Everyone remembers The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It was a staple of TV in the early-to-mid 1990s, introduced rapper-turned-actor Will Smith to a broad audience, and helped push hip-hop culture into the mainstream. Today, the program is viewed as a classic TV show and still has legions of fans around the world. Yet there is a lot of drama that went on behind the scenes during the show’s run on NBC from 1990 to 1996. Here are 10 things you likely didn’t know about The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
10. It Was Almost Cancelled Before Being Saved by Local TV Stations
Many people assume The Fresh Prince was always a massive hit, but the show was actually basically cancelled after its fourth season — it’s actually the first television series to have ever been brought back from cancellation by pleas from television station managers, of all people. The show aired on NBC on Monday nights from 1990-1994 and was reasonably popular. However at the end of the fourth season, NBC wanted to pull the plug on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, as the new episodes were getting an average mediocre 8.6 rating, but the reruns were drawing a 7.4. The network figured there was more money to be made in syndicated reruns of the show rather than spending money to produce new episodes. However, the managers of the local NBA affiliates pleaded to save the Fresh Prince. Apparently they thought the program could become one of those super successful shows where people religiously watch their favorite episodes. To avoid over-saturating viewers the episodes they already had (about a hundred at the time), the station managers agreed to buy the fifth and sixth seasons at a greatly inflated price (adding fifty more shows to their respective libraries, and helping avoid burning out the audiences). NBC acquiesced and produced a fifth and sixth season of the TV show.
9. Carlton’s Famous Dance Was a Nod to Bruce Springsteen
One of the funniest and most memorable shticks on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the dance that Carlton Banks (Alfonso Ribeiro) performed when excited. It was meant to show that the character had no rhythm and danced like a white dude. And while the move was a fan favorite, the dance was actually a nod to rock star Bruce Springsteen. Specifically, Ribeiro got the idea for the dance from the Bruce Springsteen music video for the song “Dancing In The Dark,” where the Boss pulls actress Courtney Cox on stage and the two start dancing awkwardly side-by-side. Apparently once they learned of this fact, network executives at NBC were concerned that they would hear from Springsteen’s lawyers, but, of course, that never happened. Also, Ribeiro would often perform the dance off camera to crack up his co-stars or in the background of scenes to try and make star Will Smith crack up on camera.
8. Will Smith’s Wife Didn’t Get a Part Due To Bad Chemistry
Will and Jada Pinkett Smith are a power couple in Hollywood today. A formidable acting and producing duo who are well-liked and highly regarded in Tinseltown. Yet, ironically, a young Jada Pinkett didn’t get a part on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air because producers of the show felt she lacked chemistry with Will. Jada Pinkett auditioned for the role of Lisa on the program but was denied because of two factors — the height difference between her and Will, and a perceived lack of chemistry between the two actors. This is particularly ironic, as it was in this audition that Will and Jada first met and the two began dating shortly afterwards. The two were married three years after producers of the Fresh Prince rejected Jada Pinkett. Not too many people would accuse this couple of lacking chemistry today.
7. Will Smith’s Co-Stars Doubted His Acting Abilities at First
Today, Will Smith is an Academy Award-nominated actor who has won critical praise for his acting work – both in dramatic and comedy films. But back in 1990, Will Smith was primarily a rapper who had a big personality but very little acting experience. This was apparent to Smith’s co-stars on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air from his first day on set. According to reports, Smith was notorious during the first season of the show for forgetting his lines or messing them up, as well as for being stilted and wooden while the cameras were rolling. Many of his co-stars doubted Smith’s acting chops, including his youngest co-star Tatyana Ali, who was only 10-years-old when the show went into production. In fact, Ali is said to have been very doubtful of Smith’s acting potential during the earliest episodes of the show. Because of this, there was slight tension between them while on set.
