These days, Will Smith is a Hollywood megastar with box office smashes like Bad Boys, the Men in Black franchise and the live-action Aladdin remake to his name. But from 1990 to 1996, amassing a total of 148 episodes, he starred in the lead role of a quirky hip-hop sitcom: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
The street-smart, wise-cracking Will Smith – yes, that’s the name of the character – is forced by his protective mother to live with his rich family in their plush Bel-Air mansion. However, there’s a lot more to this wholesome, groundbreaking show than meets the eye.
20. The Carlton dance was inspired by Bruce Springsteen, Courteney Cox, and Eddie Murphy
The Carlton dance is one of the best things to come out of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and that’s saying something. The scene featuring Ribeiro as Carlton dancing to Tom Jones’ hit song It’s Not Unusual is one of the most memorable moments in the whole series. The script reportedly said just two words: “Carlton dances.” Ribeiro was left to decide exactly how to interpret this.
When it came to choreographing the routine, Ribeiro borrowed from a video of Bruce Springsteen performing Dancing in the Dark and dancing onstage with Courteney Cox. Ribeiro also drew inspiration from Eddie Murphy’s ‘white people dance’ in stand-up comedy film Raw. “That is the corniest dance on the planet that I know of,” Riberio said of Murphy’s moves. “so why don’t I do that?”
19. Most of Will Smith’s salary went to the IRS
Before starring as the Fresh Prince, Smith owed the government $2.8 million in unpaid taxes. The Internal Revenue Service had begun to seize Smith’s belongings due to his failure to pay up. The actor and rapper was about to declare bankruptcy before he was picked to star in the show. Smith cut a deal with the Feds and had to pay the IRS 70% of his salary for the show’s first three seasons.
“Before I was getting in trouble with Uncle Phil, I was in trouble with Uncle Sam,” Smith said, recounting the matter on his YouTube channel. Today, Smith’s net worth is $350 million. It’s safe to say he’s bounced back from his earlier financial troubles.
18. The house isn’t in Bel-Air
The house featured in the show’s intro isn’t actually located in Bel-Air, but instead the nearby city of Brentwood. ‘The Fresh Prince of Brentwood’, however, doesn’t exactly have the same ring to it, so we’ll let this one slide. Californian locals may have already realised that the house didn’t seem like a typical place in Bel-Air. Bel-Air is notoriously hilly, while the house in the opening credits is on a patch of pretty flat land.
With loads of outdoor space, five bedrooms, and five bathrooms, Realtor.com estimates that the Fresh Prince house is worth a whopping $6,475,500 today. In September 2020, a few lucky fans were given the chance to actually stay in the mansion itself as Airbnb rented it out to mark the show’s 30th anniversary.
17. The show is the most popular entertainment choice for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay
In 2012, The Miami Herald reported that inmates at island prison Guantanamo Bay had become avid watchers of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The prison library holds over 28,000 books and videos, but it seems as though the hit 90s show is everyone’s favourite. The prison librarian has claimed that the show’s massive popularity in the facility is somewhat inexplicable, but he did note the fact that most inmates prefer to watch more lighthearted comedy shows.
Before the surge in interest in Fresh Prince, the prisoners’ favourite thing to watch was the Harry Potter film series. Maximum-security prisoners are permitted to watch TV for an hour or two a day “from a recliner, with one ankle shackled to a bolt on the floor.” Other inmates are allowed to watch shows communally on a flat-screen television that has been bolted to a wall inside a Plexiglas box.
16. Smith would learn everyone’s lines, and can be seen mouthing them in some scenes
Speaking on The Graham Norton Show in 2017, Smith revealed that he “can’t bear to watch” himself on early Fresh Prince episodes. “It was my very first role, and I was very, very focused on being successful,” he began. “So I learned the whole script and everyone else’s lines. If you watch the first four or five episodes, you can see I’m mouthing other people’s lines. It’s terrible and I can’t bear to watch it,” Smith claimed. While Smith cringes at this old habit, most viewers probably didn’t even notice this the first time round.
But the Fresh Prince actor is right – if you’re looking out for it, you can see him mouthing other peoples’ lines in early episodes. However, Smith is definitely being a little hard on himself by calling his performance “terrible.”
15. The cast kept a diary hidden in a drawer on the kitchen set
In a 2014 interview with ABC News, Karyn Parsons revealed that she and her co-stars kept a diary on set. “In the kitchen, there was a drawer in the island that had a little diary,” she said. “Every now and then a camera person or the actors, somebody would just write silly poetry or ‘James is getting on my nerves.'”
Parsons revealed that she took possession of the diary when filming wrapped – and it’s now one of her most treasured possessions. “I need to pull that out, especially now that James has passed, because I know he’s written in there. I know he was written about.” James Avery, Parsons’ onstage father Phil Banks, passed away in 2013 as a result of complications from open-heart surgery.
