Will Smith, ‘banished’ Aunt Viv actress reconcile in emotional ‘Fresh Prince’ reunion
“I just wanted to know one thing: Why? Why so far? You guys went so far. I lost so much. How do we heal?”
These are among the first words that Will Smith hears from Janet Hubert during their emotional reconciliation in the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” reunion special, premiering Wednesday on HBO Max.
Starring Smith as a West Philadelphia teenager transplanted to the wealthy Westside enclave, the NBC sitcom, which aired from 1990 to 1996, originally featured Hubert as Smith’s Aunt Vivian. But the two actors parted on the worst of terms: After playing the role for the three seasons — which included iconic scenes teaching Will and Carlton’s Black history class and nailing a tricky dance routine — Hubert was pushed out of the series and replaced. She has since said that Smith, wielding the power of a twentysomething star on a hit network sitcom, was partly responsible.
After slamming one another in the press for decades, they meet in-person for the first time in 27 years in the special, which also includes cast members’ audition tapes, behind-the-scenes footage from their first and last table reads and a moving tribute to the late James Avery, who played Smith’s Uncle Phil.
In a tense, roughly 15-minute segment, Hubert reveals that the third season was particularly tough for her. In addition to being pregnant, she was also in an abusive marriage. So it’s understandable that she wasn’t “laughing, smiling and joking” with her fellow actors as much as she did before.
“I wasn’t unprofessional on the set; I just stopped talking to everybody, because I didn’t know who to trust, because I had been banished. And they said it was you who banished me,” she tells Smith.
“You took all that away from me with your words, and words can kill,” she says. “Calling a Black woman ‘difficult’ in Hollywood is the kiss of death. And it’s hard enough for a dark-skinned Black woman in this business.”
For British stage veteran Joseph Marcell, traveling from London to Los Angeles to film ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ reunion was worth the risk.
Smith acknowledges that he wrongfully contributed to that situation and that “there was a certain foundational element that was broken when Janet left” the series. “She set a standard on this show that’s an integral part of the success of ‘The Fresh Prince.’”
Smith thanks her for sharing her struggle with him: "[It] was the first time I was ever able to see how much pain she is in and was in and just what she was carrying, what she was trying to hide, what she was trying to hold on to,” he says later to the rest of the cast. And having experienced a divorce and become a father himself, he tells Hubert, “I can see now the level of pain and the level of struggle that it was for you just to show up every day.”
Hubert also says she was not fired from the series. Instead, she was “trapped” after being offered a reduced salary in the third season, which stung even more with a newborn and a husband who was out of work. After turning down the offer, her role was recast. “When I left the show, I had this new baby and no one,” said Hubert. “Family disowned me. Hollywood disowned me. My family said, ‘You’ve ruined our name.’”
After trading apologies, Hubert proceeds to the reconstructed Banks’ living room and greets her former castmates. The moment marks her first time meeting Daphne Maxwell Reid, the actress who replaced her in the latter seasons.
“Seeing Daphne and Janet — my two moms, the two Aunt Vivs — come together, they’ve never met before, seeing them meet for the first time and embrace was the most incredible thing,” Karyn Parsons, who played Phil and Viv’s daughter Hilary on the series, says in the special.
“I have to say, after 27 years, being here today and having the conversation that Will and I had together, it’s healing,” says Hubert. “I cannot tell you how unbelievable and wonderful it feels — I’m overwhelmed.”
“I could not do a 30-year celebration of this show and not celebrate you. Celebrate your contribution to this show and celebrate your contribution to my life,” Smith says. “I’m so happy that we were able to make that reconciliation, and I hope other people can take something from it.”
‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion’
Where: HBO Max
When: Any time, starting Thursday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under age 14)
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