The show retains an important place in pop culture. What millennial doesn’t jump to finish the theme song’s lyrics when prompted by “Innnn West Philadelphia, born and raised”? Or remember that time Aunt Viv just really wanted to dance? Ashley’s first date with R&B princeling Tevin Campbell? Or Hillary’s Playboy spread?
But there is one episode that stands head and shoulders above the rest. It is “Fresh Prince’s” most iconic half-hour — the moment in which Will, the goof who plays it cool, became human, and Smith became an actor.
“Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse” was a watershed 23 minutes for the situational comedy, which, until that moment, hadn’t fully explored the emotional depths of Smith’s character. The episode featured the man-hug loved (and memed) around the world as Uncle Phil (James Avery) doesn’t so much embrace as completely envelop his nephew, who is coming to grips with the loss of his absentee father for a second time.
The scene almost didn’t happen.
There had been a lot of interest in an episode about Will’s dad, according to “Fresh Prince” writer David Zuckerman, given that the entire premise of the show was based on Will being sent to live with his rich aunt and uncle because his mother, raising him alone, wants him out of their rough neighborhood. His father was a question mark, or, as cousin Hillary puts it in the episode, “a deadbeat who left him and his mom flat.”
But it wasn’t until the fourth season, with its characters deeply established, that the show decided to tackle the subject in depth. Behind the scenes, the episode was also meant to showcase Smith’s dramatic acting chops. It was 1994, and he had just come off “Six Degrees of Separation,” a dramedy about a young con man who charms his way into a rich White family. The reviews were solid for the then-25-year-old’s first dramatic movie role, so Smith was ready to do something that “had a little bite to it,” Zuckerman said.
The idea was to have Will’s father come back and leave again, disappointing his only son for a second time. “We tried to make him not a bad guy — sympathetic,” explained Zuckerman, who wrote “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse” with veteran TV writer Bill Boulware after an initially disastrous table read of a different script had cast Will’s father, Lou (to be played by Broadway alum Ben Vereen), as a pool shark who breezes into town.
“Will did not like it at all. It was not one of our best moments,” said Zuckerman. His and Boulware’s new script recast Lou as a troubled trucker and “a guy that just wasn’t cut out to be a father.”
Vereen, who was “overjoyed” to join the cast for May sweeps week, remembers feeling something special. “Up until that point, they were thinking of [Smith] as a TV actor,” Vereen said of the young man’s burgeoning film career. “I was honored to be there at the launch.”
Episode director Shelley Jensen worked on the series for all six seasons and watched Smith, who started the show at 21, go from novice to supernova.
“When we started the series, Will was definitely not there, but he grew as a man and as an actor,” he said. The fatherhood episode was pivotal, Jensen added, because it marked Smith’s arrival as a force to be reckoned with.
“It was that specific episode for me as a director [that] I saw him connect and make it work. His acting from that moment on improved dramatically. You saw the light bulb go off,” he said.
In that final scene, when Lou disappoints Will for the final time, Vereen himself broke down off-camera. His character was contending with all the things he’d never be and Vereen was deep in that moment.
“When Will calls him ‘Lou’, oh my God, his whole frame just shrunk because he realized at that point that he’d lost his son. Whew, that was deep,” Vereen said. “We were all in the moment. It was almost like time stood still.”
Boulware, who also wrote the episode of “227“ in which a character’s father pops back into the picture, drew from his own life experience for the script. “I had always been interested in shows with fathers, because I grew up with a single parent,” he said.
In the episode, Will’s father shows up unexpectedly after a 14-year absence. Instead of reading him the riot act, Will is understandably enchanted. Uncle Phil, his character’s influential father figure, is concerned and makes his disgust with Lou known.
“James Avery was relentless on me to elevate. [He] wouldn’t give me a damn inch,” said Smith in a 2018 interview with podcast Rap Radar. “He was the model for me … of an actor. He just had that acting power that I wanted to have.”
Jensen said Avery, who died in 2013, was a driving force on set. Smith, whose most emotional scenes in the episode are opposite Avery, had to cry on camera for the first time. This wasn’t the physical comedy at which Smith the rapper excelled.
During the episode’s final scene, Smith was struggling to bring it all home. “I’m messing up the lines because I wanted it so bad,” Smith said in the podcast interview. It was Avery, always the steady influence, that centered him, giving the rapper turned movie star memorable advice. “Relax. It’s already in there, you know what it is. Look at me. Use me. Don’t act around me, act with me,” Smith recalled Avery saying. The young actor would go on to deliver one of the biggest emotional punches in “Fresh Prince” history.
“How come he don’t want me, man?” Will asks, lip quivering as he starts to break down and cry. Uncle Phil grabs Will and hugs him fiercely, as he wished his father would. The two were locked in that epic embrace when Avery doled out even more encouragement.
“While he’s hugging me, he whispers in my ear, 'That’s f---ing acting right there,” recalled Smith, who also revealed the motivation behind that performance. “I wanted him to want me. I wanted him to approve of me.”
Fans of the show have long believed that Smith improvised that final scene in which his character builds to an emotional crescendo, loudly proclaiming all the milestones he got through without Lou, but “every word was written by Bill and I,” Zuckerman said. “Will’s delivery was so perfect it seems like it was in the moment.”
During filming, the studio was completely silent — a rarity for a comedy with a live audience.
During an average taping, “The Fresh Prince” set was like a raucous football stadium. Smith would even come out himself and hype up the audience. But during filming of this episode, director Jensen likened the mood of the normally “wild show” to “being in church.”
“It was also so unexpected. ‘Fresh Prince’ wasn’t a show that had done serious moments. This was the first time the show just went there and stayed there and let it resonate,” Zuckerman said of the episode’s lasting impact.
Having three Black male actors in an intensely dramatic scene on a comedic series only added to the power of the moment.
“The three of them were like a range of Black manhood,” Boulware said. Avery, a trained Shakespearean actor, represented the strong father figure; Smith, four years into his first acting gig, the young man coming into his own manhood; and Vereen, a theater vet, was a man lost. “We didn’t realize it had affected that many people until years later.”
Jensen echoed Boulware’s surprise.
“Did any of us know this show would become what it has become in the last 30 years? No,” he said. “We all knew we were having a great time. But that specific episode? I knew it was good, good television and it was really special.”