Family reunions are always a bit messy: Someone brings the wrong potato salad, says something politically incorrect or pokes at an unspoken secret. The same fragile formula applied to the “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion,” which premiered Nov. 19 on HBO Max.
For the first 45 minutes of the special, everything was reminiscing and rainbows, as Smith, Alfonso Ribeiro, Karyn Parsons, Tatyana Ali, Joseph Marcell, Daphne Maxwell Reid and DJ Jazzy Jeff gathered on the show’s original set to relive their best moments and reflect on the impact “The Fresh Prince” had on popular culture.
Missing, of course, was the sitcom’s beloved Uncle Phil, played with all the big uncle energy by James Avery, who died in 2013. His absence was felt deeply as the cast, sitting on the familiar beige couches of the Banks’ living room, were brought to tears while watching a montage of Avery on screen.
“So, as a family we have our things that we talk about and then we have our things that we don’t talk about,” said Smith in a slightly awkward transition. “We, um, never really, together, like publicly talk about, um, Janet. And what happened. And, for me, it felt like I couldn’t celebrate 30 years of ‘Fresh Prince’ without finding a way to celebrate Janet.”
That segue led into a pretaped interview — perhaps for fear of what could have gone sideways — during which Smith and Hubert hashed it out.
Sitting in the section of the sitcom’s studio usually reserved for the live audience, the pair wasted very little time on pleasantries, instead diving headfirst into the controversy of Hubert’s unceremonious exit from the show.
“I just wanted to know one thing: Why?” asked Hubert, who blasted Smith as egotistical in her 2009 memoir “Perfection Is Not a Sitcom Mom” and called the A-list actor names in an interview with TMZ in which she said she would never participate in a reunion. “You guys went so far,” she added. “I lost so much. How do we heal that?”
Smith then prompted Hubert to tell her story.
During the third season of the show, which wrote Hubert’s own pregnancy into the story line, she was in an abusive marriage, had a new baby and her husband was unemployed. She was struggling personally and the actress’s demeanor on set understandably changed. She retreated from her castmates. Subsequently, her contract for the following season cut down her role and her pay. She passed on the opportunity to re-up. “I was never fired,” she said.
“And I wasn’t unprofessional on the set. I just stopped talking to everybody because I didn’t know who to trust because I had been banished. And they said it was you who banished me. Because you were Will,” Hubert said.
“I was 21 years old,” explained Smith. “Everything was a threat to me.”
Claiming a mea culpa, Smith admitted during their sit-down that he made it difficult for Hubert, who never revealed her personal struggles to her co-workers. But Hubert, who was in her mid-30s at the time and had begun her career in the original 1982 Broadway production of “Cats,” took it a step further, noting that the damage to her career reached far beyond the “Fresh Prince” set.
“But you took all of that away from me — with your words,” Hubert said. “Words can kill. I lost everything. Reputation. Everything. And I understand you were able to move forward, but you know those words, calling a Black woman difficult in Hollywood, is the kiss of death. And it’s hard enough being a dark-skinned Black woman in this business.”
Still, both parties were ready to move forward. Hubert apologized for “blasting” Smith “to pieces” in the press. And Smith, who praised Hubert for bringing “authenticity and dignity” to the role of Aunt Viv, offered his own apology.
“The person I want to be is someone who protects you, not someone who unleashes dogs on you,” Smith said.
Hubert later made a surprise appearance at the actual reunion, which was filmed Sept. 10, 30 years to the day of the show’s original premiere date. There she met Reid, the actress who replaced her on the show, for the first time.