This was one of just two freshman shows in the 1990-91 NBC primetime lineup to get a second season. The other was Law & Order.
Adored by the Network: Regardless of who airs it, the show is broadcast every day. VH1, MTV2 and BET have assured this airing it in blocks on weekdays, weeknights, and weekends, respectively. During the Turn of the Millennium this show was downright inescapable, almost seemingly airing on some channel 24 hours a day.
Will Smith plays Will Smith. However, in real life, Will's actual name is Willard, while in-show, Will's name is William. On an episode of The Late Show with David Letterman, and again onThe Graham Norton Show, Smith said that Alfonso Ribero advised him to do this, because people would be calling him by his character's name for the rest of his life, as demonstrated by the fact they went out and were called "Will!" and "Carlton!"
Will's best friend "Jazz" was played by DJ Jazzy Jeff.
Will Smith was 21 when he began playing the 16-year-old titular character. His music had already established that trend, with story songs placing him in the role of a young teen in high school even though he was in his late teens and early twenties at the time.
Alfonso Ribeiro was 18 when he began playing Carlton, who's stated to be a year younger than Will.note A Season 1 episode establishes Will as having been born in 1973, and Carlton in 1974.
Downplayed then averted with Tatyana Ali being 11 when she first played Ashley, whose age was inconsistent throughout Season 1 but put her as younger than 11. "Just Infatuation" would properly establish Ashley's age as being the same as Ali's.
Doing It for the Art: Will Smith gave 60% of his salary to getting the first three seasons off the ground.
Dueling Works: With Family Matters. Both shows made occasional mention of the fact that James Avery and Reginald VelJohnson looked similar; Avery himself appeared in the closing of one Family Matters episode that lampshaded the similarities. In a later Fresh Prince episode, Jaleel White guest-starred as one of Ashley's boyfriends.
The resentment the cast had towards Janet Hubert-Whitten probably made episodes like "The Baby Comes Out" easier to act.
While filming his now-famous monologue at the end of "Papa's Got A Brand New Excuse," Will Smith was so overcome by the scene's Reality Subtext that James Avery went off-script and gave him a much-needed hug (fortunately this still fit the context of the scene).
Executive Meddling: At the start of Season 4, Janet Hubert-Whitten was replaced by Daphne Maxwell Reid. Smith eventually explained in a 1995 Jet magazine article, as well as in subsequent interviews throughout the years, that there was tension between him and the former. Hubert-Whitten claims that it was ultimately Smith's behavior that played a role in her sacking. She would later claim during the 30th anniversary special that the executives told her to take a pay cut, which she said no to, resulting in her being replaced.
Subverted with Joseph Marcell, Geoffrey's actor. He was born in St. Lucia, but moved to the UK when he was 9.
Los Angeles native Craig Kirkwood portrayed Geoffery's son, Frederick.
Flip-Flop of God: Will Smith had long denied the possibility of rebooting the series, claiming it would happen "pretty close to when Hell freezes over." That changed, however, when Smith saw the fake fan trailer "Bel-Air" from Morgan Cooper, which immediately caught his interest; Smith teamed up with Cooper to develop a real reboot based on the trailer, which was then picked up by Peacock.
Franchise Zombie: Averted. James Avery (Uncle Phil) even commended Will Smith on wanting to leave the show on a high note instead of keep it dragging on.
Hide Your Pregnancy: While Vivian ultimately gives birth to Nicky in "The Baby Comes Out", Janet Hubert-Whitten was still heavily pregnant when that episode and "The Way We Were" were filmed. Once Vivian gives birth, the usual tricks were employed to hide Hubert-Whitten's baby bump.
Janet Hubert-Whitten being fired from the show was known information at the time it happened, but it took some time to reveal what happened. James Avery and Alfonso Ribeiro confirmed that the whole cast was like one big family, except for Janet Hubert-Whitten, who was being difficult to work with and toxic to be around, and really killed the mood on set. In particular she was upset at how Will Smith dominated the show, seeing him as an immature kid who didn't take the job very seriously and she felt the show should be more about Phil and Vivian. It wouldn't be until November 2020 when Smith and Hubert-Whitten reconciled for the purposes of the 30th Anniversary Reunion special, where more information came to light about Hubert-Whitten dealing with a troubled marriage at the time and finding little relief from her castmates on top of that. Smith expressed regret for his behavior, better understanding now the professionalism of acting, the struggles of divorce as well as juggling a career and a family.
At the start of the show, Will Smith was not a trained actor but simply had loads of energy and charisma. His immaturity and ego was rampant early on, which made it more difficult for the other actors who were more afraid of losing their job if they didn't perform. Karyn Parsons and Tatyana Ali admitted to being frustrated with his unprofessional behavior, messing up his own lines while also mouthing their lines to himself during their performance (sometimes seen on camera). They all credited James Avery stepping in as Team Dad to get Smith to clean up and take it more serious.
