Will Smith is a two-time Oscar nominee and one of the most popular actors (and genies) of his generation. But before all that, he was a sitcom star, someone who, it would not have been foolhardy to assume, couldn’t handle more dramatic material. That changed with “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse,” the season four episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that aired 25 years ago today. You know the episode, and you definitely know THE scene.
“How come he don’t want me, man?”
Directed by Shelley Jensen with a script from David Zuckerman and Bill Boulware, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse” is about Will’s father, played by Ben Vereen, returning to his son’s life after 14 years. They plan a cross-country trip together, but Uncle Phil (James Avery) warns Will that he shouldn’t get his hopes up; this is the man who abandoned him, after all. Will believes that Uncle Phil is jealous and tells him that he’s not his real dad. But he’s a better parental figure than his actual dad, who lets his son down again. Then, the waterworks.
I’m sorry in advance for the tears.
The story behind the episode is almost as good as the episode itself. While the legend that Smith ad-libbed much of the scene based on his troubled relationship with his actual father is probably false, the sobbing was not.
“I was actually at the taping. The entire show was quiet, even during the funny parts, and I could not figure out why,” a Reddit user wrote. “Before this scene, Will Smith disappeared. He showed up, did this scene in one take, then disappeared again. You might notice his hat coming off. Usually, the director would retake the scene, but really, nothing could replace this moment. People were crying for a long time when it was over, doing their best not to make noise before the director said ‘cut.’ I was ten years old. Will never, ever, forget.”
If you listen closely, you can hear Karyn Parsons (Hilary) crying backstage.
It wasn’t an easy scene for Smith to film, either. “James Avery was relentlessly on me to elevate. Like, James Avery wouldn’t give me a damn inch,” the actor recalled on TIDAL’s Rap Radar podcast series. “Everything I said, everything I did for James Avery was like nope, not good enough.” Avery demanded “absolute committed perfection” from his young co-star, so when it came time to shoot the scene together, “I’m messing up the lines because I want it so bad,” Smith recalled. But Avery eventually calmed Smith down by telling him, “It’s already in there, you know what it is. Look at me, use me. Don’t act around me, act with me.” The advice worked. Smith gave his first highlight-reel performance, and it wouldn’t have been possible with Uncle Phil, who whispered something in Smith’s ear while they were hugging on camera:
“Now that’s f*cking acting right there.”
To read more about the episode, click here.