14. Geoffrey’s full name is Geoffrey Barbara Butler
The Banks’ snarky family butler is known throughout the series as ‘Geoffrey’, and there’s never any indication that he has a surname. But the butler did have a last name – and a middle name too. According to Will Smith’s 2009 biography, Geoffrey’s full name is Geoffrey Barbara Butler. The character’s personality is notable for its ever-shifting nature: Geoffrey often fluctuates between being optimistic and level-headed, to cynical and frustrated.
Joseph Marcell, the actor who played the Banks family’s butler, claims that Geoffrey’s personality was purposely left ambiguous. Marcell now works as a Shakespearean actor in London, and makes regular appearances at The Globe theatre. He’s starred in plays including Othello, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, and King Lear.
13. Karyn Parsons thought the show would flop so she initially kept her old waitressing job
When Karyn Parsons landed the role of Will’s bratty cousin Hilary Banks, she wasn’t convinced that the show would be as big a success as it turned out to be. Speaking to ABC News in September 2020, Parsons recalled what it was like to hear that she’d got the job. “I was working at Delmonico’s Seafood Grille in L.A. I had just started my shift and I got a phone call. It was my agent,” she recounted.
Her agent told her that she was to play Hilary in the show. Parsons then held onto her job until her boss gave her the push she needed to leave for good. “My boss was like ‘Get out of here!’ I split and I don’t know where I was or what I did, but I was so excited,” she said. Parsons claims that she gelled with the rest of the cast immediately, and got on especially well with Smith: “He was just so sweet and such a nice guy. We clicked right away.”
12. The theme song caused a US school to go into lockdown in 2013
Everyone loves the Fresh Prince theme song. Even those who’ve never seen the show can usually sing along to the first few lines. But it seems one doctor’s receptionist in Pennsylvania wasn’t quite so well acquainted with the song’s lyrics. In 2013, the receptionist in question was trying to reach 19-year-old Travis Clawson when she reached his voicemail, which quotes Fresh Prince’s iconic opening song.
The receptionist then misheard the line “shooting some b-ball outside of the school” as “shooting some people outside of the school,” and immediately called 911 and Clawson’s school. The school was instantly locked down. Police found Clawson and arrested him – no doubt he was confused and terrified. The teen was forced to explain that his answerphone message was an innocent reference to Fresh Prince and had no darker meanings. Thankfully, he was released without being charged.
11. Will Smith met his wife at auditions for the role of his on-screen girlfriend
In 1994, actress Jada Pinkett auditioned for the role of Will’s on-screen girlfriend, Lisa Wilkes. Pinkett made a good impression on producers, but they eventually decided that she was too short to work with Smith, who stood at six foot two. The part ultimately went to actress Nia Long, who went on to appear in 15 episodes.
But it wasn’t all bad news for Pinkett – it brought her and Smith together, and the two went on to marry in 1997. Though the pair have had two children together and are still legally wed, their marriage has been embroiled in scandal. In 2020, Pinkett Smith revealed that she “got into an entanglement” with 28-year-old singer August Alsina while she and Smith were separated in 2016.
10. The shot of Jazz being thrown out of the house is continually reused
Because it required expensive on-location filming, as opposed to the stalwart interior film sets, there was only ever one shot of Jazz being thrown out of the house. The shot was also reused as actor Jeffrey Townes found himself bruising and in a lot of pain after jumping onto concrete so many times. “Every time you shoot it to get a take you probably have to do it about 40 times,” Townes explained to The Huffington Post in 2015.
Townes said he was “literally black and blue” by the time they got one usable shot. “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.'” As a result, actor DJ Jazzy Jeff had to wear the same shirt for every appearance in the show.
9. Will Smith released an extended version of the theme tune
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air has one of the most iconic theme tunes in living memory. Even people who haven’t watched the show can recite a line or two from the catchy song. Owing to its staying power, Smith released it as a single – in the Netherlands and Spain, that is.
It reached #3 on the Dutch Top 40 charts, and #2 on the Spanish charts. In 2018, the single even received a Silver sales certification from the British Phonographic Institute. Needless to say, the fact that the show’s theme song remains so popular is testament to the immense cultural impact of Fresh Prince.
8. Hugh Hefner once guest-starred
The show featured many famous guest stars, including Jay Leno, Queen Latifah – and Playboy magazine editor, Hugh Hefner. Hefner made an appearance in an episode in the show’s fourth season, making a cameo as himself. The episode revolves around Hefner inviting Will’s cousin Hilary to the Playboy mansion for a photoshoot.
Will ends up blowing off a date with Jackie to accompany Hilary to the mansion and meet Hefner’s Playmates. While at the mansion, Will realises he has feelings for Jackie and regrets ditching their date. But unfortunately for him, Jackie plans another date with someone else before Will can get back to her.
