Many people would agree that the best sitcoms that were ever produced came in the 90s. In regards to those that were African-American oriented, there were fewer sitcoms other than the likes of The Cosby Show, Martin, and Family Matters, that could rival The Fresh Prince of Bel Air in terms of acclaim, reception, impact, and longevity.
The show explores black class differences and black-on-black prejudice as it follows the life of a street-smart teenager who had to leave his home in West Philadelphia to live with his wealthy aunt and uncle in the opulent neighborhood of Bel Air, Los Angeles, in order to get away from a fight. This premise was loosely based on the real-life story of record executive Benny Medina, who produced the show.
Here is everything there is to know about the actors and actresses who appeared on the show; how they started their careers and what they went on to do after the show came to an end.
Fresh Prince of Bel Air Cast
Will Smith played a fictionalized version of himself named Will Smith aka The Fresh Prince in the sitcom. The show, which NBC had built around the musician, was what kickstarted his acting career as it was his first ever acting role. Smith, who at the time had just won a Grammy Award, proved to be sensational on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air which grew to be very successful.
From that time, Will Smith has gone ahead to appear in blockbuster films like Independence Day (1996), Wild Wild West (1999), Ali (2001), I, Robot (2004), The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), Concussion (2015), and the Bad Boys and Men in Black film series. As of 2016, it has been reported that Smith’s films have at the global box office grossed over $7.5 billion. He has further received five Golden Globe Awards and two Academy Awards nominations for his different roles.
James Avery played the character of Philip Banks aka Uncle Phil, Will Smith’s rich uncle who lived in Bel Air. His outstanding portrayal of the character on the show earned him a place on TV Guide’s “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time” list.
Unlike Smith, Avery had already embarked on an acting career before he landed the role. He had appeared in films like 8 Million Ways to Die (1986) and Nightflyers (1987), as well as in tv series like Amen (1986−1988, 1989), FM (1989), and L.A. Law (1988-1992). He had also voiced the supervillain character Shredder in the animation Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987-1993). After the show ended, he continued to appear in various films and series as he also lent his voice to different characters (animations and video games) before meeting his untimely death in December 2013.
James Avery died from complications following open heart surgery at Glendale Memorial Medical Center. His remains were cremated and said to have been scattered near the Pacific Ocean. He was 68.
For the first three seasons of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, from 1990 to 1993, Janet Hubert-Whitten played the character of Vivian Banks. For her performance on the show, she received a nomination for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series in 1991.
Hubert, who had received a scholarship to attend the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, but did not complete her studies, made her screen acting debut in 21 Jump Street (1988). She was also the original Tantomile in the first Broadway run of Cats. Following her firing from the show, the actress went ahead to land recurring roles in tv series like The Job (2001-2002) and One Life to Live (2005, 2010). She has further guest appeared in shows like All My Children, Gilmore Girls, Friends, NYPD Blue, The Bernie Mac Show, and Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, among others. In late 2018, she made her debut on the daytime soap opera, General Hospital where she plays the character of Yvonne.
Daphne Maxwell Reid
Daphne Maxwell Reid joined the cast of Fresh Prince of Bel Air in 1993 following the firing of Janet Hubert-Whitten over contract violations and a poor working relationship with Will Smith. She played the character of Vivian Banks aka Aunt Viv, the wife of Uncle Phil.
Reid had worked as a model before acquiring a degree in interior design and architecture from Northwestern University. She was signed to Eileen Ford modeling agency and was notably the first black woman to feature on the cover of Glamour magazine. She went on to start her acting career in 1979 by landing a role in the series’ The Duke and A Man Called Sloane. Following the end of Fresh Prince, Reid has appeared in Sister, Sister (1996), Crossing Jordan (2004), and Eve (2003–2006). In 2011, she played Juanita Lawrence on the BET sitcom Let’s Stay Together.
Alfonso Ribeiro played the character of Carlton Banks, cousin to Will Smith’s character and son to that of James Avery, on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. The role proved to be a breakout one for him as he moved on to bigger things, although it was not his first acting gig.
