Born and raised in west Philadelphia, streetwise teenager “Will Smith” got into one little fight, his mom got scared, and he was subsequently sent to live with his wealthy aunt and uncle in the luxurious Bel-Air section of Los Angeles. It was a simple premise, summed up in an impossible to forget theme song for a now classic show.
It may seem like just yesterday, but The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air debuted nearly 24 years ago. The comedy originally aired in the fall of 1990 and ran six seasons on NBC. The family sitcom was an instant hit, featuring an ensemble cast of memorable characters: Aunt Vivian and Uncle Phil, Will’s firm but loving guardians; cousins Hillary (the original Black American princess) and Carlton, the prototypical buppie.
It was announced Tuesday that actor James Avery, who played Philip Banks on the show, passed away at the age of 68 of complications from open-heart surgery. His character was once ranked as one of TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Dads.
Of course, Fresh Prince effectively launched the acting career of Will Smith. At 21, the rapper landed the show’s lead (a role created specifically for him), and famously went on to become an Oscar-nominated A-list movie star—appearing in films like I, Robot, I Am Legend, The Pursuit of Happyness and Ali, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.
Fresh Prince achieved something else. It was also one in a handful of 1990s sitcoms with predominately Black casts. In contrast to The Cosby Show, Fresh Prince was about a non-traditional family pulling together across differences in class and culture. But unlike Webster and Diff’rent Strokes of the 1980s, at-risk Will was taken in and raised by relatives—not rescued by White benefactors. The show used that dynamic to tackle issues like racial profiling, fatherlessness, gun violence, selling out and interracial dating.
Uncle Phil will be missed.