‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ — What Happened to the Original Aunt Viv?


The Big Picture

  • Janet Hubert’s departure from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was mired in conflict and rumors of her being “difficult.”
  • Recent revelations about Will Smith’s behavior suggest he may have been the cause of tension on set.
  • Hubert’s career suffered after leaving the show, highlighting the challenges faced by Black women in show business.

It was revolutionary. It was funny. It was topical. And it made Will Smith a TV star. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the 1990s sitcom about a Philadelphia kid who comes to live with his wealthy aunt and uncle in Beverly Hills, was a ratings hit for NBC, finishing in the top 20 among network primetime programs for two straight years. Following in the footsteps of The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air kicked things up a notch by making the Banks family not just financially well off, but rich. Uncle Philip was a judge and senior law firm partner, his wife, Aunt Vivian, was a former artist and university professor, and the family even had a butler. Take that, Dr. Huxtable! The show took a standard “fish out of water” concept, and thanks to an inspired writing team (Andy and Susan Borowitz) and talented cast, it carved out its own unique niche in the television landscape.

Nominated three times for Best Comedy Series at the NAACP Image Awards (winning in 1993), The Fresh Prince brought a new version of African American representation to primetime TV. Smith, in his first featured role, was a natural comic actor with an endearing presence, and his onscreen chemistry with co-star Janet Hubert was one of the show’s highlights. As Aunt Vivian, Hubert was as regal as she was feisty, willing to remove her Harry Winston earrings to tangle with anyone who would interfere with her family. Hubert represented a new type of Black woman — stylish, majestic in her presence, but still street-wise, gritty, and unwilling to suffer fools lightly. Hubert’s Aunt Vivian was The Fresh Prince‘s primary female anchor. But while the show was enjoying great success, rumors of unrest behind the scenes began to circulate during the comedy’s second and third seasons. Smith’s ego was said to be out of control. Hubert was called “difficult.”

Other cast members, including James Avery (Uncle Philip) and Alfonso Ribeiro (Cousin Carlton), kept their mouths closed and their heads down. Then suddenly, in the series’ fourth season in 1994, The Fresh Prince pulled a Darrin Stevens-Bewitched-style switcheroo, replacing Janet Hubert with Daphne Maxwell Reid as Aunt Viv. The first episode featuring Reid subtly acknowledged the change, with Smith breaking the fourth wall and giving a quizzical look directly to the camera when the character of Jazz (DJ Jazzy Jeff) says to Aunt Viv, “You know, Ms. Banks, since you had that baby, there’s something different about you.” And just like that, Hubert’s Aunt Viv was no more. In the 30 years since Hubert’s departure from The Fresh Prince, there have been conflicting stories, many from Hubert herself, about why she left the show, and ongoing and public animosity between Hubert and Smith, with all of it coming to a head in a 2020 Fresh Prince reunion special. But what really happened to cause Hubert’s exit from the successful sitcom? And what impact did it have on her career? Well, it’s complicated.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Will Smith more or less plays himself in this good-natured NBC sitcom. As the show’s popular theme song explains, fictional Will’s mom sends him away from his rough Philadelphia neighborhood to live with wealthy Uncle Phil and Aunt Vivian in Bel-Air. Will often has fun at the expense of stuck-up cousins Carlton and Hilary.

Release Date
September 10, 1990

Will Smith , James Avery , Janet Hubert , alfonso ribeiro , Karyn Parsons , Tatyana Ali , Joseph Marcell , Daphne Reid , Ross Bagley


Why Was There Tension Between Janet Hubert and Will Smith?

Janet Hubert was a Julliard-trained dancer and singer who began her performing career on Broadway, originating in the role of Tantomile in Cats in 1982, and later appearing in the Duke Ellington-inspired musical revue, Sophisticated Ladies. In the early ’80s, she made the move to Hollywood and used her dance experience to snag a part in the music video for singer Sylvester‘s Someone Like You, featuring Debbie Allen. From there, Hubert began getting small acting parts in TV series like Hunter and 21 Jump Street. After toiling for several years in guest spots, she finally snagged the coveted role of Aunt Viv in The Fresh Prince in 1990.

