Sing it with us, everyone: “Now, this is a story all about how. My life got flipped turned upside down
And I’d like to take a minute. Just sit right there. I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel-Air!”
Those, of course, are the opening lyrics to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song, and fans of the groundbreaking sitcom will hear them again on November 19, when HBO Max debuts its highly anticipated Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion. The get-together will feature Will Smith, Tatyana Ali, Karyn Parsons, Joseph Marcell, Daphne Maxwell Reid, and Alfonso Ribeiro, as well as recurring guest star DJ Jazzy Jeff, all of whom will share memories of the show, which ran from 1990 to 1996, with 148 episodes spanning six seasons, and thrust Smith to superstardom. Expect laughs, music, dancing, and then also tears as the cast pays tribute to patriarch James Avery, who passed away in 2013. And, sure to be a highlight, Smith will sit down with Janet Hubert, who played Aunt Vivian for the first three seasons, before angrily departing and feuding with Smith for decades.
Fans will recall that after Hubert exited, Daphne Maxwell Reid stepped into the role and promptly made it her own, creating a warmer version of Aunt Viv. Reid sparked with Avery and shared sweet chemistry with Smith and Ribeiro. But here’s the funny thing: Reid initially didn’t want the role, at all, and that’s back before the show ever started.
“I had been on four or five back-to-back series with Tim,” Reid told Fatherly during a recent call from the home in Virginia she shares with husband and frequent collaborator, Tim Reid of WKRP in Cincinnati and Linc’s fame. “I’d been working steadily for years and was a bit exhausted. We were buying a farm in Virginia, and we were going to move back to Virginia and just take a breath, get creative behind the scenes. They asked me to audition for a sitcom with a rap star. I said, ‘I know rap. No, thank you. Thank you very much. I’m not interested.’ (Laughs).
“But then, when the show came on that fall, I saw what a cute and wonderful show it was,” she continued. “So, the next time they called me, I was quite willing to come and try to get the opportunity to work on it. And it took a while. It took two and a half weeks to go through that audition process. Then, making the show was such a delight. The people involved were all so enthusiastic, talented and joyful, and loving. It was a wonderful place to join and establish a new family.”
Fresh Prince delivered a few inside jokes about the change in actresses, but Reid delivered the goods. Aunt Viv provided Will (the character) with a base, a touchstone. “She was always there to support him, even when he did something ridiculous,” Reid concurred. “When his uncle (Avery) came down on him, she was there to temper that. But she was also there to make sure there were basic rules. There were lines he should not cross. She did that with grace, and I think that’s what he might have gotten from Aunt Viv. A warm hug, is basically how I see it.”
It helped, the actress recalled, that the show’s writers gave the actors input into the stories and character development. The collective goal, even with that massive mansion and the ritzy trappings, was to deliver something authentic about life, family, and race relations, as well as the Black experience. “We had the privilege of working with writers who would allow us to interject the cultural nuances that they couldn’t write,” Reid noted. “And the stories were kind of universal, fish out of water, family, with varying points of view. The topics were usually universal as well, mostly family dynamic topics.”
And here we are. Nearly 25 years after the show ended, Fresh Prince remains a hit in reruns and retains a sacred place in the hearts and minds of those who soaked it in every week. Out on the street, devotees still recognize Reid… and want a hug. “It’s been like a heartbeat,” she says of the passage of time. “It was so fast! (Laughs). I’m glad I filled up the time, otherwise, I just don’t understand how time marched by that fast… And to know that I’m on my third generation of children that I’m raising on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? It’s really a thrill to be a part of such an iconic show.”
The wild card here is Hubert. The reunion trailer includes shots of Smith interviewing Hubert, but it’s not clear if she joined the rest of the cast for any part of the reunion. Reid, a wily veteran that she is, shed no light on the situation.
So what was Reid’s reaction when the invitation came via email to participate in the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion? “Duh, yeah!” she enthused, laughing. It was all very hush-hush, and with the pandemic raging, safety protocols had to be followed. But everything and everyone gelled. “They treated us like kings and queens,” Reid said. “It was a marvelous personal experience. But it was also a grand reunion, just seeing everybody at the same time with the joy of it. I hadn’t seen Joseph very often, and I hadn’t seen Will in maybe about six or eight years. But we’d all managed to stay in touch. I see Tatyana and Karyn often. I see Alfonso. I’ve bumped into him on airplanes and a whole bunch of places. So, I get to see mostly everybody, except Will and Joseph. Of course, we all miss James.”
“She and Will had a separate conversation,” Reid explains. “And then… I had never met her. So, it didn’t matter to me one way or another whether she was going to be there or not. You’ll have to see the show to see the rest of that!”
While Reid is best known for Fresh Prince, the show represents just one credit on a long resume. Her film and TV work dates back to the late 1970s, and she counts the series Frank’s Place and Linc’s as the achievements she’s proudest of. Her husband Tim starred in and produced Frank’s Place (1987-1988), while Reid co-starred in Linc’s with Pam Grier and Steven Williams. The show, which ran from 1988 to 1999, was filmed in Virginia at the New Millennium Studios facility that the Reids built not far from their home. And, at 72 years young, she’s still working, appearing last year in the acclaimed film, Harriet, and co-starring in The Business of Christmas, a TV movie about a Black family that rallies to save the toy store they own. It will premiere on December 1 on BET+. Reid also is a writer, designer, photographer, and mask maker, and reported that she’s taken advantage of her time in quarantine to focus on those endeavors, including publishing a cookbook and calendar (comprised of her photos).
As the conversation came to a close, Reid pondered one last question for a moment before replying. If the Reid of today could whisper into the ear of the young Reid in the earliest days of her career, what advice might she have offered?
“Patience,” Reid said. “I never expected this career. I could not have known to wish for this career. This is a career built on opportunity, preparation, and being in the right place at the right time. And I know that it has more to do with that than it has to do with me pushing to be in this position.”
You can watch the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion on HBO Max right here.