Will Smith and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air cast transported viewers back to 1990s on Wednesday (Nov. 18) with an HBO Max reunion special. Filmed in September to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the NBC comedy from creators Andy and Susan Borowitz, the special featured original castmembers Tatyana Ali, Karyn Parsons, Joseph Marcell, Daphne Maxwell Reid and Alfonso Ribeiro, as well as recurring guest star DJ Jazzy Jeff.
Throughout the special, the cast reflected on their first auditions, funny moments from set and the show’s lasting impact on viewers. Back in August, a reboot of the Fresh Prince series, from Smith’s Westbrook Studios and Universal TV, was ordered. The new show is described as a dramatic take on the ’90s comedy that ran from 1990 to 1996 and made Smith a household name. Though Peacock is set to reboot the series, neither Smith of the cast made any mentions of it during the special. When discussing the pilot episode, Smith revealed that the show marked the first time he recited dialogue and because of that he learned everybody’s lines. Parsons called out Smith for always mouthing her lines while she spoke in a scene, to which Smith watched back old clips and laughed.
“I remember our first table read, Will and Alfonso were chasing each other around the table. There were network execs, really powerful people. They were just playmates from the very beginning,” Ali said as the cast acknowledged the powerful onscreen chemistry between Smith and Ribeiro. “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,” Smith said. “It became clear very quickly that that became the most powerful comedic asset of the show.” “We knew that we could rely on each other and there was a always a respect and trust,” Ribeiro added.
The cast also admitted it would be difficult to minimize the laughter from the audience at times. “There were moments on the show where we had to dial the laughter back,” Smith said. They also praised the show for portraying characters with a “unique and distinct fashion sense.” Ribeiro later reflected on how he created his infamous Carlton dance. “All it said in the script was ‘Carlton dances’ and I needed to figure out how this character dances,” he said before just creating what would become the most iconic moves. However, Smith emphasized he could never master the dance. Meanwhile Ali cringed as she recalled having her first kiss on the show. “I was so nervous and were were about to do the scene and I swear to you I see Alfonso, Will and Karyn peek out from behind the camera. I was 11 having breakdowns,” she said.
Later on things grew emotional as the cast paid tribute to James Avery, who played Phil Banks on the show and died in 2013. “I learned what it means to be an artist from him,” Ali said. Smith took a moment to discuss an impactful moment he shared with Avery after flubbing one of his lines. After growing frustrated for messing up his dialogue in front of the audience, Smith recalled Avery telling Smith to get himself together and focus on him. At the end of the scene, Avery holds an emotional Smith in his arms which is when Smith says Avery whispered, “now that’s acting.” “James he pushed me so hard… I wanted him to think I was good. I wanted him to be proud of me,” Smith explained. The cast begun to shed tears while reflecting on memories with Avery.
“People don’t even know when they’re shaping you and they’re forming you and crafting you,” Smith said with Ribeiro adding of Avery, “he knew.” The cast watched a montage of scenes from Avery. “What happens on family shows like this, it’s one of those things you cannot buy or fake chemistry,” Smith said. “It’s just the way we all came together as a group was very special.”
As the series centers on a family, Smith noted took a moment to address that sometimes families avoid talking of certain things, including speaking out about Janet Hubert who played the original Aunt Vivian before leaving the show after three seasons and was replaced by Reid. Her departure resulted in a longtime feud between Smith and Herbert. “I couldn’t celebrate 30 years of Fresh Prince without finding a way to celebrate Janet. So she agreed to sit down and have a conversation with me, and Janet and I saw one another for the first time in 27 years yesterday,” Smith told the cast before playing video from their meeting.
“This has been tough,” Hubert told Smith in their conversation, asking why things went “so far.” “I lost so much,” she added. Hubert went on to explain that after she got pregnant during the third season, friction began on set. “There was a lot of things going on in my life and in Will’s life as well…. Home life was not good at all. I was no longer laughing, smiling, joking because there were things going on that nobody knew about. The cast had no idea what was going on,” she said. Hubert said things took a turn when she was offered a bad deal in the third season and after she didn’t accept the offer, her role was recast. The departure ultimately resulted in Hubert feeling disowned and shut out by Hollywood. She also recalled, “I had been banished and they said it was you who banished me because you were Will. You were a kid. It was hard,” she told Smith. “I wasn’t sensitive. I wan’t perceptive,” Smith said, adding that now being a father he learned things he could’ve done differently.
“I could see where I made the set very difficult for Janet,” Smith said. He said as a 21-year-old he believed “everything was a threat.” “I was so driven by fear and jokes and comedy,” he said. “I can see now the level of pain and the level of struggle that it was for you just to show up everyday,” he told Herbert. Herbert also told Smith it was hurtful when he referred to her as being “difficult.” “Calling a Black woman difficult in Hollywood is a kiss of death and it’s hard enough being a dark-skinned woman in this business,” she said. “The person I want to be is someone who protects you. Not someone who unleashes dogs on you,” Smith said. Calling their conversation “healing,” Smith and Herbert apologized to each other and Herbert later reunited with the rest of the cast, meeting Reid for the first time.
Shifting to their larger show experience, Smith and the cast expressed how proud they felt to have been able to collaborate with the writers to help reflect their perspective given they were a Black show on television. “We were able to share the experience, the real experience and gave those writers our perspective,” Ribeiro said, adding that what made the show truly special was they ensured they were “authentic every episode.” They cited a scene where Smith and Ribeiro’s characters are pulled over by a cops, exemplifying their character’s different upbringings. “There would be very powerful ideas under the jokes and under the comedy. It’s relevant today as it was 30 years ago, unfortunately,” Smith said.
“I have spent a career being on shows that showed the variety of the Black culture, showing that we are not just a monolithic group of people with one idea and one lifestyle,” Reid said. “When I got here, we got the freedom to express to the writers the cultural aspects they had in the written word.” Overall, despite being 30-years-later the cast is proud to have created a show with a lasting legacy. “There always be a piece of all of us in that living room, and it was nice for all of us to be able to share it for one more day,” Ribeiro said.
This article originally appeared on The Hollywood Reporter.