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Column: Inside ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ reunion with Joseph Marcell: ‘It felt so good to be back’

Portrait of English actor and comedian Joseph Marcell.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Not every actor can say he took a mid-pandemic break from fighting for the Bard to fete a prince.

In fact, Joseph Marcell may be the only one.

A longtime Shakespearean actor and board member of Shakespeare’s Globe theater in London, Marcell has spent much of the coronavirus shutdown working to ensure that the hugely popular replica of the 15th century original does not suffer the fate many theaters fear — permanent closure. But when he was asked to join the cast of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” in early September to shoot a reunion special for HBO Max, well ... after all, no one understood princely demands better than Shakespeare.

And how could Marcell say no? James Avery’s death in 2014 left a gaping hole in the cast — already bereft of Uncle Phil, the Banks family and friends could never do without their proper English butler Geoffrey.

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As a man of a certain age, Marcell says, “I had to ask myself, ‘Am I willing to risk my life for this?’ But I was flattered that they included me, and I felt certain they would do everything humanly possible to protect us. I spoke with my wife, my daughter and my son. It took a little consideration, and the only way to operate is to follow the guidelines — but, of course,” he adds, laughing. “I was going to do it.”

Even if it meant flying from the eerie stillness of Heathrow to the eerie stillness of LAX, face mask firmly in place at all times. Even if it meant taking a COVID test upon arrival and self-isolating until the results came back negative — then taking another test just before the shoot, which spread over two long days that were filled with joy but also marked by “the new normal.”

In early October, Airbnb is offering five one-night stays in the iconic mansion from ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ for $30 a night.

Even if it meant entering a 14-day quarantine upon his return to the U.K. “It’s a bit of an adjustment,” is how he describes the most unusual working conditions of his 50-year career, speaking from London on day three. “But I was thrilled to do it.”

Thrilled to be reunited, in person, with the surviving cast of the 1990s NBC hit that made Will Smith a household name; thrilled to see costar DJ Jazzy Jeff fully recovered from his March bout with COVID-19; thrilled to be on the vanguard of the entertainment industry’s slow and careful return to production.

“Our temperatures were taken, everyone wore masks, except the actors when we were acting. I had my hair done, my makeup and my costume, but the people only worked with me. There was me and a chair in a room and one came in, then the other — and if there were adjustments to my costume, I had to make a mental note or write them down. And this was a low-pressure reunion show,” he says. “I can’t imagine doing a drama.”

And it was all worth it, he adds. A brief reunion in April via Zoom to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the show’s premiere was not enough. “I was like the man in the woods, my hair, my beard were going wild,” he recalls with a laugh. And while seeing the familiar faces in little squares on his screen was nice, it didn’t compare to the real-life celebration of the ’90s hit that launched Will Smith’s career — and was Marcell’s first opportunity to work with an all-Black cast.

“We hadn’t seen each other in person for at least four years, and it was magical. When we performed the show back in those days, we were all green, newbies to the television scene. Now we are all older and — not to give myself airs and graces — it was like the Berlin philharmonic coming back together. And to see all the babies as adults and parents; it was magical. The producers had to keep telling us to stop talking and get back to work.”

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The 90-minute special, set to air Nov. 19 on HBO Max, will allow fans to share in behind-the-scenes conversations as well as the scripted reunion. (And if any of those fans have a yen to spend the night in the “Fresh Prince” house, it will be available via Airbnb for five one-night stays — at a mere $30 a night — in October.)

Will Smith, Alfonso Ribeiro and other “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” alumni saluted the late James Avery, a.k.a. Uncle Phil, during the cast’s virtual reunion.

Smith has teased several aspects of the reunion on his Instagram, including a sit-down with Janet Hubert, who played his character’s Aunt Viv until she left the show after Season 3 and began a years-long public feud with him. Fearful of spoiling anything, Marcell keeps fairly mum about the proceedings, saying only that it offers several big surprises. And while he has spoken about Hubert’s unhappiness with Smith’s dominant role in the show in the past, Marcell says now that everyone was as happy to be there as he was. “We talked about our experiences, our relationships, our hopes and fears during that period, even our hatreds — and there were some. But it felt so good to be back.”

It was also a rare chance to work during the pandemic — unlike film and television, live theater has not yet resumed in any way, which has put a pause in Marcell’s still very busy work schedule. Though he may still be best known as Geoffrey, and has a brief but memorable role in Netflix series “Ratched,” much of Marcell’s career has been spent on the stage. He was performing in August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” when he was asked to audition for “Fresh Prince” and, many years later, taped his audition for “Ratched” in his dressing room at the Wanamaker theater of Shakespeare’s Old Globe, where he was playing Duncan and the Porter in “Macbeth.” “Did it in my full ‘Macbeth’ regalia,” he says of the remote tryout.

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Last year he starred in the U.K. premiere of Sam Shepard’s two-man play “Ages of the Moon,” and he was in the midst of a national tour of “Alone in Berlin” when the pandemic struck. “I had gone home to London for the weekend,” he says. “And when I returned to York, they told me to just pack up and go home again.”

Since then, plans to make a film in Spain and to direct “Joe Turner” for the Royal Central School for Speech and Drama have been put on hold. Instead, Marcell has spent a lot of time gardening, memorizing poems “to keep the retentive memory supple” and working remotely when he can. “I’ve done a couple of radio plays for BBC 3 and recorded some of the first folios for Shakespeare’s Globe.”

Marcell, a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, has played many roles in the canon, including Othello in 1984, when a Black Othello was still a rarity. He has been involved in the development and running of Shakepeare’s Globe pretty much from the moment Sam Wanamaker decided to build a re-creation a couple of hundred feet from the original’s site alongside the Thames.

The Globe, which opened in 1997 and draws hundreds of thousands of playgoers and tourists every year, is a commercial theater, which means it gets no grants from the British government. Like all theaters, it has been shut down since March, and though tours of the meticulously re-created landmark and its historic exhibits resumed in August, the fear of permanent closure remains.

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The “Parks and Rec” reunion comforted us with nostalgia for the time before coronavirus but also braced us with optimism for the time after.

Indeed, as happy as Marcell is to discuss “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” he is clearly more concerned with increasing awareness, and public support, for the Globe. Having performed in many Globe productions, including as King Lear in a 2014 world tour, he believes its survival is crucial to new generations coming to know the Bard.

“We did a presentation for CBS news,” he says. “[Artistic Director] Michelle Terry has been doing lots of vignettes and talks about the Globe, [board of trustees President] Dan Rabinowitz has been gathering people together in the States to keep the Globe alive. ... Minister of Arts has asked for a meeting and we’re hoping for a good result.”

Shakespeare, he says, would certainly recognize the current state of the world, even with our electrical and digital dependence. “We don’t know what his version of the World Wide Web was,” Marcell says, laughing. “But in his time, there were various plagues, various wars and a virgin queen. I don’t think his times are very different from ours. We still have to do what they did: wash our hands.”

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And endure the occasional quarantine.


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