Then + Now: The Cast of ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’
“Now this is a story all about how my life got flipped, turned upside-down…” so opened one of the ’90s most beloved sitcoms, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Fresh Prince ended in 1996 but it found new life in reruns, allowing millions of people to fall in love with the Banks family and their wacky cousin Will. The sitcom premiered 25 (!!!) years ago on September 10, 1990. In honor of the show that launched then-novelty-rapper Will Smith’s acting career, let’s take a look at the cast then and now.
Will Smith (Will Smith)
Then: In the late ’80s, Will Smith was best known as rapper The Fresh Prince, half of the ‘Fresh Prince & DJ Jazzy Jeff’ hip-hop duo with his good friend, DJ Jazzy Jeff. (Sound familiar? The two even won the first-ever rap Grammy in 1989.) That all changed when Smith brought a fictionalized version of himself to NBC, playing a wisecracking West Philly-bred teen who gets sent to live with his wealthy family in one of the richest sections of Los Angeles. Fresh Prince launched Smith to fame as an actor, and soon after starred in blockbusters such as Independence Day and the Men in Black trilogy. In the late ’90s, Smith also had success in the music industry, garnering several hits with his songs “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” “Miami,” “Just The Two of Us” and “Men in Black.”
Now: Will Smith has since become an A-list, Academy Award-nominated actor, starring in films including Ali, The Pursuit of Happyness, Hitch and I Am Legend. He and wife Jada Pinkett-Smith have also raised a family in the business, with their son Jaden starring in films alongside his dad and becoming a rapper in his own right, while their daughter, Willow, hit it big at the tender age of nine with her hit ‘Whip My Hair.’ Smith also has an older son, Trey, from a previous marriage. A highly-bankable actor, he portrays Deadshot in the DC Comics Suicide Squad movie and is set for two more installments of the Bad Boys movies with Martin Lawrence.
Alfonso Ribeiro (Carlton Banks)
Then: Alfonso Ribeiro played Will’s conservative cousin Carlton, whose short stature made him the butt of many of Will’s jokes. As the series went on, Will and Carlton grew to become best friends, and Carlton’s infamous “Carlton dance” made him a fan favorite. Before starring on ‘Fresh Prince,’ Ribeiro was also known for his role as Alfonso Spears on Silver Spoons.
Now: Ribeiro moved on to reality TV and hosting gigs, competing on Dancing With the Stars in 2007 and hosting the Game Show Network’s GSN Live and 21 for several years. In 2009, he put on a new hat and directed several episodes of the Tyler Perry TV show, Meet the Browns, as well as almost all of Season 2 of Are We There Yet? In 2013, he was a contestant in the UK version of I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! and also began hosting the ABC Family spelling game show ‘Spell-Mageddon.’ Of course, that all pales in comparison to a more recent venture — being crowned the mirror ball champ of Dancing With the Stars Season 19! And yes, he did “the Carlton.”
James Avery (Uncle Phil)
Then: James Avery played prominent lawyer-turned-judge Philip Banks, Will’s tough-but-well-meaning Uncle Phil, who worked hard for what he had and helped to raise Will into a stand-up young man. In addition to his role as Uncle Phil, Avery’s other big part in the ’90s was voicing “bad guy” Shredder on the animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series.
Now: Avery was a classically-trained actor and continued to act until his death in 2013. The last film he made before his untimely passing was the upcoming Zach Braff dramedy Wish I Was Here. Avery died from complications following open heart surgery on New Year’s Eve 2013, at the age of 68. In a Facebook post, Will Smith paid tribute to his beloved TV uncle, writing, “Some of my greatest lessons in Acting, Living and being a respectable human being came through James Avery. Every young man needs an Uncle Phil. Rest in Peace.”
Janet Hubert (Aunt Vivian, Seasons 1-3)
Then: Janet Hubert was the original Aunt Viv, portraying the Banks family matriarch until the end of Season 3, when she was allegedly fired from the show. In 1994, she sued both NBC and Will Smith for slander but lost the case.
Now: Hubert scored bit parts in various TV shows and penned a memoir, Sitcom Mom, before landing a recurring role as Mrs. Williamson on the soap opera One Life to Live. In 2011, she was clearly still bitter about how things ended with the Fresh Prince cast, even going so far as to call Will Smith an “egomaniac” and an “a–hole.” However, she seems to have changed her tune slightly in 2013, saying she was tired of the feud and would “absolutely” be up for a Fresh Prince reunion. She most recently played Dr. Stacey Slater in the 2015 film No Letting Go.
Daphne Maxwell Reid (Aunt Vivian, Seasons 4-6)
Then: After things with Janet Hubert went south in Season 3, Daphne Maxwell Reid replaced her as Aunt Vivian throughout the rest of the series, just after Nicky’s birth. Since 1982, she has been married to Tim Reid in the most perfect union of 1990 TV parents ever created. (Tim Reid played dad Ray Campbell on the Tia and Tamara Mowry sitcom Sister, Sister.)
Now: Since Fresh Prince, Reid has continued to work as an actress, scoring small roles in lesser-known movies and television shows, such as Eve and the series Let’s Stay Together. She and her husband have also created, and jointly run, the Virginia-based film company New Millennium Studios.
