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Friday, February 22, 2013

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air - Behind The Scenes

I've decided that since we've had some heavy topics of discussion as of late, that I would be taking this opportunity to use the last Friday entry of “Black History Month” to lighten things up a bit.

This will be less of a plot summary piece, and more of a behind the scenes trivia piece. I'm sure that most of you will automatically know what the show did run for six seasons on NBC, and made stars out of several people. It was a show that was about a rap star down on his luck who moved in with his wealthy uncle and his family, and is one of the few shows to remain in constant syndication since it went off the air nearly seventeen years ago.

That show, of course, is “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”. And, I think one of the most memorable things about the show was the theme song. Take a listen to it below.

Now, this theme song is linked to a couple of trivia tidbits...the first of many.

01 – The theme song was written and performed by the star of the show, actor/rapper Will Smith. The background music of the series was composed entirely by music legend Quincy Jones.

02 – Would you believe that a full length version of this song hit the Top 5 on the music charts in the Netherlands? It's true. It peaked at #3 in 1992! The things you learn from this blog, huh?

Here's how the show came about.

Now, you may recall that Will Smith (before he became a big box office superstar who was featured in such films as “Independence Day”, “I, Robot”, “I Am Legend”, and “The Pursuit of Happyness”) kicked off his rise to stardom in the music industry during the late 1980s. With his friend “DJ Jazzy Jeff”, Will Smith went by the stage name of “The Fresh Prince”. Together, they released such smash hits as “Parents Just Don't Understand”, and “Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble”. But Will Smith wasn't exactly the most financially responsible stable person back then. During 1988 and 1989, Will Smith at the age of 21, spent his earnings rather frivolously. On top of all that, when it came down to his dealings with the Internal Revenue Service, he didn't pay nearly enough taxes to cover everything. As a result of this, the IRS issued a $2.8 million penalty against him, and seized nearly all of his assets. On top of all that, the IRS garnished whatever wages that he was earning in an attempt to get their money back.

As the eighties turned into the nineties, Will Smith had gotten into quite the jam, and by 1990, he was almost considering filing for bankruptcy.

And, then NBC came along, offered Will a sitcom deal, and the rest is history.

As far as the premise of the show goes, it's fairly straight forward. Heck, the theme song tells the story better than I ever could. It centers around a teenage boy named Will who is incredibly street smart (but admittely his book smarts could use some work), who grew up in the West Philadelphia area. But after getting into one fight too many, Will is sent to live with his aunt and uncle in Bel Air, Los Angeles, California.

Once Will arrives, he finds that he has very little in common with the rest of the family. The family is rich and privileged, while Will is a boy who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks.

Will's uncle, Philip Banks (James Avery), was a partner in a law firm, who later became a judge, and his stern demeanor often made the children in the Banks household fear him. But deep down inside, he's a softy. His wife, Vivian (who was played by two different actresses...which I'll talk about later in this blog), is the biological relative to Will, and often is the one that tries to keep Phil calm. The rest of the family is made up of sarcastic English butler Geoffrey (Joseph Marcell), and the Banks children, Valley Girl Hilary (Karyn Parsons), preppy Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro), girl next door Ashley (Tatyana Ali), and during the series, a fourth child, Nicky (Ross Bagley) is born.

During the course of the series, Will manages to build strong bonds with everybody in the Banks family, though some take a little bit more effort. Naturally, since Vivian is blood related to Will, they have a fairly decent relationship with each other, and Will gets along with Hilary and Ashley fairly easily. His relationship with Carlton is love/hate, as both of them tend to aggravate each other on account that they're both completely different in personalities, but they forge a bond as well. Even Will's relationship with Geoffrey has its moments.

Of course, the toughest nut to crack is that of Philip, and more often than not, if Will annoys anybody the most, it's his Uncle Phil. But, Phil has also been one to teach Will some really tough lessons about life that he needed to hear, and as time passed, their relationship grew as well. I mean, how could you not admire and respect a man who in his youth became a civil rights activist, who heard Malcolm X speak, who was present at the Selma riots of 1965, and who proposed to his wife on an episode of “Soul Train”?

There were also sporadic appearances by Will's rapping partner “DJ Jazzy Jeff”, who assumed the role of “Jazz”. Jazz is Will's best friend who hails from Compton, California, and to say that he is a bit of a dim-wit would be like saying that Hilary is spoiled rotten. You know, come to think of it, Jazz and Hilary would have made a great couple, considering that both of them appeared to have the IQ of a sponge. Ironically enough, every time Jazz tried to hit on Hilary, she always rebuffed his advances every time.

03 – In fact, there's a running gag that shows Jazz getting thrown out of the Banks house whenever he annoys a member of the family enough to warrant it. And, here's the funny part. Despite the fact that Jazz wears more than one outfit in the series, whenever he is thrown out, he's almost always wearing the same clothes. The reason? The producers only filmed the one scene! They just reused the footage over and over again.

So, that's all that I really have to say about the plot. Most of the episodes were standard, straight forward ones, but there were a couple of special episodes, such as the birth of Nicky, and Will taking a bullet for Carlton. And, besides, this blog isn't going to focus on plot. It's going to talk about trivia and backstage antics. After all, I wanted the final Friday feature of the month to be light-hearted.

