Thirty years after The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air debuted, the original cast returned to the show's iconic living room set for an emotional and, of course, hilarious reunion.
The reunion special, which premiered on HBO Max Wednesday evening, featured Will Smith, Tatyana Ali, Karyn Parsons, Joseph Marcell, Daphne Maxwell Reid and Alfonso Ribeiro. The cast cemented themselves as a true family, both on- and off-screen, and discussed the lasting impact of the sitcom, which aired for six seasons from 1990 to 1996 on NBC.
“The continuing legacy for Fresh Prince will simply be that we changed television in a positive way, and that we will go down in history as one of the best to have ever done it,” said Ribeiro, 49.
Janet Hubert, who played Aunt Viv for the first three seasons of Fresh Prince before being replaced by Reid, also returned for a candid conversation with Smith about what went wrong 27 years prior and how they could move forward.
Aside from Hubert and Smith burying the hatchet, the special featured a whole host of touching moments and behind-the-scenes details, from Ribeiro recalling the origin of the Carlton dance to a cast tribute to the late James Avery.
Keep reading for the standout moments.
Will Smith learned everyone’s lines in the early episodes.
Smith, 57, opened the conversation by asking his former costars what they remembered about the pilot and Parsons, who played Hilary Banks, quickly exposed Smith's early acting techniques.
“I remember the pilot — I was beyond nervous, I was so scared, I was praying for an earthquake,” she joked. “I’m trying to get through it, just doing my thing and keep it together, and you mouthed lines back to me for the first time.”
“You did it to me, too,” Ali, who starred as little sister Ashley, recalled.
It turns out that Smith, who up to that point had been a rapper and not an actor, had been learning everyone’s lines and mouthing them throughout the first several episodes. “My side of that was when we were on the set of the pilot, that was my first time really doing dialogue,” he said.
Eventually, the now-veteran actor was shown footage of him clearly mouthing back people’s lines and stopped, but eagle-eyed fans can still spot Smith’s habit in early episodes of Fresh Prince.
“I knew everybody’s lines — I could've played uncle Phil, I could’ve played Aunt Viv,” he said. “I knew everybody’s words.”
Alfonso Ribeiro came up with the “Carlton dance.”
There couldn't be a Fresh Prince reunion without at least some mention of Ribeiro's iconic "Carlton dance."
Ribeiro, who played the role of Will's straightlaced cousin Carlton Banks, created the set of moves on the spot when he was instructed in the script to simply dance.
"The first time, all it said in the script was 'Carlton dances' and I needed to figure out how this character would dance," he shared. "What would be the actual move that hit it perfect?"
And so, the Carlton dance was born. Smith, however, admitted that he was never able to master it. "I never ever could do the Carlton dance — I never was able to get it," he said.
But he did perform it in one of the final scenes of the sitcom, when Carlton and Will do the dance together. "That final moment, doing it together — that was like Will finally making the full acceptance of Carlton," Smith said, recalling the scene. "We are in sync and as one."
Tatyana Ali had her first kiss on-screen.
Ali, now 41, started working on Fresh Prince when she was just 11 years old. During that first season, the young actress was tasked with having her first-ever kiss on-screen.
“I had my first kiss on the show, like my first actual kiss,” she revealed. “I was so nervous.”
To make matters worse, her TV family members — Ribeiro, Smith and Parsons — decided they wanted to get a sneak peek at the adorable moment.
“We were about to do the scene and I swear to you — I see Alfonso, Will and Karyn peek out from behind a camera,” she said, laughing.
James Avery was dearly missed.
The reunion wasn’t complete without the presence of Avery, who played Will’s Uncle Phil. Avery died at the age of 68 in 2013.
“He was my teacher,” said Ali, who grew up on the show from ages 11 to 17. “I learned what it means to be an artist from him.”
“James, he pushed me so hard,” said Smith. “His thing was that I am in such a unique position … you must elevate your craft, you have to represent and you are paving a way. He just wouldn’t give me an inch.”
Smith highlighted one scene in particular in which Will broke down in Uncle Phil’s arms when talking about his absent father.
“I wanted him to think I was good so bad,” Smith said. “I wanted him to be proud of me. So the episode comes and we come to that scene and I was like, I want to deliver this scene so bad.”
Smith flubbed his line initially and got angry at himself, leading Avery to tell him to “look at me” and “use me.” Recalling what happened in the next take, Smith and the rest of the cast began to reach for the tissues.
“I fall into his arms at the end of the scene and he’s holding me and the shot pans off and he whispered in me ear, ‘Now that’s acting,’” Smith said.
The cast brought “the real” Black experience to the show.
Ribeiro opened up about how, despite the all-Black cast, there wasn’t much diversity in the writer’s room.
“As an actor, you never had a voice, you never had a voice in the room — you were a puppet who was told what to do, say this line, move over here,” he said.
On Mondays, the cast and crew would do a table read, before they would start actually rehearsing and working on the episode on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Those days, Ribeiro said, were when the actors were able to give the show the authenticity viewers saw each Friday.
“We were able to share the experience — the real experience — and gave those writers our perspective,” he said.
Ribeiro continued, “We would come across moments that they wrote that was like, ‘This wouldn’t happen, Black people don’t do this.’ Tuesday and Wednesday is what made this show special, because we made sure that we were authentic every episode.”
“Part of the power of what we would always do with The Fresh Prince, there would be very powerful ideas under the jokes and under the comedy,” Smith later added. “It is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago, unfortunately.”
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air reunion special is streaming on HBO Max.
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