Karyn Parsons (Hilary Banks)
Then: Karyn Parsons portrayed narcissistic shopaholic cousin Hilary, the Banks’ oldest — and most comedically self-centered and air-headed — child. Throughout the series, Hilary came into her own, ultimately becoming a weather girl and figuring out how to deal with the tragic death of her fiancé, Trevor.
Now: In 2003, Parsons married her second husband, director Alexandre Rockwell, with whom she has a daughter and son. She runs the film company Sweet Blackberry, whose goal is to educate children on the successes and achievements of African-Americans.
Tatyana Ali (Ashley Banks)
Then: Tatyana Ali grew up on TV as Ashley Banks. Ali’s great talent as a singer was also portrayed on the show, as her character’s singing abilities and ultimate decision to pursue a singing career were featured. In 1998, Ali followed in her character’s footsteps and released her debut album, Kiss the Sky, which was certified gold and spawned several hits, including “Daydreamin,” which made it to No. 6 on the Billboard singles chart.
Now: In 2002, Ali graduated from Harvard with a degree in African-American studies and government. She has continued to both act and sing, collaborating with will.i.am on the 2008 pro-Obama tune, “Yes We Can,” and releasing a 2014 EP called Hello. She’s nabbed parts on both the small and big screen, including a recurring role on the soap The Young and The Restless, the Wayans brothers show Second Generation Wayans, and her own series, Love That Girl! You might have spotted her in a small role on Key and Peele in 2015.
Ross Bagley (Nicky Banks)
Then: Nicky Banks was born to Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv at the end of Season 3, but it wasn’t until the fifth season — when Nicky aged from a baby to a young kid — that he was first played by Ross Bagley. In addition to his Fresh Prince role, Bagley was also known for his role as Buckwheat in the 1994 remake of The Little Rascals. In 1996, he later had a small role in Independence Day, also starring Will Smith.
Now: Bagley went on to have bit parts on television and took a long hiatus from the business while in school. He graduated from college in 2012, and has since gotten back into acting, recently filming roles in several horror movies (including the brilliantly-titled Gnome Alone in 2015). Upon James Avery’s passing, he tweeted fond memories of his time with his TV dad and expressed his sadness.
Joseph Marcell (Geoffrey)
Then: English actor Joseph Marcell portrayed the Banks’ proper British butler, Geoffrey. Despite his formal ways, G always knew when to crack a joke, particularly if it involved Uncle Phil’s love of food.
Now: Post-Prince, Marcell scored parts on other TV shows, including a two-year stint on the soap The Bold and The Beautiful, and the longest-running British soap opera, EastEnders. Marcell lives in London, and serves on the board of the Globe Theater, where he has also starred in various Shakespearean productions. (How Geoffrey is that?) He’s on board to play Artemidorus in a Shakespeare film adaptation, Caesar.
DJ Jazzy Jeff (Jazz)
Then: Jeff Townes (aka DJ Jazzy Jeff) played Will’s best bud Jazz, whose role on the show primarily consisted of silly one-liners, going along with Will’s hair-brained schemes, and being repeatedly tossed out of the Banks’ house. Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith go way back, and, as we mentioned earlier, even scored the first-ever rap Grammy in 1989 as the duo The Fresh Prince & DJ Jazzy Jeff.
Now: After his six years on ‘Fresh Prince,’ DJ Jazzy Jeff stayed true to his roots, left acting and continued his career in the music industry, putting out several critically well-received albums. The duo reunited musically at the Hancock premiere in 2008, where they performed together. He worked with rapper Mac Miller on his 92 Til Infinity album, and did audio work on the 2015 film Straight Outta Compton.
Nia Long (Lisa Wilkes)
Then: Nia Long portrayed Lisa, Will’s longest-lasting love interest on the show. She almost became his wife before the two called off their wedding in the Season 5 finale. (Nooo!)
Now: After her role on Fresh Prince, Long went on to have a successful career in both TV and film, with starring roles in the movies Soul Food, Big Momma’s House, Are We There Yet?, ‘Best Man’ (and its 2013 sequel, ‘Best Man Holiday’); and on TV shows, such as ‘Third Watch,’ ‘House of Lies,’ and the ‘Family Guy’ spin-off ‘The Cleveland Show,’ voicing character Roberta Tubbs.
Vernee Watson-Johnson (Vy Smith)
Then: Vernee Watson-Johnson’s played Will’s caring-but-wise-cracking mom, Vy. (Like mother, like son!) She appeared occasionally on the show, and eventually got together with Lisa’s dad in the Season 5 finale, where it was implied they got married. Before ‘Fresh Prince,’ Watson-Johnson already had an impressive resume, with recurring roles on ‘The Love Boat,’ ‘Foley Square’ and ‘Baby Talk’ under her belt.
Now: Watson-Johnson continued to have a successful television career, voicing several characters on various ‘Batman’ reincarnations, scoring a recurring role as Birdie on ‘The Young and The Restless’ in 1999 and, later, as Dr. Ella Kraft on ‘Days of Our Lives’ in 2007. In 2005, she testified against the mother of the accuser in the Michael Jackson child molestation case, believing the woman to have attempted to get money out of celebrities before. In 2012, Watson-Johnson had a recurring role as a sarcastic nurse on ‘The Big Bang Theory.’ She also played Coach Jan Bigsby on ‘Suit Up.’