, as well as the similar lawsuit he lobbed at Take-Two Interactive over dance moves featured in NBA 2K. According to USA Today, the actor dropped both suits in March 2019.
Will Smith had a difficult childhood
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There’s a reason Will Smith was able to pull out a tear-jerking performance in the season 4 episode “Papa’s Got A Brand New Excuse” — he felt intimately acquainted with disappointing father figures. While it appears he patched things up with his dad later in life, at least according to an interview on The Graham Norton Show in 2019, the star previously revealed that his troubled past with an abusive father had led him and his wife to set some major boundaries, including avoiding the use profanities with each other for over 20 years.
In an episode of Jada Pinkett Smith’s Facebook Watch series Red Table Talk, Will Smith recalled telling his wife, “I grew up in a household where I watched my father punch my mother in the face, and I will not create a house, a space, an interaction with a person where there’s profanity and violence” (via USA Today). He added at the time, “If you have to talk to me like that, we can’t be together. We’re not going to use any profanity in our interactions. We’re not going to raise our voice, we’re not going to be violent. I can’t do it.”
Tatyana Ali’s on-set kiss made her ‘want to die’
Tatyana Ali, who played Ashley Banks, didn’t escape from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air unscathed. She had one of her most embarrassing moments — a huge major life milestone — on set. In an interview with Us Weekly in 2018, Ali admitted she had her first real kiss on the show, but said it was “terrifying.” It didn’t help that both Alfonoso Ribeiro and Karyn Parsons, her on-screen siblings, decided to come to set that day to watch it happen even though they had nothing to do with that particular scene.
“I just remember Karyn Parsons, who played Hilary Banks. Karyn, Alfonso … And we had our cameras … The cameras on sitcoms are, like, huge cameras. And I just remember them looking behind the camera … I mean, who has a first kiss like that?” Ali told the magazine. “At the time, I wanted to die.” Since then, Ali has managed to recover and seems to have a healthy attitude about sex. The actress even told HuffPost in 2013 that one-night stands were her “guilty pleasure” (along with bread pudding, because who doesn’t love bread pudding?).
Karyn Parsons didn’t like the show when she first tried out
Who would ever want to watch a sitcom starring a rapper? That’s what Karyn Parsons, who played Banks sister Hilary, was thinking when she first heard about Fresh Prince. While speaking with NPR in 2014, the actress revealed that she’d been working as a restaurant hostess in Hollywood before landing the sitcom role — which she seriously questioned taking or even trying out for.
“I remember my first reactions being, ‘Oh, God, it’s a sitcom with a rapper? Like, what’s that?'” Parsons said of her first audition. Regardless of her initial feelings about the show itself, she also felt like she wasn’t a good fit for Hilary. The character was originally an effortlessly cool model, which made the TV star feel like trying out was “ridiculous” because she’s “not a model type.” Instead of playing the role as it was written, however, Parsons gave Hilary her signature bratty attitude, which is exactly what landed her the part. However, she continued to work at her day job until Fresh Prince took off, just to be safe.
DJ Jazzy Jeff couldn’t take his on-set injuries
There’s a reason stunt doubles are stunt doubles. Sometimes, things can get a little too physical for your average star on set, even if they’re working on a fuzzy-hearted NBC sitcom. For years, rumors have been flying around claiming that the recurring scene in which Will’s friend Jazz gets kicked out of the Banks’ mansion was actually only shot once because the network wanted to save money. In truth, it was shot multiple times, just not every time the script called for it. We’ll explain.
Jeffrey A. Townes (a.k.a DJ Jazzy Jeff) opened up about this myth surrounding Fresh Prince in an interview with HuffPost in 2015. According to the actor-rapper, budget had nothing to do with the shot, but rather with Townes eventually putting his foot down because he couldn’t bare the pain it caused. “When I did it maybe the third or fourth time, because every time you shoot it to get a take you probably have to do it about 40 times. Literally, black and blue by the time they say, ‘We got it,'” he told the publication. “And it got so bad the last time, and I was like, ‘I can’t do this. I’m not a stuntman. I can’t do it.'”