So, you've already read three's a few more.

04 – During the course of the series, Will had two serious relationships, both played by women who would become extremely famous. The first was Lisa (played by Nia Long), and the second was Jackie (played by Tyra Banks).

05 – Dozens of guest stars made at least one appearance on the series. Just listing a few of them off hand, we had Quincy Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Vereen, Kim Fields, Robin Givens, Donald Trump, Naomi Campbell, Dick Clark, Donald Trump, Vanessa L. Williams, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Lark Voorhies, Isaac Hayes, and even Oprah Winfrey! Take a look at a snippet of Oprah's appearance's related to the next point.

06 – That dance that Carlton performed? It also became a running gag...kicked off by this memorable clip. The “Carlton Dance”, believe it or not, was meant to be a knockoff of the memorable dance move that Courteney Cox performed at the end of Bruce Springsteen's “Dancing in the Dark” music video! Of course, it wasn't uncommon for Alfonso Ribeiro to strap on his dancing shoes frequently...he did get his big break dancing in a Broadway musical, and actually appeared on MTV to advertise a dance instruction book that he wrote himself while he was appearing on “Silver Spoons”!

07 – Remember that episode in which Ashley Banks was discovered at a record store singing, which lead to Will helping her get a one-hit wonder? Ironically enough, Tatyana Ali, who played Ashley, had a one-hit wonder in 1998 with the single “Daydreamin'” Have a listen below!

08 – Tatyana Ali currently has a recurring role as Roxanne in the long-running CBS soap opera, “The Young and the Restless”.

09 – Perhaps one of the most shocking moments of the series came during the fourth season opener, when the entire family witnessed Hilary's fiance die on screen. I don't even know how the cast kept a straight face during the whole scene, but here it is below.

10 – Another shocking moment of season four was the fact that the actress playing Vivian had changed. The original actress was Janet Hubert-Whitten, who was a cast member during the first three seasons. There were two reasons why she was written out of the show. First, she had gotten pregnant, which had been a violation of her contract (though in a weird twist, they wrote the pregnancy into the series). But it was also revealed that Hubert-Whitten and Will Smith had a rather tumultuous working relationship, and that the tension between the two actors may have been a factor in Hubert-Whitten's departure. 

Beginning with season four, Vivian was played by Daphne Maxwell Reid, and she remained on the show until its May 20, 1996 finale.

11 – The show debuted on September 10, 1990.

12 – Jazz's appearance on the show was so well-received by fans that it helped DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince achieve a sort of comeback. Their 1991 single, “Summertime”, peaked at #4 on the charts, and helped the duo win a Grammy Award!

13 – This show was one of the few that actually revealed the birthdates of most of the characters in the series. Here's a compilation of what I found...

Will – July 3, 1973
Carlton – August 4, 1974
Hilary – August 18, 1969
Ashley – April 29, 1979*
Nicky – February 22, 1993 (he was born on screen)
Vivian – October 21, 1946
Jazz – May 20, 1971

  • = Ashley's year of birth is only estimated as 1979, since her age was very inconsistent during the series. Though, since Tatyana Ali was also born in 1979, it makes sense.

14 – Nicky was also one of the few sitcom characters to experience what is known in the soap opera world as SORAS (Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome). Just as Chrissy Seaver before him, Nicky was prematurely aged to six years old when they brought in Ross Bagley to the cast.

15 – Nicky Banks has five middle names. His full name was Nicholas Andrew Michael Shawn Nathan Wanya Banks. If those last four names seem familiar, they are the first names of the R & B singing group Boyz II Men, who performed at Nicky's christening.

16 – Despite the series being set in Bel Air, the house exterior can actually be found in Brentwood, California.

17 – Several of the stars of the show won some awards for their performances. Among them are...

Alfonso Ribeiro – Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series – 1996

Tatyana Ali – Image Award for Outstanding Youth Actor/Actress – 1997

Ross Bagley – Young Artist Award for Best Performance by an Actor Under 10 – 1995, 1996

Tatyana Ali – YoungStar Award for Best Performance by a Young Actress in a Comedy Television Series – 1997

Tatyana Ali – Kids Choice Award for Favourite TV Actress – 1996

18 – Will Smith was nominated for a total of two Golden Globes during the series. He did not win either one.

19 – Interestingly enough, an actress by the name of Jada Pinkett auditioned for the role of Lisa, but was turned down due to her being too short. Will Smith later married her in 1996.

20 – The show was nearly cancelled after season four, but public outcry, coupled with pleas from television station managers caused NBC to rethink their plan to cancel the show, and it aired an additional two years because of it.

21 - James Avery voiced the role of Shredder in the 1980s cartoon "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles".

22 – Look closely at the cab driver that drops Will off in the opening credits. The cabbie is Quincy Jones.

23 – The series finale had most of the Banks family moving out of their Bel Air mansion. The new owners of the mansion? Philip Drummond (Conrad Bain) and Arnold Jackson (Gary Coleman)!

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