The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was one of the best shows of our childhood and it was responsible for some of our favourite moments on TV in the 90s.
The show was generally built around silliness, and you no doubt remember the goofy dancing from Carlton and Jazz being thrown out of the house by Uncle Phil every week. But you may also recall that, on the few occasions when the show tried something poignant, they tended to hit it out of the park.
Perhaps the most famous and beloved example of this was in the episode ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Excuse’ back in 1994 (wow, has it really been that long?).
In the episode, Will’s deadbeat dad Lou comes back into his life after 14 years of being absent. Uncle Phil can see right through Lou’s lies, but Will is just too happy to be hanging out with his father again to care.
It all makes the scene where Lou leaves again all the more dramatic. Will Smith’s emotional and intense performance is an absolute classic, which will still absolutely destroy you watching it two decades on.
The widely spread legend is that much of Will’s speech was ad-libbed and based on his own traumatic childhood. The story goes that Will Smith improvised the entire scene based on his issues with his own father, who abandoned him when he was younger.
Except that’s all bollocks.
In actual fact, Will’s father was an active participant in his son’s life, encouraging and supporting him in his music and acting career.
In an interview with Reader’s Digest, Smith explained:
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.
But, while the story behind the scene may not be true, what was definitely real was the emotion that Smith and Avery put into the scene. So much so, that those sounds of audience members crying you can hear in the background, were completely legit.
According to one Reddit user:
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.
So, although that infamous urban legend about the scene may not be accurate, there’s no doubt that this is one of the most powerful pieces of acting ever seen on a sitcom. A reminder that no matter how bad some of Will Smith’s recent movies have been, he’s still a fucking tremendous actor in the right role.