Everybody got jiggy with the acclaimed hit that hip-hopped across color and class lines and brought Will Smith to prominence
Everybody got jiggy with NBC’s acclaimed hit about a West Philadelphia youth taken in by rich relatives in L.A. Coproduced by music honcho Quincy Jones as a vehicle for then rap star Will Smith, the show hip-hopped across color and class lines, bringing Smith to mainstream prominence. “Fresh prince,” says Daphne Maxwell Reid, who played Aunt Viv, “had good family values and taught moral lessons.”
In 1990, 22-year-old Will Smith seemed like old news. He was half of the Grammy-winning, platinum rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. He’d run through a million dollars and was nearly broke. Fresh Prince was a fresh start.
“He said that when he got the show, he had a change of attitude,” recalls costar Daphne Maxwell Reid. The young singer quickly became the spark plug—and anchor—of the cast. “He made sure the lines of communication were always open, and when he saw you in the morning, he gave you a big hug,” says Tatyana Ali, who played his cousin Ashley. In ’95, Smith gave his castmates a lavish gift: He paid the bills for them to redecorate their dressing rooms. “Mine was called Daphne’s little bordello,” says Reid. “It had a gold brocade chair with cupids on it.” By ’96, the Fresh One was ready to move on. He had proved himself in big-screen ventures like Bad Boys and had completed shooting Independence Day. The following year the actor married Jada Pinkett, now 28, who expects their second child this fall (their son Jaden is almost 2; Smith’s son Trey, from a previous marriage, is 7). “All the things the Fresh Prince stood for, all the fun he had, still exist inside me,” Smith, 31, who is training for an upcoming Muhammad Ali biopic, said in 1996. “Those just aren’t the dominant aspects of my personality anymore. The Fresh Prince can still come over for dinner, but he has to go home after he eats.”
“I’m an only child, so you can imagine the impact that Fresh Prince had on me,” says Karyn Parsons, 33, who played the oldest Banks child, Hilary. She says that she soon became “incredibly tight” with fellow cast members. Recalls Alfonso Ribeiro (brother Carlton): “We had a real brother-sister relationship. She was my cheerleader.” Parsons’s biggest challenge was playing a shallow rich girl. “People wanted this black woman to get her head on straight,” says Parsons, who grew up in Santa Monica. “But I liked her being flawed. Archie Bunker was flawed. You don’t have to be morally upstanding for people to learn.” Unlike her character, says costar Janet Hubert, Parsons “is sensitive and giving.” Since Fresh Prince, Parsons, who is single and lives in New York City’s Greenwich Village, appeared in the 1995 movie Major Payne with Damon Wayans and starred in the 1998 independent film Mixing Nia, about a biracial woman (it’s no stretch—her father, Ken, a salesman, is white; mother Louise, a librarian, is black). The opportunity to get such work came directly from Fresh Prince. “It opened doors for me,” says Parsons. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Being the family patriarch was positively moony for James Avery, 51. “On one show before a live audience,” remembers the classically trained actor, “I had to look out the door and call for Will Smith to come in. The audience couldn’t see him, but there he was with his naked butt staring me in the face. I didn’t normally hang out with twentysomething practical jokers, so sometimes he was a little much.” Avery, a Vietnam vet who says he’s still “an aging hippie, a child of the ’60s,” found a soulmate in British actor Joseph Marcell, who played the family butler. “We have similar backgrounds as professionals,” says Mar-cell, “so we’d go on trips to Washington or New York together to see Shakespeare. I still stay at his house when I’m in California.” But the classics didn’t win arguments. Avery—a “big, gentle, supportive teddy bear,” according to his wife of 11 years, Barbara, 56—rarely prevailed when there were issues about how Fresh Prince was run. “The name of the show was The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, not Philip and Viv of Bel-Air,” Avery says. “If you didn’t want to walk away from the best job in the world over a petty issue, you accepted the way it was.” The end of Fresh Prince was particularly painful for the actor, who lives in L.A. near Loyola Marymount University, where Barbara is dean of student life. Says Avery: “For six years we were a family, and we loved going to work together. In fact, we loved it so much that when we had a week on hiatus, everyone would be saying, isn’t it time to go back to work yet?’ ”
After three seasons playing Fresh Prince’s nurturing Aunt Viv, Janet Hubert, now 44, was shocked when NBC offered her a new contract with a pay cut and fewer episodes. She had recently given birth to her first and only child, son Elijah, now 7, with then-husband James Whitten, a TV writer. “I was very saddened,” says Hubert, who exited the show. “We were a family.” In 1994, Hubert sued Will Smith and NBC for slander, emotional distress and negligence. Neither the network nor the star will comment on the charges. The suit was unsuccessful.
“Janet has always been exceptionally articulate and outspoken.