I Am Not Spock: Defied. Will Smith chose to call his character "Will Smith" because he knew he would be referred to as his character's name for the rest of his life. According to interviews, he was acting on the advice of Alfonso Ribeiro, who will probably never escape this. "When we go out together, people are like: 'Will, Will! Carlton!'"
Both of Will's parents have the surname "Smith" - his father is Lou Smith and his mother Vy is one of the Smith sisters (along with Vivian Banks nee Smith, Helen Smith-Lewis, and Janice Smith). Smith is the most common surname in the United States (about 1% of all Americans have the name) so it does make some sense, though it's still unusual (statistically the odds are 1 in 10,000).
Will had two love interests named Lisa. The first one was Lisa Adams who appeared in "The Harder They Fall" who was played by Cree Summer. The second was the more memorable Lisa Wilkes who was played by Nia Long.
Will's deadbeat dad was named Lou and according to "Ain't No Business Like Show Business", Will has an uncle who is also named Lou.
In "When You Hit Upon a Star", Carlton buys an expensive ice cream cake called "Sonny the Seal" for Will's birthday. It ended up melting and the remains subsequently poured on Will's head during the credits. In real life, Milton Bradley produced a ring toss game named "Sonny the Seal".
Will Smith has said he cannot watch the first few episodes because he considers his acting in them to be terrible, noting how he was mouthing the other actors' lines.
Interesting case with Janet Hubert — sometimes she seemed as though she's came to regret taking the role, sometimes she didn't. The times she did were mainly due to her conflict with Will Smith, and she's even requested for fans not to refer to her as Aunt Viv. The times she didn't, she seemed to look back on her role with pride, as she posted various fan-created memes claiming her to be "the true Aunt Viv" on her social media accounts. This would change in November 2020 when she and Smith reconciled.
One-Take Wonder: The infamous ending to "Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse" was done all in one take. Karyn Parsons (Hilary) could be heard crying backstage. Director Shelly Jensen was too emotional to do another take.
The role of Vivian Banks was recast after Janet Hubert-Whitten violated her contract when she became pregnant; the pregnancy and birth of her character's child, Nicky Banks, was worked into the plot to accommodate the situation. After she was fired, Hubert-Whitten's character was played by Daphne Maxwell Reid for the remainder of the show's run. According to both Will Smith and Hubert-Whitten, they had difficulties working together long before her pregnancy. The other cast members also admitted to having difficulties working with Hubert-Whitten, mainly due to her being toxic to be around. She also wanted a higher salary, and for the show to be centered on Aunt Viv and Uncle Phil. She allegedly felt insulted that Smith was earning more money than her. The feud would last until November 2020 when they reconciled.
A small case. Will's mom in the opening sequence is the "mom figure" used in Smith's DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince videos, particularly "Parents Just Don't Understand". She was played by Vernee Watson-Johnson in the series proper.
Frank Schaeffer was played by Diedrich Bader in Season 2, and by Robert Torti in Season 3. Both actors would go on to appear together on The Drew Carey Show.
Gregory Wheeler played five-year-old Nicky Banks in the 1998 segments of the Season 4 episode "'Twas the Night Before Christening". The very next season, with Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome setting in, Ross Bagley was cast as the now-six-year-old Nicky.
The most common story is that Will Smith drew from his experiences of himself having a deadbeat dad. However, in Real Life, although his parents did separate when Smith was young, his father continued to have an active role in his upbringing and was even the person who encouraged his rap career. Some sources instead cite Smith drawing experience from his friends, many of whom had deadbeat dads of their own although he had not.
Another common story is that Smith ad-libbed his ending monologue. This hasn't been independently verified by anyone connected with the show, although many cite James Avery's clearly blindsided reaction as evidence of this. What is known is that Avery was greatly impressed by the raw emotion of Smith's performance, complimenting his acting skills after the scene had concluded. Karyn Parsons (who could be heard crying backstage in the aired episode) also stated that while the monologue was scripted, Smith had done it another way in the rehearsals. He didn't go in the dramatic route it took until the day it was taped.
The third,note Will getting graduated from high school, though last filmed from that season was Phil and Vivian renewing their vows fourth,note Will visiting his mother at Philadelphia and fifthnote Will getting married to Lisa season finales were written to be a respectable farewell in case they didn't get another season. The sixth season Grand Finale was written with the full knowledge it would not continue.
A literal case with the fifth and sixth seasons; the show was actually cancelled during the fourth. Reruns proved to be popular though, and affiliates wanted more episodes for a decent syndication package, so the show was brought back. Will Smith deliberately ended the show after the sixth season however, purposefully wanting to avoid potential Seasonal Rot.
Reality Subtext: Though Will Smith's father was there for him in his childhood and the two were on good terms at the time, Will's monologue at the end of "Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse," which Smith wrote himself, was partially inspired by their rocky relationship. More than that, it was inspired by Smith's memories of all of his childhood friends with deadbeat fathers whom they never knew. That Cool Down Hug he and James Avery share at the end was not acting.