7. Executives wanted Will Smith and Alfonso Ribeiro sacked
During the first few seasons of the show, Smith was ridiculed for his perceived lack of acting skills. He had no acting experience and he often struggled to remember his lines, which made bosses sceptical of his abilities. As a result, some producers wanted to fire him. Executives at NBC tried to give Smith the ax several times in the show’s early stages. But the show’s creators, Andy and Susan Borowitz, convinced them to keep Smith and give him time to settle in.
Smith’s co-star Ribeiro was also on thin ice. He was briefly fired after the pilot episode, as high-ranking NBC executive Warren Littlefield wasn’t a fan of Carlton’s character and didn’t find Ribeiro funny. Thankfully, the production team were unwilling to give up on Ribeiro that easily, and he was permitted to come back and resume his role as Carlton. What a different show it could have been had the two actors been axed for good!
6. Tyra Banks made her acting debut on the show
Nowadays, supermodel Tyra Banks is no stranger to the little screen, having hosted hit show America’s Next Top Model since 2003. But before ANTM, Banks’ TV career began with Fresh Prince. She made her first appearance in the show’s fourth season, playing Will’s childhood friend Jackie Ames. Speaking to Yahoo Entertainment in 2020, Banks revealed that she felt “so dumb” during the audition process for the show.
Banks recalled turning up to the audition in character, wearing “basketball shorts and, like, a big, huge T-shirt.” The supermodel had a huge shock when she came into the audition room. “Everybody had on a little black dress and black heels and just looking gorgeous. And I’m like, ‘Oh, you’re not supposed to dress like the character’.” It’s clear Banks stood out at the auditions – but maybe this worked in her favour as, after all, she was the one to get the part.
5. The soundtrack was released exclusively in the Netherlands
The show’s soundtrack was originally only released in The Netherlands, where a remixed version of the title song hit the charts. The song spent an impressive 10 weeks on the Dutch Top 40 Singles Chart and peaked at #3. While nowadays, thanks to the Internet, you can listen to the soundtrack almost anywhere in the world, in the 90s it was really only available in The Netherlands.
But if you’re looking to get your hands on a physical copy of the soundtrack – you might still struggle. You can occasionally find a listing for the CD on eBay, but as they’re so rare, you’ll have to act quickly when you find one. As well as the popular theme song, the soundtrack features tracks from the likes of Salt n Pepa, House of Pain, and De La Soul.
4. The show was canceled and then reinstated after a deluge of complaints
The show is now a cult classic, but it wasn’t an instant success – Fresh Prince was actually set to be canceled after its fourth season. NBC was set to pull the plug on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1994, as new episodes were achieving mediocre ratings. The season four finale was supposed to be the end to the whole series, with Will going back to Philadelphia and staying there with his mother.
Fans were absolutely outraged and hit NBC with thousands of angry fan letters. Somehow, this worked. The network listened and NBC decided to bring the show back for a further two seasons. In a nod to the whole fiasco, the season five opening scene sees Will being driven back to Bel-Air by an NBC executive producer.
3. The name of Uncle Phil’s law firm is a nod to Quincy Jones’ favourite band
Eagle-eyed viewers may well have noticed that Uncle Phil’s law firm is called Firth, Wynn, & Meyer. The name is actually a nod to executive producer Quincy Jones’ favourite band, Earth, Wind & Fire. The show spells out the connection in one scene in the pilot episode where Uncle Phil introduces Will to his associates.
“When’s your next record coming out?”, Will asks the three men, much to his uncle’s embarrassment. Jones has previously proclaimed himself as the “biggest fan of Earth, Wind & Fire since day one.” He paid tribute to the band’s co-founder Maurice White on Twitter after he passed away in 2016, writing “your contributions to music will be kept in our hearts & souls [forever].”
2. Will Smith’s character doesn’t actually have the exact same name as him
Both Alfonso Ribeiro and Smith were allowed to make suggestions to producers regarding their characters’ names. Ribeiro made the point to Smith that if the show was a hit, millions of people would know him as his character’s name. Smith played things safe by suggesting that his character go by ‘Will Smith’, while Ribeiro went for Carlton Banks for his own character.
However, Smith and his character don’t have the exact same name. For the character, ‘Will’ is short for ‘William’. While for the actor, ‘Will’ is short for ‘Willard’. His full name is Willard Carroll Smith Jr. The character not only borrows Smith’s name, but is essentially a fictionalised version of the actor himself.
1. Its stars also contributed behind the scenes
When the cast wasn’t busy acting in front of the camera, they were getting stuck in with working backstage. Ribeiro directed one episode of season five, while Smith wrote one episode for season three. Ribeiro seems to have thoroughly enjoyed directing his episode, as he’s now gone on to become a fully-fledged TV director.
He’s since worked on seven different TV projects. Most recently, he directed two episodes in the comedy series K.C. Undercover. Smith has also made a success of working behind the camera, and has worked as a producer on a variety of films. Most recently, he worked as a producer on 2020 film Bad Boys for Life. He also starred in the film alongside comedian Martin Lawrence.