The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

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The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was a television sitcom which aired on NBC from 1990 to 1996. This was Will Smith's first major foray into acting; prior to Fresh Prince, Smith's claim to fame had primarily been his musical career. The show now airs in syndication on many local broadcast channels, as well as on cable channels Nick at Nite, WB late nights and The-N. In the UK, it airs on BBC Two and Trouble.



Contents

Summary

As explained in the show's opening rap, Will Smith (played by Will Smith) is revealed as a street-smart teenager, born and brought up on the mean streets of Philadelphia. After he got into a fight with a bully, his mother sent him to live with her sister's family, the Banks family, in Bel-Air (a district in Los Angeles). There, he would turn the lives of his posh upper-class relatives upside down.

Characters

The Banks Family

Philip Banks

The character of Philip Banks (Uncle Phil) was portrayed by James Avery. At the beginning of the series, Philip was a lawyer with the firm of Firth, Wynn and Meyer, but in the third season was appointed a judge after the senile incumbent Judge Robertson (portrayed recurringly by Sherman Hemsley), against whom Philip had earlier run an unsuccessful campaign, died. He later considered making a stronger foray into politics, but because his wife disapproved, he decided against it.

Philip was a somewhat strict and gruff man, but also upstanding.

Vivian Banks

The character of Vivian Banks (Aunt Viv) was portrayed by Janet Hubert-Whitten from 1990 to 1993, and by Daphne Reid from 1993 to 1996. She was a professor of Black History and Black Literature at an undisclosed university, and in one early episode took a job as a temporary teacher for a unit in Black History of Will and Carlton's history class at predominantly white Bel-Air Academy, a fictional upscale preparatory high school.

Hilary Banks

The character of Hilary Banks (Hil), Will's ditzy, stuck-up, spoiled eldest cousin, was portrayed by Karyn Parsons. In earlier seasons, Hilary's snobbishness was emphasized. Hilary often claimed to hobnob with celebrities. During the series, she attended and then dropped out of UCLA, and became a weather reporter at a local television station, where she met and fell in love with news anchor Trevor Newsworthy (referred to as Trevor Collins in earlier episodes). However, he died while proposing to Hilary in a bungee accident, as part of an ill-conceived, live publicity stunt. Toward the end of the series, she hosted her own talk show, called Hilary!.

Carlton Banks

The character of Carlton Banks, Will's pedantic and nerdish cousin, was portrayed by Alfonso Ribeiro. Carlton was a firmly conservative Republican, and often proved both friend and foil for Will. In earlier seasons, Carlton sought to lose his virginity, and also planned to attend Princeton University (Philip's alma mater). In later seasons, these arcs were both resolved: Carlton did indeed lose his virginity, but was not intially admitted to Princeton. He instead first attended the (fictional) University of Los Angeles, where he briefly managed ULA's student store, the Peacock. However, in the 6th and last season, he finally gained transfer admission to Princeton, and leaves for the East Coast in the series finale.

Ashley Banks

The character of Ashley Banks, Will's youngest cousin, was portrayed by Tatyana Ali. She matured through puberty in the series, and became a one-hit wonder as a singer in her later teens. She also briefly strove to become a fashion model. In the final season she decides to attend a performing arts school in New York City, and in the series finale leaves for the East Coast along with the rest of the Banks.

Nicky Banks

The character of Nicky (Nicholas) Banks was born in early 1993, towards the end of the 3rd season. However, as is common in television serials and especially soap operas, he grew from a newborn infant to a pre-schooler between seasons, confusing several characters when the reasons for this are questioned.. After this "spurt", beginning in the 5th season, he was portrayed by Ross Bagley.

Geoffrey Butler

The character of Geoffrey Butler, the Banks family's British butler, was portrayed by Joseph Marcell. He was an olympic runner several years before being hired by the Banks family, but fled his home country in shame after cheating in a race. He perennially referred to Will as Master William, and was the voice of caustic humor on the show, often focusing on Philip's weight, his low pay, or the laziness of the family.

Recurring Characters

Jazz

The character of Jazz was portrayed by Will Smith's musical partner, Jeffrey A. Townes, popularly known as D.J. Jazzy Jeff. Jazz was Will's not-so-bright best friend who lived in inner-city LA. He had a crush on Hilary, but then married a prison inmate who had appeared on the television show COPS. Shortly after, he divorced her, realizing he knew nothing about her.

Vy Smith

Vy (Viola) Smith was Will's mother, Vivian's older sister. She was portrayed recurringly by Vernee Watson-Johnson.