"The Big Four-Oh" recycles elements from The Dick Van Dyke Show episode "To Tell or Not to Tell". In each episode, the mothers take the opportunity to rededicate themselves to dance in the hopes of finding out whether they could have "made it" if they hadn't taken different paths. Both episodes end with the women rising to the occasion and gaining the validation they sought, while acknowledging the physical strain dancing put on their (now older) bodies:
Laura Petrie: There isn't a bone in my body that isn't screaming out "For heaven's sake! Lie down in a hot tub!"
Vivian Banks: There isn't a part of my body that isn't aching for Ben-Gay!
"Ill Will" recycles the basic A-plot of The Golden Girls episode "The Operation". In both episodes, a central character (Dorothy Zbornak in "The Operation", Will in "Ill Will") must visit the hospital to have surgery done. While there, something happens to scare them into running away from the hospital and hiding out back home. Eventually they are convinced by their loved ones to go back to the hospital and have the surgery done. In both cases, listening to their roommates' stories in the hospital ward ends up making them feel foolish for chickening out. Incidentally, the writer of "The Operation", Winifred Hervey(-Stallworth), was Fresh Prince's executive producer by the time "Ill Will" came around.
Star-Making Role: Will Smith was already a platinum-selling rapper, but this show made him a household name and kickstarted his career as one of the most successful actors of all time.
Technology Marches On: Considering this was produced in the early-to-mid '90s, there's bound to be plenty of examples. This is most notably seen in "The Baby Comes Out" — Vivian uses a big cordless phone with an even bigger antenna to beep Will.
Carlton running around the set hysterically at the end of "Will's Misery" was unscripted and was improvised by Alfonso Ribeiro.
Will Smith personally wrote his famous monologue at the end of "Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse." Additionally, James Avery hugging him was also totally unscripted.
Tom Hanks Syndrome: Will Smith ran into a career block when trying to keep up the hip, street-savvy black guy he started portraying with this show. Ironically, no one remembered him as "The Fresh Prince" after Independence Day.
Un-Canceled: The show was actually cancelled during Season 4, with "The Philadelphia Story" serving as the Grand Finale. The overwhelming response, with viewers writing in by the truckload to NBC and Will Smith, as well as demands by NBC affiliates to make more episodes so that they could have a more decent rerun syndication package, convinced the network to go back on this decision, allowing it to run for what became two more seasons.
Underage Casting: Vivian turned 40 in Season 2. Janet Hubert-Whitten was in her mid 30s when she was cast.
Unintentional Period Piece: The show is laden with contemporary pop culture references, especially in the earlier seasons, which not only had many late 1980s fashion lingering around, but also had frequent references to early 1990s politics such as Operation Desert Storm and Dan Quayle, and celebrity scandals such as Zsa Zsa Gabor's slapping of a police and evangelist Jimmy Swaggart's arrest for solicitation. This reaches the point that a gag in Gravity Falls mocking the worst excesses of the decade used the typeface of the show's title card.
The title of the script from Will Smith's impromptu audition at Quincy Jones' house read "Failed Morris Day Pilot". Apparently, the show was originally created with him as the star.
Alfonso Ribeiro was almost let go following the pilot. He ultimately stayed on the show thanks to the staff.
Jada Pinkett actually tried out for the role of Lisa, but was denied because of the height difference between her and Will. Ironically, this is where the two first met and they would get married three years later.
Laurence Fishburne was offered the role of Lou, Will's father, in "Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse", but the producers felt his demeanor was too laid back for the part. That and also Fishburne is eight years older than Smith. It was later offered to Ben Vereen.
Apparently, a reunion special featuring the surviving cast members was proposed, but ultimately scrapped. The special would've seen Will and the surviving Banks family coming together in the wake of Phil's death, which would've made Phil a case of The Character Died with Him.
According to Will Smith himself, the show's now-famous Theme Tune Rap almost didn't happen. The show was going to use a Quincy Jones composition, until Smith's musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff showed him a beat, and convinced him to record the show's theme song over it.
Written by Cast Member: Will Smith co-wrote the episode "Ain't No Business Like Show Business" as well as the monologue from "Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse".
Written-In Infirmity: Janet Hubert-Whitten unexpectedly got pregnant before Season 3 was to be filmed. As a result, Vivian was written to also be pregnant and most of the season revolved around her pregnancy.
Nia Long once played a one-shot role as Will's rather airheaded prom date, Claudia, before coming back three seasons later to play Lisa, his long time girlfriend.
Queen Latifah made an appearance during Season 1 as Hilary's Bad Boss, diva actress Marissa Redman, who had a crush on Will. A season later, in the same episode as Nia Long's first appearance, funnily enough, she returned as Dee Dee, a full-figured girl that Will actually liked, but was too afraid to admit it because of her size.
Jim Meskimen appeared in a memorable role as Will's philosophy professor Jeremy Mansfield. Two seasons later, after Hilary gets her own talk show, Meskimen reappeared several times as the show's producer, Werner.