Ribeiro began his career at the young age of 8, however, it was not until he turned 12 that he gained recognition for his performance in a leading role in the Broadway musical, The Tap Dance Kid (1983), which earned him an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination. He further went on to appear in a Pepsi commercial with Michael Jackson and then land a recurring role in Silver Spoons (1984–1987) among other shows, before getting cast as Carlton Banks.
Following the end of The Fresh Prince in 1996, Ribeiro appeared in another NBC sitcom, In the House (1996-1999), before launching careers as a director and television show host. In addition to having directed an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1995, Ribeiro has directed multiple episodes of shows like All of Us, Meet the Browns, and Are We There Yet?. Most recently, between 2015 and 2018, he has directed episodes of the Disney comedy series, K.C. Undercover. On the tv show hosting front, Ribeiro has since 2015 been serving as the host of America’s Funniest Home Videos and Unwrapped 2.0. He has further contested in a number of reality game shows, only managing to win the season 19 of Dancing with the Stars in 2014.
Karyn Parsons, like many others managed, caught her big break in acting after spending six years on the show. The Santa Monica High School graduate, who had appeared in episodes of shows like The Bronx Zoo (1987), Hunter (1988), and CBS Summer Playhouse (1988), before making her film acting debut in Death Spa (1989), played the role of Hilary Banks, cousin to Will Smith’s character.
After the end of the show, Parsons co-created, co-produced, co-wrote, and co-starred on the sitcom Lush Life (1996) which was unfortunately canceled after just four episodes. Other notable and successful roles in which she took on include appearances in films like Major Payne (1995) and The Ladies Man (2000), and then in the series The Job (2001–2002). Following those roles, Parsons moved to create a line of animated films about unsung black heroes called Sweet Blackberry.
In recent time, the actress and comedian have opted to return back to acting, appearing in the short film On Monday of Last Week (2017) and the series Fly (2018).
Tatyana M. Ali
Actress and singer Tatyana Ali played the role of Ashley Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. For her performance, she received multiple NAACP Image Awards, Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, and Young Artist Awards nominations, winning a few.
The New York native, who is of Panamanian and Indo-Trinidadian descent, began her acting career as a regular child performer on Sesame Street at the age of 6. She appeared twice on Star Search and performed a musical number with Herbie Hancock before catching her big break on the sitcom. In 1996, during the final season of the show, Ali began working on her debut album, Kiss The Sky, which spawned hit songs like “Daydreamin'”, “Boy You Knock Me Out” featuring Will Smith, and “Everytime”. The album was certified Gold in early 1999.
While still pursuing her musical interests and appearing in films like Brother (2000), National Lampoon Presents Dorm Daze (2003), Ali attended Harvard University, graduating in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in African-American studies and Government. After that, she played the award-winning role of Roxanne in The Young and the Restless (2007-2013), and then Tyana Jones in Love That Girl! (2010-2012), among many others. In recent time, she has appeared in Fly (2018) and voiced the character of Bree’s Mom in Fancy Nancy (2018).
British actor and comedian Joseph Marcell played the role of the Banks family butler, Geoffrey Butler. The graduate of theatre and science from the University of Sheffield was a member of the show from 1990 to 1996. Like a few others on the show, Butler was already an established actor before taking the role. He appeared often on British television and in feature films while also serving as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, appearing in productions of Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
After leaving the end of the show, Marcell continued his acting. He most recently performed in the stage plays The Tempest (2016) as Gonzalo in Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London and Lady Windermere’s Fan (2018) as Lord Lorton in Vaudeville Theatre, London. He also appeared in the Chiwetel Ejiofor directed film The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (2019) and serves on the board of the Globe Theatre in London.
A late entrant on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Ross Bagley played the character of Nicky Banks. He joined the show in September 1994 for its fifth season and lasted until it ended in May 1996 after its 6th season. The child actor, who had in 1994 portrayed Buckwheat in the feature film adaptation of The Little Rascals, went on to appear in Independence Day (1996) as Dylan Dubrow-Hiller alongside Will Smith.
In the 2000s, Bagley stepped away from his acting career to study cinema and television arts in California State University at Northridge. There are reports that he might be looking to make a return to the screen as he appeared as Landon in Gnome Alone (2015).