Friday, April 20, 2012

Whatever Happened To: The Cast of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?

Look back at any popular sitcom from the 90s and more often than not you'll probably find that it hasn't aged well. They're overly wholesome, jokes fall flat, and the "very special" episodes are unbearably preachy. Of course, you've always got your Adventures of Pete and Pete, or the older episodes of The Simpsons, or The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air...

You still know all the words, I bet. Well, maybe not the extended version. But anyway, this show established a number of great characters and a lot of sharp, witty dialogue between them. The stories were sometimes taken from a sitcom plot generator, but they usually had a unique spin to them. And when they did do something in the "very special" vein, it actually wound up being really powerful.

I've seen a few jokes about the non-Will Smith characters since the show ended its run. An older Family Guy episode had Peter and Brian debating whether Alfonso Ribeiro had been in Silver Spoons and finally just asking him, since the episode portrayed Ribeiro working as a repo man. And an SNL "Weekend Update" joke noted Will Smith's musical success and compared it to the related news of DJ Jazzy Jeff, "who wonders if you're going to finish that."

Well, what actually did become of the actors involved in the show?

Will Smith (Will Smith)

I'm not sure how many shows outlined the series' premise in the theme song, but The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is probably the most triumphant example. You know, how Will got in one little fight in his hometown in Philadelphia and his mom got scared, so he sent him to live with his uncle and aunt in Bel-Air. Will was certainly a fish out of water, dropping into a fairly lavish environment after a difficult childhood where his father abandoned him at a young age. Will's activities and sensibilities frequently clashed with the Banks family, as he was generally carefree and irresponsible. Nevertheless, Will was also portrayed as good-natured, charming, and intelligent.

Like I even need to do this one. Even if the show helped propel Smith, now 43, to stardom, he was already well-known as a rapper. Starting out with childhood friend Jeffrey Townes (see below), he became fairly successful but nearly went bankrupt when the IRS determined that he owed the government quite a bit of money. The show not only helped keep him afloat, but launched a successful acting career. Smith's notable movie roles include the Men in Black and Bad Boys movies as well as Independence Day, Enemy of the State, Hitch, and I Am Legend. He was twice nominated for an Academy Award, for his roles in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness. Smith's albums have also been successful, frequently reaching gold or platinum status, with 1997's Big Willie Style hitting an astounding nine-times platinum.

James Avery (Philip Banks)

Having not seen the show in ages, the only thing I really remember about "Uncle Phil" is that he was a judge, conservative, tried unsuccessfully on an occasion or two to lose weight, and was usually aggravated by Will's shenanigans but became a father figure for his nephew as well. The incredibly detailed Wikipedia entry mentions that he was heavily involved in the civil rights movement, is an adept pool player, and can occasionally be a bit greedy. Oh, and God help you if you don't follow due process.

James Avery, now 63, is a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War and first got into television as a scriptwriter for PBS. Before he started on Fresh Prince, Avery did the voice of Shredder on the 1987 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon and James Rhodes in the Iron Man cartoon that debuted in 1994 (midway through Fresh Prince's run). He has continued doing a mix of voice and acting work, mostly small parts. His most notable roles since Fresh Prince have included Alonzo Sparks on the show Sparks, Charles Haysbert on The Division, Officer Kennedy on That 70s Show, and Dr. Crippen on The Closer. He was also a host on the short-running PBS travel series Going Places.

UPDATE: Avery died on December 31, 2013, following complications from open-heart surgery. He was 68 years old. 

Janet Hubert (Vivian Banks, Version 1.0)

Vivian Banks was the intelligent, strong mother (or mother figure, to Will) in the family. Relying on Wikipedia to refresh my memory, it seems she worked her way through school to earn a Ph.D and is a retired doctor by the time the series starts. She's not above confronting Phil or defending the children, but there are certainly limits to her patience. And perhaps the most memorable scene from Janet Hubert's run is her attempt to return to dancing, succeeding in doing so and showing up some snobby younger dancers in the process.

Hubert, now 56, herself first came to Broadway as a dancer and landed a number of small television roles before The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. She was on the show from 1990 to 1993 (70 episodes), at which point she was replaced with Daphne Reid with a few aside jokes to the audience ("Who's playing the mom this year?") However, Hubert said this departure was a result of the show offering her restrictive contract after her pregnancy, and had harsh words for Will Smith. She said the show's star was arrogant and abusive, and penned the 2009 book Perfection Is Not A Sitcom Mom about the experience. She has been largely absent from the screen since then, with the exception of bit roles and an 11-episode run as Lisa Williamson on One Life To Live, but continues to do live performances.

Daphne Reid (Vivian Banks, Version 2.0)

No, I'm not going to review Vivian's character again. See above.

Daphne Reid, now 63, graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in interior design and architecture. She started a modeling career, and her TV career began with a number of bit parts and recurring roles on Simon & Simon and Frank's Place before she took over the role of Vivian for the final 56 episodes of the show. Reid has continued to make appearances on a number of TV shows, most recently Let's Stay Together, but since 1997 she has focused on running the production company New Millennium Studios with her husband.