I wasn’t surprised when she spoke her mind about the disagreements on the show,” says Hubert’s brother Donald, 52, a Chicago trial lawyer. “Her leaving was painful,” says costar James Avery. “Daphne Maxwell Reid [Hubert’s replacement] brought her charm to the role, but Janet had her own spin. I missed the friendship.” Castmate Tatyana Ali recalls that Hubert “was always doing pirouettes and turning and being alive.” Now a single mom in central New Jersey, the Juilliard-trained actress does voice-overs for Doritos, Internet provider Esoterica and the California Lottery. Fresh Prince, though, never goes away. “Kids who weren’t even born when the show started ask me when I’m going back,” she says. “I say, ‘Hello! It’s been off the air for years!’ ”
Daphne Maxwell Reid
Daphne Maxwell Reid, 51, was understandably nervous when she stepped in front of a live audience as wise and funny matriarch Vivian Banks in 1993. She followed Janet Hubert, who had played Viv for the show’s first three seasons before departing after a rift with the network. Reid needn’t have worried about her new gig. Will Smith gave her six dozen red roses and, recalls the actress, the cast “welcomed me with hugs.” After that she had no trouble. “I was Aunt Viv down to my bones,” she says. That came as no surprise to her actor-producer husband of 17 years, Tim Reid, 55 (WKRP in Cincinnati; Sister Sister). “Daphne is truly a people person,” he says. “She becomes radiant and is invigorated by the exchange and excitement.” Before shows, Reid boogied in the hallways with costar James Avery. “We were wild dancers,” she says. And she excelled at giving Smith heartfelt advice. “He once quoted something I told him,” says Reid.’ ” Never let failures go to your heart or successes go to your head.’ ” Reid has found success beyond TV. A former model and an accomplished seamstress, she created her own women’s line, the Daphne Maxwell Reid Collection, for McCall’s Patterns. She also spends time on the road promoting Asunder, starring Blair Underwood, the first feature completed at burgeoning New Millennium Studios, the $8 million, 60-acre business that she and Tim began three years ago in Petersburg, Va., where they live. “It’s not like I won’t breathe if I don’t act,” she says. “I want to do behind the scenes.”
“I thought if Sir John Gielgud could play a butler [in 1981’s Arthur], so could I,” recalls Joseph Marcell, 52, of his decision to step into the role of Fresh Prince’s punctilious Geoffrey. Trained at the Royal Shakespeare Company and a regular on the London stage, Marcell—who was born on the island of St. Lucia and raised in South London—was exotic to Fresh Prince’s African-American cast. “I was the foreign brother. The first time we went through the script,” says Marcell, “Will Smith stopped and stared at me. He hadn’t met anyone like me before.” Although castmate Janet Hubert found Marcell, “a really cool person,” the actor had trouble with American slang. “People would say to me, ‘Hey, baby, whassup?’ and I’d say, ‘Excuse me?’ ” Now back in the London suburb of Ealing with his homemaker wife, Joyce, 44, and daughter Jessica, 11 (son Ben, 22, is in college), Marcell is on the board of the Globe Theatre and had a featured role in 1987’s Cry Freedom, about the antiapartheid struggle in South Africa. And he’s still proud of his breakthrough role on Fresh Prince. “At first I thought Geoffrey was a stereotypical English butler, not a stereotypical black butler,” he says. “But he couldn’t be a stereotype. There had never been a black English anything on American TV before.”
Sure, she had a tutor, but Tatyana Ali, who played Fresh Prince’s adorable Ashley from age 11 to 17, also learned from her castmates. During breaks, the cast joined Ali in spirited debates about ideas and literature. “Tatyana was like everyone’s daughter,” says Daphne Maxwell Reid, who played Aunt Viv from 1993 to ’96. Ali, now 21, was also a model student. In 1998 she enrolled at an Ivy League university, which she declines to name, and is now a sophomore majoring in Afro-American studies and government. “The young-Hollywood showbiz thing can get stifling,” she says. Still, the actress, who began her career as a Sesame Street regular at age 5, hasn’t forsaken all the action for academe. During the last year of Fresh Prince, series star Will Smith encouraged her to develop her singing gift. She cut an R&B CD, Kiss the Sky, which Smith co-produced in ’98. Last summer she took a semester off to tour as an opening act with ‘N Sync as well as the Backstreet Boys. Ali has only one regret about her Fresh Prince years. “I wish I wasn’t so young,” she says. “The others went to parties, and couldn’t. I was the only one in school!”
It was a good thing Alfonso Ribeiro, 28, started out as a dancer. When he was just 12, the half-African-American, half-Latino New Yorker was knocking ’em dead on Broadway in the Tony-winning Tap Dance Kid. Seven years later, as preppy Carlton, he had to stay on his toes to keep up with the on-set antics at Fresh Prince, “When someone had a plate of food from craft services,” he recalls, “we’d smack it out of their hands. We finally had to declare a truce.” Adds Tatyana Ali, who played his sister Ashley: “Alfonso was like my older brother. We’d get into fights about stupid things. When I turned 17, I started bringing my friends to the set. Alfonso didn’t like that I was getting older, so we would have little tiffs. Karyn Parsons [eldest child Hilary] would have to say, ‘Alfonso, Tatyana, you’ve got to talk and make up.’ ” Ribeiro, whose passion is racing supercharged go-karts, finished two seasons on UPN’s In the House in ’98 and stays in touch with his Fresh Prince sibs. “I really feel like he is my brother,” says Parsons. “He probably knows more about me than anybody.” He’s chummy with Will Smith too, who cast him in last year’s Wild Wild West music video. “We play very competitive golf,” says Ribeiro, who lives alone in L.A. “Most of the time I win. But when he does, he really milks it.”