Aunt Helen

Helen, portrayed by Jenifer Lewis, was Vivian's loudmouthed older sister. She had frequent marriage problems with her husband, Lester.

Lisa Wilkes

Lisa Wilkes, portrayed by Nia Long, was introduced in later seasons as the girlfriend who tamed Will into forsaking his womanizing ways. The two fell deeply in love and were engaged to be married, going so far as the ceremonies twice but never actually tying the knot. The first time, they eloped to Las Vegas to do a Shaft-themed wedding, but they held up the ceremony after they realized how much they wanted their families there. The second time, Lisa left Will at the altar just before they were about to say "I do" in front of all their friends and family, since she was having doubts. (She was never seen again.) Lisa's father was memorably played by veteran actor John Amos. When Lisa and Will cut their second wedding short, he and Will's mother decided not to let the ceremony go to waste; they got married right then and there.

Jackie Ames

Jackie Ames was portrayed by Tyra Banks in the fourth season. As the manager of The Peacock, she was the object of Will's affection and frequent come-ons, but she continually spurned his advances, deeming him too immature. They were old childhood friends from Philadelphia, except she felt Will hadn't grown up since those days.

Others

Other recurring characters in the early episodes include Bel-Air Academy classmate Kellogg Lieberbaum (nicknamed "Cornflake" by Will), portrayed by Michael Weiner; Will's friend Tyriq, portrayed by Perry Moore; and Bel-Air Academy coach/history teacher Coach Smiley, portrayed by Dave Florek.

The show had many guest appearances by celebrities, including Vanessa Williams, Naomi Campbell, Dr. Dre, Milton Berle, Quincy Jones, Richard Roundtree, Evander Holyfield, Vivica A. Fox, Riddick Bowe, William Shatner, Queen Latifah, Tom Jones, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

The series finale featured Conrad Bain and Gary Coleman reprising their roles from Diff'rent Strokes, as well as Sherman Hemsley, Isabel Sanford, and Marla Gibbs reprising their roles from The Jeffersons, as potential buyers of the Banks' house.

Running Gags

In addition to humorous scripts, the show found humor in physical comedy, insults, and running gags:

  • Will would frequently make jabs at Carlton's slight stature and virginity, as well as Uncle Phil's weight and baldness.
  • A running gag throughout the series was Carlton's enthusiastic love of singer Tom Jones and a gyrating dance he would perform to Jones' tune "It's Not Unusual."
  • A favorite recurring gag throughout the series involved Will's best friend Jazz flying through the front door after saying something offensive to a member of the Banks family (usually Philip) and being thrown out by him or her.
  • Will would commonly break the fourth wall as part of a gag, such as describing a character named Omar as "The dude who be spinning me over his head in the opening credits."

Issues Addressed

  • In the very first episode, for instance, Will accused his uncle of having forgotten "where he came from," or having forgotten that he is black. His uncle was furious, and pointed out Will's frequently-mentioned belief in the philosophy of Malcolm X. "I have heard the brother speak," Phil angrily informed his nephew.
  • In a later episode, Will and one of his old school friends, Ice Tray, reminisce about how Ice Tray frequently had to save Will from bullies who attacked him because he tried to be a good student.
  • In another episode, Will and Carlton try to join an all-black fraternity, but Carlton is singled out for being a "sell-out," because his family is wealthy and "acts" white.
  • In an episode where Will is shot in the back during an attempted robbery at a bank ATM and then hospitalized, Carlton found himself pondering the idea of carrying a gun for self-defense.
  • The issue of absent fathers was touched upon when Will finally meets his father in one of the series' more emotional episodes. When Will was still a infant his jobless father had one day walked out to "get a pack of smokes" and just never came home. Years later he returned now employed as a trucker but by then Will was going to college. Phil and Vivian gave him the cold shoulder for abandoning Will and his mother, Phil going so far as to say to him accusingly "How dare you set foot in my house" Will tried to remain conciliatory towards his father since this was his chance of meeting him, but the episode concluded with Will having to confront his grief when his father abandons him a second time. Symbolically Will accepts the fact that his Uncle Phil is the closest thing to a dad that he has ever had.
  • The issue of teenage pregnancy was brought up in one episode in which Ashley was curious about sex. Her parents, unsure about how to talk to her about it, try to ignore the issue as far as possible. Will and Carlton, determined to find a way to talk to Ashley about it, go down to the local pregnancy center and find out about the issues.

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