6. Why Will Smith’s Character Used His Real Name
One of the most frequent questions that Will Smith gets during interviews is why his character on The Fresh Prince was named “Will Smith.” The reason for this, according to the actor himself, is that during the creation of the show, he and Alfonso Ribeiro were brainstorming names for their characters. Alfonso remarked that Will had to be careful in naming his character, as people would refer to him in public by that name for the rest of his life if the show was a hit. He even suggested that he just stick with his real name, Will Smith. Executives at NBC were initially reluctant to let this happen. But they agreed when they realized that Will Smith already had quite a bit of “name recognition” because of his career as a rapper. Nevertheless, the executives still tested the use of the character name Will Smith with focus groups before the show went into full production. Fun fact: Will Smith’s full name is actually “Willard Carroll Smith Jr.”
5. The Earth, Wind and Fire Reference
Diehard fans of The Fresh Prince will know that there is a subtle reference to the musical band Earth, Wind & Fire in the show. Uncle Phil’s law firm on the program is called “Firth, Wynn and Meyer,” which is a deliberate play on the name of the band. The actors on the series came up with the reference as a tribute to the show’s Executive Producer Quincy Jones, who is also a music producer and big fan of Earth, Wind & Fire. However, Jones apparently didn’t get this reference at first. It went completely over his head. Alfonso Ribeiro had to ask him what he thought of the musical reference, to which Jones replied “What reference?”
4. Will Smith’s Big Tax Problems
Before his venture into acting, Smith was more well-known for his role as MTV darling rapper The Fresh Prince, with partner DJ Jazzy Jeff. They even won a Grammy in 1988, the first one awarded for Rap music. Unfortunately, like many young people who suddenly become rich and famous almost overnight, Smith was terrible with money. He owed the IRS $2.8 million in unpaid taxed by 1990, and agreeing to do The Fresh Prince was really just a way to get a well-paying job to get out of debt. It was so bad, in fact, that Will Smith had to surrender 70 percent of his pay from the show to the IRS during its first three seasons. The IRS also reportedly took a large chunk of the money Smith got when The Fresh Prince went into syndication. Fortunately, Smith’s tax problems have since been resolved. But he has said in interviews that he largely had to live off royalties from his music during the show’s initial run, as the tax man took all his earnings.
3. Alfonso Ribeiro Was Fired After the Pilot Episode
In may sound surprising now, but Alfonso Ribeiro was fired by the NBC brass after the pilot episode aired, as the network president at the time didn’t find him funny, wasn’t fond of his acting abilities, and was worried that the character would be criticized for making fun of white people. Luckily for Ribeiro, the cast and crew immediately rallied to keep him on the show. Ribeiro was extremely well liked by everyone working on the program, especially Smith, whom he bonded with immediately. Ribeiro has always said in interviews how grateful he was to everyone for helping him get his job back. When asked about the experience of being fired and then rehired, Ribeiro has described the experience as “traumatic.”
2. The Reason the Original Aunt Vivian Was Replaced
Fans of The Fresh Prince all know that there was one significant cast replacement during the run of the hit show – that being the actress who played Aunt Viv. Originally played by actress Janet Hubert, Aunt Vivian was played in by actress Daphne Reid in the final three seasons. The reason for this change was that Hubert did not get along with the other cast members, or the production crew for that matter. According to media reports, tensions were especially high between Hubert and Smith, whom Hubert resented for being the star of the NBC program. During her tenure on The Fresh Prince, Hubert reportedly lobbied for more screen time and a bigger role for her character (plus a raise in her paycheck). Eventually the NBC brass had enough and did not renew her contract, opting to replace the actress with the more likable Daphne Reid.
1. The Show Only Ever Received a Single Emmy Nomination
Despite its popularity with viewers, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was greeted with mixed critical praise, and was never really nominated for many awards during its run. In fact, over six seasons, the show only ever received one Emmy Award nomination, and it was in the rather odd technical category of “Outstanding Individual Achievement in Lighting Direction for a Comedy Series.” And it didn’t even win that. The lack of critical respect and awards can be attributed to the fact that many people found the humor on the show juvenile and felt that it was aimed at children, or at least an audience of pre-teens. Will Smith himself has shrugged off the lack of critical kudos for the show, saying that he is most grateful for the fact that The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air continues to have a loyal fan base to this day.