||THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR
Street-smart teenager from West Philadelphia is sent to live with his wealthy relatives in a Bel Air mansion.
148 episodes of 30 minute duration. NBC. USA. 1990 - 1996.
Will Smith has become one of the most popular film stars of the late 1990's and the early years of the new century, with movie hits such as Independence Day, Men In Black, Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness. But the former rap star turned matinee idol cut his acting chops on this NBC sitcom, which ran for six seasons. Its “fish out of water” premise (with a hip-hop twist) allowed Smith to grow and stretch in both comedy and drama, and paved the way for his future success.
Born Willard Christopher Smith Junior on September 25th, 1968, he grew up in the West Philadelphia area of Pennsylvania. While a teenager, he became known as the “Fresh Prince;” Smith and his buddy Jeffrey Townes (also known as “DJ Jazzy Jeff”) became a rap duo, staying away from the hard-core sex and violence becoming a standard part of other (mostly male) rap artists. Their songs aimed at both teens and adults, including their big 1988 hit “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” Its blend of humour and irony earned Smith and Townes the first-ever Grammy in the rap category. Unfortunately, Smith spent his newly earned money unwisely and failed to pay his income tax. That led to a visit from agents of the Internal Revenue Service, who seized Smith’s property and attached his wages to pay off a nearly $3 million dollar debt.
In 1990, Smith was nearly broke before the folks at NBC signed him to a contract and worked to build a television show around him. Sitcom writer Andy Borowitz (The Facts Of Life) created the basic format (he and his wife Susan were named executive producers) and the series was co-produced by legendary record producer/songwriter Quincy Jones. The show’s premise was simple – teenager Will Smith was getting himself into trouble in West Philadelphia, which worried his mother. She sent young Will to her relatives in the Bel Air area of Southern California, so he could have a chance to get an education and make something of himself. All this was spelled out in the show’s hip-hop flavoured theme song–co-written by Quincy Jones and Will Smith. (See the lyrics below.)
Successful attorney Phillip Banks (James Avery) and his wife, college professor Vivian (Janet Hubert-Whitten, later replaced by Daphine Maxwell-Reid), lived in their Bel Air mansion with their three children – teenager Carlton (Alfonso Riberto), a stuffy and conservative young man; older daughter Hillary (Karyn Parsons), a snobbish and rather selfish girl with a passion for clothes and material items; and younger daughter Ashley (Tatyana M. Ali), probably the most “normal” of the Banks children. As expected, brash and street-wise Will shook up the staid Banks household–including the family’s prim and oh-so-proper British butler Geoffrey (Joseph Marcell). Will reminded the Banks’ that not everyone lived in luxury and privilege, while in return, Phillip became a much-needed authority figure who pushed Will to channel his enthusiasm into education while teaching him about such things as responsibility and honour.
When ‘Fresh Prince’ began its run on NBC, the major concern was Smith’s acting ability--or lack thereof. Quincy Jones says he hired Smith after a 15-minute script reading, but admitted the young rapper “didn’t know where the camera was” on the first day of shooting. In a 2007 interview for the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes, Smith admitted he was rather “green” when it came to television production:
"You can look at the first six episodes of The Fresh Prince and I was so just hell bent on not failing that I memorized the entire script. And you can see in certain shots they tried to cut around it as much as they can, but I am mouthing the other actor's lines. It took six episodes for someone to tell me to stop doin' it. So then the next six episodes look like, 'Ah, come on, Uncle Phil’. So I got it together, though. From midway through the first season I got it together."
Smith’s natural charm helped smooth over the show’s early problems, as “Entertainment Weekly” magazine noted in its review of ‘Fresh Prince’ (which made its debut on September 10th, 1990):
“Smith hadn't acted in anything but music videos before this series, but he's a TV natural - tall and gangly, he takes loping strides across the screen, snapping out his lines with easy authority..... The punch lines are predictable, but the kid and his stern uncle generate a great deal of comic energy. Avery does excellent slow burns while the fresh young prince mouths off. Given all the bad publicity that rap has received lately, The Fresh Prince might help convince lots of viewers that rap can be good, clean fun”
Viewers agreed. ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ soon became a top-20 hit for NBC and one of the top programmes among teenagers for most of its run.
Over the years, there were changes to the format: Will and Carlton eventually graduated from prep school and enrolled in the fictional University of Los Angeles (the two shared quarters in the Banks’ pool house behind the mansion); Vivian gave birth to a fourth child; Ashley became a singer and Will nearly married his girlfriend Lisa (Nia Long). The two-part ‘Fresh Prince’ series finale (airing May 20th, 1996) showed everyone ready to go their separate ways – except Will, who had not finished college and lied to the family about his situation. Unaware of what was going on, Phillip put the family mansion up for sale; one of the prospective buyers was New York tycoon Phil Drummond and his son Arnold (yes, THAT Phil Drummond and Arnold from the long-running Diff’rent Strokes; stars Conrad Bain and Gary Coleman appeared in the episode). But Phillip eventually sold the mansion to another TV family–George and Louise Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford). The two actors and former-co star Marla Gibbs appeared on “Fresh Prince’ in the roles they made famous on The Jeffersons. Meanwhile, Will’s college lie was exposed, but Phillip helped Will find a new place to live so he could finish his education, and everyone headed off to new adventures...including Will Smith, as his subsequent film career proved. And to think it all began on the shoulders of a Fresh Prince.
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’s theme song was one of the first rap tunes for a television series–and was also one of the most memorable of the 1990's. Not unlike Gilligan’s Island, The Beverly Hillbillies and The Brady Bunch, the tune explained the show’s basic premise. Although the song has a total of eight stanzas, these were the stanzas most used over the opening credits during its NBC run:
Now, this is a story all about how
My life got flipped-turned upside down
And I liked to take a minute
Just sit right there
I'll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel Air
In west Philadelphia born and raised
On the playground was where I spent most of my days
Chillin' out maxin' relaxin' all cool
And all shootin some b-ball outside of the school
When a couple of guys
Who were up to no good
Startin making trouble in my neighborhood
I got in one little fight and my mom got scared
She said 'You're movin' with your auntie and uncle in Bel Air'
I whistled for a cab and when it came near
The licence plate said fresh and it had dice in the mirror
If anything I can say this cab is rare
But I thought 'Now forget it' - 'Yo homes to Bel Air'
I pulled up to the house about 7 or 8
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And I yelled to the cabbie 'Yo homes smell ya later'
I looked at my kingdom
I was finally there
To sit on my throne as the Prince of Bel Air
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