Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of film and television’s greatest characters. This time, we turn the spotlight to Will Smith’s breakout role on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Will Smith starred in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air primarily because he needed a paycheck. After his second album with DJ Jazzy Jeff won a Grammy and went platinum, the nineteen-year-old soaked up his newfound fame and fortune by making it rain wherever he went. He bought flashy cars and rented out luxury designer stores, but what he really should have invested in was a good personal accountant. He had mismanaged his money and found himself owing a mountain of back taxes he couldn’t afford to pay.
After a guest spot on The Arsenio Hall Show introduced him to Benny Medina, the real-life inspiration for Fresh Prince, multifaceted producer Quincey Jones gave Smith the chance to audition for a new sitcom on NBC. Having never acted before, and with only ten minutes to prepare for network executives at Jones’ house, he leaned into his natural showmanship and won the role on the spot.
Smith has that “It” factor all performers want, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into being a competent actor. That’s why it’s so much fun watching Smith over the first four years of Fresh Prince; we get to see him grow from a consummate entertainer into an emotionally engaging actor. And he did it all not behind closed doors in acting classes but live, in front of a studio audience.
In the earliest episodes of Fresh Prince, Smith’s lack of dramatic chops is evident. He tries to compensate for it with his energy, but his focus is all over the place and he has trouble connecting with the rest of the ensemble cast. There’s no doubt he’s entertaining, but he wasn’t convincing yet, and Smith himself is wont to agree. When talking to Graham Nortonabout his performance he said, “It’s terrible, and I can’t bear to watch it.”
Smith specifically refers to missteps around memorizing his dialogue, but in the show’s earliest serious moments, he comes across as stilted and emotionally closed off. In the first-season episode “Homeboy, Sweet Homeboy,” when Will’s best friend from Philly (Don Cheadle) comes to visit, he gets into a fight with Aunt Viv (Janet Hubert), who disapproves of his friend proposing to his cousin Hilary (Karyn Parsons). Throughout the tempestuous scene, Smith awkwardly looks down at his shoes, shooting Hubert occasional glances but mostly avoiding eye contact. There’s no earnest emotion behind emotionally driven dialogue like “If Tray’s not good enough for this family, then maybe I’m not.” If he doesn’t feel it, then the audience won’t feel it either.
Smith is uncomfortable accessing his own vulnerabilities simply because he hadn’t developed the tools to tap into those real emotions yet. Overcoming his own emotional blocks was a key way Smith unlocked his potential as an actor, as he mentioned in 2013:
“You have to clear your own personal blocks. You have to be able to be vulnerable, in front of anybody. You have to be comfortable looking silly, you have to be comfortable making mistakes, and you have to break the thing inside of you that doesn’t want people to see [your vulnerabilities]. As soon as you allow people to see, all of a sudden you get access to things you didn’t realize you had access to…the camera hates emotional blocks. You put a camera in somebody’s face and they’re uncomfortable about delivering the emotion. It looks fake, and you feel it. You immediately know it’s not real.”
As he grew and his career branched into films like Six Degrees of Separation, Smith was able to take more dramatic risks on Fresh Prince. In season three’s very special episode “Just Say Yo,” Will inadvertently causes Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) to take a handful of methamphetamines that he thought were vitamin pills. After dancing the night away, a cracked out Carlton lands in the hospital, and a distraught Will is forced to fess up to the part he played. Speaking to the entire family, his voice cracks as he searches for words of apology, and in a crushing moment, we watch him break into tears for the first time. Will’s grief feels remarkably real because Smith is allowing himself to be genuinely vulnerable.
He continued to build on his dramatic realism in season four’s “Home is Where the Heart Attack Is.” After Uncle Phil (James Avery) has a minor heart attack, Will lashes out at Carlton for not going to see him in the hospital. Furious at his cousin’s denial over Uncle Phil’s health, he tells Carlton how lucky he should be that he can see his father. As Will reminds him, he doesn’t even know where his dad is. It’s a gobsmacking moment because of how Smith effortlessly switches between his emotions, going from jocular to a sudden sharpness with Carlton that we hadn’t seen before from Will.
Smith’s growth as an actor crested with “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse” that same season. In the episode, Will’s father, Lou (Ben Vereen), tries to reconnect with him after abandoning his family fourteen years prior. From the moment they reunite, Will’s confidence is shot and you can see the years of anger and sadness in his eyes. He doesn’t know howto react, which isn’t surprising for someone who hasn’t seen his dad in over a decade. He awkwardly makes plans to spend time with him, but as his family remains cautious, we’re already bracing ourselves for what invariably happens in the episode’s finale when Lou walks out on Will yet again.
As his father makes up an excuse for reneging on the road trip he promised, Smith plays the scene as if Will is transported back to the first moment his father left him. He’s like an anxious child with trembling hands that he shoves into his pockets, not wanting to look his dad in the eyes, which is similar to his physicality in that first season confrontation with Aunt Viv. But what was an unconscious habit from Smith before is now an intentional – and very effective – choice in this gut-wrenching moment.
Will is emotionally torn between longing for his father and believing in his own self-assuredness, which boils over after Lou leaves. As he tells Uncle Phil, “I’ll be a better father than he ever was, and I sure as hell don’t need him for that, ’cause ain’t a damn thing he could ever teach me about how to love my kids!” He takes a long pause as tears well in his eyes, then, “How come he don’t want me, man?” Smith’s absolute commitment, especially in this final outburst, is why we become so invested in the scene. He concentrates all of his vulnerabilities into this one moment and it makes it completely devastating, and absolutely captivating, to watch.
As every Fresh Prince fan knows, it’s hard to not get misty-eyed watching this episode. My eyes are getting dewy even writing about it! In fact, Smith’s performance is so moving that it actually spawned an urban legend that the scene was unscripted and he had improvised a monologue about his own absent father. This, of course, wasn’t true – Smith’s father was very much part of his life – and implying he broke character discounts his evolution as an actor. If he hadn’t done the work to become so emotionally available, this powerful scene would have rung false.
“Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse” brought both the studio audience and the cast to tears, and over twenty-five years later, it still manages to bring a lump to our collective throats. James Avery, who always pushed Smith as an actor, was the first to take note of how incredible he was in the final scene. Directly after the take, as the two continued to hug, Avery whispered in Smith’s ear, “That’s fucking acting right there.” Truer words have never been spoken, Uncle Phil. Will Smith may have started his career as a fun-loving rapper, but he’ll be remembered as a great fucking actor.