'The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air' @ 30
On September 10th 1990, a "revolutionary, hilarious and poignant" new sitcom launched on NBC that started as a simple idea between entertainment producers Quincy Jones and Andy and Susan Borowitz.
It starred hot young US rap artist Will Smith as Will, a street-smart youth from Philadelphia who relocates to the prestigious suburbs of Bel-Air to live with his Uncle Phil, Aunt Vivian, cousins Carlton, Hilary, Ashley and their butler Geoffrey. A clash of cultures, morals, ideas, outlooks and personas ensured over six successful seasons and 148 episodes from 1990 to 1996
In a white dominated industry, this show fronted strong African/American culture with coloured actors of various backgrounds and experiences. 'Fresh Prince' was never fearful of highlighting the gravitas behind modern society and culture through the use of well placed comedy and set pieces. For example, the constant idea of black culture segregated from white culture was a running theme under Will's character, and the whole Banks family would help guide and educate both him and each-other about the important of their heritage and their place in an ever changing society.
This was a ground-breaking move for primetime American television in the early 1990s. It introduced so much to a wider global audience about fashion, music, language and family that was so important to African/Americans. Episodes were brave enough to touch on Malcolm X and the struggles faced by black people that was present decades before the show, during the show and even foreseen into the future. It was these powerful moments that hit audiences hard, bringing nothing but reality into the escapism of a sitcom that resonated well after the credits had rolled.
Growing in popularity over the six years, a number of guest stars made memorable cameos across the shows as characters that added to the stories and enforced the decadent Bel-Air locale. Talent such as Don Cheadle, Queen Latifah, Oprah Winfrey, Jay Leno and even then business tycoon Donald Trump represented a host of powerful names that supported the voice that 'Fresh Prince' was shouting in prime-time.
But the show was not without overhanging controversy.
The replacement of actress Janet Hubert as Aunt Viv after three seasons was a shock and surprise to many. Hubert was replaced for seasons four, five and six by actress Daphne Maxwell Reid with little to no explanation of why. It was cheekily referenced in the opening of season four at how different Aunt Viv looked, but then nothing more was said.
Rumour came out years later that Hubert felt pushed out by the producers, the studio execs and even Will himself as his status increased. Conflicts about pay, working hours and control on the show forced cracks that never really healed, and while the show ran strong without Hubert, there was an evident loss without her unique portrayal of Aunt Viv.
In November 2020, HBO Max brought back the main cast for a hotly anticipated 30th anniversary reunion show (yet to be broadcast outside of the US). The cast came back and sat around a recreated Banks set to reflect on their favourite episodes, their experiences as actors in the industry and how much the show changed their life. It also begs the question - what happened to them after the show ended?
Will Smith (Will)
The biggest success story; went on to become a multiple Grammy award winner and Golden Globe / Academy Award nominee, with fame in music, TV and film over the decades.
Janet Hubert (Vivian Banks)
A continued success in TV and film over the years since her departure in 1993, recently being nominated for a Daytime Emmy in 2020.
Daphne Maxwell Reid (Vivian Banks)
While having an extensive TV and film portfolio behind her, Daphne moved more into fashion, photography and as an advocate for supporting young talent breaking into stage and screen.
Alfonso Ribeiro (Carlton Banks)
Initially hard to break away from the "Carlton" image, Alfonso used his skills in acting, dancing and presenting to new success across American TV and film over the decades that followed.
Karyn Parsons (Hilary Banks)
Karyn worked on some film and TV roles following 'Fresh Prince', but also focused on continued support of African/American talent and unsung heroes in the industry
Tatyana M. Ali (Ashley Banks
One of the youngest stars to rise from 'Fresh Prince', Tatyana continued to work in TV and film, but also released an album in 1998 with Will's support, and starred in many music videos.
Ross Bagley (Nicky Banks)
Ross was a child-star during the 90s, with 'The Little Rascals' and 'Independence Day' (opposite Will Smith) to his name. He left acting in 2014 and lives a quiet life in America.
Joseph Marcell (Geoffrey)
Joseph returned to England in in the mid 90s after 'Fresh Prince' for TV, film and theatre work. He currently is on the board of the Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London.
DJ Jazzy Jeff (Jazz)
With 'Fresh Prince' his only real acting role, Jazzy Jeff continued his work in music both with Will Smith until the late 90s and solo as album producer and mixer across America.
Missing from the line-up was James Avery as head of the Banks family, Philip. James sadly died in 2013 following complications from open heart surgery. James was the anchor of the show, keeping characters and emotions grounded amidst the humour (but not fearful of being comedic himself). Uncle Phil was a character full of heart, morality and warmth.
James' large-than-life presence and unmistakable booming voice made Uncle Phil such a memorable character that it's impossible to remember the show without him.
'Fresh Prince' was a show based around one thing - family. Young actors were taken under the wing of elders and guided through the highs and lows of situations on camera that resonated in their own life. Uncle Phil was the head of the Banks family, and while tough on the outside he was a caring and proud man inside who wanted the best for his loved ones.
The actors were a family on the show, but became a family off the show. Will has always spoken about how he learnt so much from James in acting and self-belief. Tatyana was taken under Will's wing to develop her singing talent. Alfonso and Karyn were a support to each other on and off camera as their personal careers developed. These evident bonds were there for viewers to see on the show, and it looked and felt nothing but natural.
It's also worth to mention that Janet Hubert has since built bridges between Will and the other cast members after nearly 30 years of unspoken friction and tension, and this is highlighted on the reunion show bringing closure to a wide rift between the actors.
The legacy of 'Fresh Prince' is strong 30 years later thanks to how it spoke to generations when it launched. It spoke to all generations equally by being comical, cheeky, heart-felt and honest. It was a comforting, entertaining show rooted around a family and that was relatable to many. Stories revolved around factors that could be identified by worldwide families included relationship break-ups, moving homes, dealing with adolescence, warnings against drugs and violence, class struggles, finding true love and more. There was little that 'Fresh Prince' touched on in such a powerful way that was layered by the humour to make it resonate; you cared about the characters and felt part of their family.
From the Carlton dance to the toe-tapping theme tune, from the memorable characters to the poignant stories, there is little that viewers don't know or remember from 'Fresh Prince'.
This was something special on screen and off; a proud African/American family who invited you into their Bel-Air home and made a cultural impact that has since lasted a lifetime.