Calling The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air a “cultural touchstone” is a gross understatement. Although it’s one of the most important black television shows ever made, it transcended race. Everyone was aware of the show, and a certain age group—regardless of race—can recite every word of the iconic theme song. Having an intro that DJs can randomly drop in the club over two decades later is admirable, but it’s far from the show’s most impressive element. That’s reserved for the career boost given to the actors who appeared on the show, from the main players to the ones who only had scenes in one or several of Fresh Prince‘s 148 episodes.
No one has benefited more from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air than its star, Will Smith. It was the vehicle that took him from the Fresh Prince, to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, to Academy Award-nominated megastar. The fusion of charm, savoir faire, and touching honesty you’ve seen in his best work was honed during the show’s six-season run. Furthermore, that finesse helped the TV-version of Will Smith score the attention of some of the most talented and desirable young actresses of that era. Appearing opposite Will was a revolving door of Jet Beauty of the Week candidates who matched wits with the young actor, keeping him on his toes.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air provied many of these actresses with the exposure they needed to ascend the next plateau. In honor of the show’s 25th anniversary, we spoke to a few of them—Nia Long, Jasmine Guy, Lela Rochon, Elise Neal, and Vivica A. Fox—about their memories from the show, the impact it had on their careers, and its lasting influence. These are the moments you can’t find on YouTube.
The audition process was a different experience for each of the actresses. Some auditioned multiple times before securing their roles, others say they barely auditioned, and one actually read for a major role prior to her guest appearance.
Lela Rochon (Cindy, Season 2, Episode 3): I remember going in for The Fresh Prince maybe a couple of times before they finally offered me a role on the show. I think I had read for Karyn Parsons’ role [Hilary] and then I read [for the role of Cindy] and ended up finally getting that part.
Nia Long (Lisa Wilkes, Multiple episodes): For me, there wasn’t an audition process. I remember I came in and the entire cast was on set having a table read, and a friend of mine who was a writer on the show told me to come down and say hello to everyone.
Elise Neal (Wendy, Season 4, Episode 22): I was really excited to be part of the show. It was already a hit when I auditioned, and when I read that Pam Grier was playing my mother and I was [going to be playing] Will Smith’s girlfriend, it was just really a lot of fun. It was early in my career and one of the biggest roles I had gotten at that point. It was such a fun set; everybody was great.
Vivica A. Fox (Janet, Season 1, Episode 19): I played Jeff’s sister or cousin, and I ended up being the date from hell for Will. I started off all nice, and then when we got to dinner, I just turned on him. The psycho bitch showed up.
Lela Rochon: It was interesting because I was still kind of fascinated with the role of Hilary, like “Why didn’t I get that part?” but it made sense when Karyn did it because she had such a specific take on it. That was her part; she really owned it. So I was a fan of the show—you always watch the jobs you don’t get; that’s why I watched the show—and I really liked it. So when I did get offered the role to play his girlfriend, I figured it would be fun.
Nia Long: I met Will, we talked for a little bit and then I hung out and watched their process, and then I did one episode. I guess that one episode was sort of my audition, and then after that, they invited me back to do most of the following season.
Vivica A. Fox: I had kind of just started acting and was coming off of soap operas, and graduating to doing nighttime television, sitcoms, and dramas. So when I got the part, I was thrilled because I love Will and we totally went on to make movie magic later—and not just with him, with his wife too. I was a fan of his, so when I got the part, I was like “Yes!” I studied really hard, and I went in there and nailed it. I was rollin’ at the audition, and they called 15 minutes later to tell me I got the part.
For some of the actresses, filming an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Airwas the biggest moment of their careers at that point. The natural unease was settled by the familial environment on set, as well as the fact that some of them had met members of the cast—including Will—before.
Elise Neal: I had met Will before as a dancer. I think I had done one of his early videos. To keep it real, I was so nervous at the time—I was still so new to the business of acting—I wouldn’t have even stepped to Will Smith to say anything. I was just happy to be there, and I was excited that I was getting to play such a cool role and do a lot of different fun scenes. I was just like “Okay, I’m here.”
Lela Rochon: I didn’t know him at all. It’s been 24 years, so I don’t remember if Will and I had ever met before the show. I remember being like, “Thank God he’s tall,” and I remember he was nice, but he was really confident. I didn’t find it intimidating, but I was like, “Wow, he’s so confident to be so young.” That was sort of impressive to me.
Vivica A. Fox: I think I had met him because I remember one time, I did a little bit of stand-in work for Jasmine Guy.
Jasmine Guy (Kayla Samuels, Season 1, Episode 21): I was happy to be asked to do the show Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I met Will briefly on the set of A Different World and found him bright, charismatic, and talented.
Vivica A. Fox: She was doing A Different World, but she also did a guest-appearance [on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air], so then when they called me in to audition, I said absolutely. So I kind of knew him, and then I knew him out and about as Will Smith the rapper. Then, all of a sudden, he was the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Lela Rochon: It was a very warm, inviting set. They all seemed really happy and they made me feel really comfortable. It was a fun week. Will was nice, Alfonso [Ribeiro] was very nice, and so were Janet [Hubert] and James [Avery], rest his soul.
Vivica A Fox: Working with them was like working with family. I knew Alfonso; I knew Tatyana [Ali]; I knew Karyn Parsons, I knew the entire cast by then because I had come up there a couple of times. What I love about the show is that it started a great history of friendships, and I’m still good friends with all of them to this day.
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