The True Story Behind The Saddest Scene In ‘The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air’ History


Think back to any “emotional” scene on Full House. They were all pretty the same: the dialogue would get cheesy (well, cheesier) and the music, sappy (sappier). It was a formula that clearly worked, considering there’s a good chance we’ll be seeing more of the Tanners soon, but it was super-corny, especially when compared to another so-called “kids show” that was on the same time, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. You probably remember the goofy dancing scenes and guest appearances from DJ Jazzy Jeff, but every so often, The Fresh Prince would attempt something legitimately poignant.

Of course I’m talking about “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse.”

It killed me when I first saw it, and still gets to me now. In the episode, Will’s deadbeat father Lou (played by Broadway legend Ben Vereen) returns after a 14-year absence to spend time with his son. The Banks, especially Uncle Phil, see through Lou’s lies, but Will can’t; he’s so happy to be with his dad that he drops his trademark swagger and acts like an eager child again. Guess what happens next.

It’s fun to bash on Will Smith’s career moves of late (After, ugh, Earth), but when he finds the right role, he’s an excellent actor. Thing is, he’s not really acting here — much of Will’s speech was ad-libbed and based on his own traumatic childhood. Or so the widely-spread legend goes.

That awful moment when you learn that this wasn’t scripted. That Will Smith’s character was actually supposed to brush off the whole thing, but Will’s father actually had left him when he was younger and he just fell apart on the set and the hug at the end was from one actor to another, not one character to another. (Via)

But in fact, Will’s dad was an active participant in his son’s life, and even encouraged him.

I told my parents I wanted to rap. They said, ‘Rap?’ My mother graduated from Carnegie Mellon. She thought college was the only way. My father could kind of see doing something differently. We agreed that I would take a year making music, and if it did not work out, I would go to college. That year we won the first Grammy given to a rap artist. (Via)

And later in that same interview:

Smith: “My father was in the military, so everything was really regimented.”

RD: Was he a taskmaster?

Smith: “Oh, yeah, he was very serious about things being a certain way. When my father got out of the Air Force, he started his own refrigeration business. I might have been 12 and my brother 9 when one day he decided he wanted a new front wall at his shop. He tore the old one down — it was probably 16 feet high and 40 feet long. And he told us that this was going to be our gig over the summer. We were standing there thinking, There will never, ever, be a wall here again.

We went brick by brick for the entire summer and into winter and then back into spring. One day there was a wall there again. I know my dad had been planning this for a long time. He said, ‘Now, don’t you all ever tell me there’s something you can’t do.’ And he walked into the shop. The thing I connect to is: I do not have to build a perfect wall today.

I just have to lay a perfect brick. Just lay one brick, dude.” (Via)

But the audience sobbing that you can make out in the background? That happened.

I was actually at the taping. The entire show was quiet, even during the funny parts, and I could not figure out why.

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. (Via)

Even if the performance wasn’t “real,” it was real enough to be remembered 20 years later.