Alfonso Ribeiro (Carlton Banks)

Carlton grew up looking to follow in his father's footsteps, meaning he shared Philip's conservatism, sense of responsibility, and smarts. Of course, he was also extraordinarily geeky and arrogant, sometimes acting condescending to people around him. He wasn't very good in crisis, panicking in difficult situations. Though the two came to respect each other, Carlton got into frequent spats with Will, who often levied jokes at Carlton about his height. And of course, there's Carlton's undying love for Tom Jones.

Ribeiro, now 40, got his start as a child actor and musician, releasing some singles at a young age and playing Alfonso Spears in the series Silver Spoons. He attended the University of California before joining the cast of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and since then has dabbled in minor roles, commercials, reality TV, directing, and production. His biggest acting role since the show has been voicing Roland Jackson in the show Extreme Ghostbusters. Ribeiro also did a bit of car racing, twice winning the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race in 1994 and 1995.

Karyn Parsons (Hilary Banks)

Hilary was the oldest child of the Banks family, but by far the most dim-witted. Ditzy and self-centered, Hilary is obsessed with fashion and shopping. Hilary later became a weather reporter and started hosting her own talk show. She also started dating the station's lead anchor, Trevor, who in a twisted but hilarious scene was killed when he proposed to Hilary while doing a bungee jump that was broadcast live.

Even in the pre-Internet days of the show fans of the show knew that Karyn Parsons, now 45, was actually pretty smart. She pursued her acting career after graduating with honors from Santa Monica High School. After The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Parsons had roles in a few movies but wasn't able to find much luck with television, starring in a couple of short-lived series such as Lush Life and The Job (her last role, in 2002). Since then, Parsons has moved on to non-profit work. In 2005 she founded Sweet Blackberry, which has the mission of bringing little-known stories of African-American achievement to children.

Tatyana Ali (Ashley Banks)

As the youngest child in the Banks family, there were plenty of times when Philip, Carlton, or Will were concerned for or downright overprotective of Ashley. Which, of course, sometimes meant she was a bit of a rebellious teenager and wouldn't miss a chance to be snarky to Carlton or Hilary. Of course, this is a 90s sitcom so you know she always had a wholesome core. At least one episode featured Ali's singing talent, having Ashley briefly achieve stardom (and a massively inflated head) with a popular single.

Now 32, Ali has appeared in a number of movies since the show ended. However, her main focus has been on her musical talents. It helped that Will Smith was a bestselling rapper at the time the show was going on, and the songs that appeared in various episodes also helped her gain a following. Her first album, "Kiss the Sky," debuted in 1998 and went gold soon after. This same year, she won a Grammy for Best Musical Album for Children with the song "Precious Wings" on Elmo in Grouchland. She's received a number of other awards besides, including the Young Artist Award, NAACP Image Award, and (most recently) the Caribbean Heritage Organization Living Legacy Award. Ali graduated from Harvard University in 2002, and since 2005 has owned and operated HazraH Entertainment. Parsons also lists Ali as one of the people involved in Sweet Blackberry.

Joseph Marcell (Geoffrey)

The English butler at the Banks mansion, Geoffrey was a bitingly sarcastic fellow ("I would prefer an assassin's bullet to this kind of living hell"). His specialty usually seemed to be passing by at the perfect moment to interject a pithy rejoinder in a conversation. Later in the season, he accepted a request by Philip to be Nicky's godfather. There was also that time he cheated at the Olympic marathon and the Queen personally stripped him of the gold medal.

Like his character, Joseph Marcell was born in St. Lucia in the Caribbean. Now 63, he resides in London and continues to have small parts in a number of movies and TV series. He graduated from the Central School of Speech and Dance and has done a good deal of theatrical work as well, serving on the Artistic Directorate and Council of the Globe Theatre in London since 1985.

Jeffrey A. Townes (Jazz)

Will's best friend in California, Jazz wasn't all that smart and was apparently never employed. He spent most of his time hanging around with Will or trying unsuccessfully to flirt with Hilary. Though not a bad person, he easily annoyed Philip and a running gag had him literally being thrown out of the Banks house. Later in the show, he was briefly married and had a child.

Jeffrey A. Townes, also known as DJ Jazzy Jeff, was Will Smith's music partner prior to the start of the show. The duo was successful enough that they released a number of gold and platinum albums and won the first Grammy Award for rap in 1989 for their album Parents Don't Understand. Now 47, Townes founded the production company A Touch of Jazz in Philadelphia after Smith branched out on his own. He has continued to do solo work and partner with other artists on songs. His last album (The Return of the Magnificent) was released five years ago, but was successful enough that it went gold.

Ross Bagley (Nicky Banks)

Ah, little kids on sitcoms. Is there any real point? According to Wikipedia, "Master Nicky" was mainly a plot device to "add motivation for other characters, comic relief, or an emotional punch to the show's storyline." Nicky was an infant for awhile after he showed up at the end of the third season before they did a time warp and advanced him to a young but speaking age for the remainder of the series.

Ross Bagley, now 23, also played Dylan Dubrow in Independence Day and Buckwheat Thomas in The Little Rascals. His roles are few and far between after the child actor phase, though he did win three Young Artist Awards for these roles. He was in an episode of Providence and did a voice in The Wild Thornberrys in 1996, and also appeared in an episode of Judging Amy in 2004. It seems he's taken a break from acting but is interested in pursuing it, going for a cinema and television arts degree at California State University Northridge and on track to graduate this year.

No comments:

Post a Comment