Meanwhile, Will Smith had recently come into his own in the music business with his hit rap single, “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” Aside from a small part in a 1990 ABC Afterschool Special, the Fresh Prince was his first major acting role, and there he was, suddenly the lead character carrying the show. This, in fact, may have been the genesis of the tension between Hubert and Smith. Hubert, an actress-singer-dancer with a slew of Broadway and TV credits was playing second fiddle to a 22-year-old kid with almost no acting credentials behind him. In a 2002 interview, Joseph Marcell, who played the Banks family butler Geoffrey in the series, said, “The show is called The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and the leading actor, the name that comes first, is Will Smith, and that’s how it is and that’s how it should be. I feel that perhaps Janet was not able to deal with that.” Smith himself bolstered Marcell’s viewpoint. During a 1993 Atlanta radio station interview, the Fresh Prince himself did not hold back. “I can say straight up that Janet Hubert wanted the show to be The Aunt Viv of Bel-Air Show, because I know she is going to dog me in the press…she said once, ‘I’ve been in the business for 10 years and this snotty-nosed punk comes along and gets a show.’ No matter what, to her, I’m just the Antichrist.”

What Has Janet Hubert Said About Why She Left ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’?

Hubert left The Fresh Prince after its third season, but her own accounts of her exit have varied over the years. She has alternatively blamed her departure on a contract negotiation that didn’t go her way, while at other times seeming to acknowledge her reputation for being difficult and being pushed out by the show’s producers. In a 2016 podcast, she said, “I come from the school of ‘you don’t just get a check.’ You have to be responsible of what you put out there. I took my job very seriously. That was a mistake.” Hubert struggled to find acting work after her departure from the show, landing only a handful of mostly unmemorable roles in the years following her exodus, and distance from the series over time did not dull her bitterness. She once called Ribeiro, the actor who played her son on The Fresh Prince, a “media hoe” and “the ass wipe for Will,” and her disdain for the series’ producers was also clear. In a 1993 interview in Jet magazine, Hubert lashed out. “They wanted me to be a good little n****r woman and accept their first offer and come back to work.” It’s safe to say Hubert’s outspoken nature about her time on The Fresh Prince did not win over Hollywood casting agents and producers, and her career sputtered out.

Will Smith and Janet Hubert Both Admit Fault at ‘The Fresh Prince’ ReunionWill Smith and Janet Hubert as the original Aunt Viv in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

As with every conflict, there’s one side, another side, and somewhere in the middle lies the truth. Based on what the public has learned — and witnessed — about Smith’s behavior in recent years, it’s easy to question now whether Hubert was really the problem on The Fresh Prince set. Following the infamous “Slap Heard Around the World” incident by Smith at the 2022 Oscars, actor Paul Rodriguez came forward and revealed how he was bullied by Smith on the set of the movie Ali. “I took a verbal slap from Will Smith every day,” Rodriguez said. “And sometimes I think the emotional injuries are just as deep, if not deeper, than physical ones.” So was the Fresh Prince tension caused more by Smith or Hubert?


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In the years after Hubert left the show, she continued to eschew any thought of participating in cast reunions, seemingly still angry over her ill-fated time on the popular sitcom, and it’s likely she wasn’t invited to any get-togethers, either. For his part, Smith remained mostly quiet about his past relationship with his TV aunt. Finally, during an interview on British radio station 1Xtra in 2018, Smith made his first attempt at extending an olive branch. “I think as an artist, there’s so many things that she does,” Smith said of Hubert. “She sings, she dances, she’s like a really powerful artist. I loved what she brought to The Fresh Prince.” This cooled the temperature a bit and opened the door for Hubert to participate in 2020’s 30-year Fresh Prince anniversary special on HBO Max. Smith and Hubert sat down for a one-on-one conversation in which they both acknowledged their responsibilities in their acrimonious association. Hubert explained that in the show’s third season, she was pregnant and dealing with an abusive husband, something she never disclosed to the cast or crew. Smith recognized that he could have been more empathetic and understanding of Hubert’s situation.

Janet Hubert Speaks About the Struggles Faced by Black Women in Show Business

But Hubert wasn’t shy about addressing the negative impact Smith’s early comments about her had on her career, and she shed a harsh light on the struggles faced by Black women in show business. “I lost everything – reputation, everything. Everything,” she told Smith. “And I understand you were able to move forward, but those words – calling a Black woman ‘difficult’ in Hollywood is the kiss of death, and it’s difficult enough being a dark-skinned Black woman in this business.” Tatyana Ali, who played Hubert’s daughter Ashley in The Fresh Prince, expressed empathy and support for Hubert’s situation. “In terms of beauty and Black beauty, as a young Black child, I thought she was radiant. I thought the spotlight was on her and that was something that I wasn’t used to seeing…I hope that gives her some comfort, that for the things that she went through, she meant a lot to a lot of people, to young people.”

Smith expressed regret for his words, noting, “The person I wanna be is someone who protects you, not someone that unleashes dogs on you.” Although the damage was done, Hubert and Smith appeared to have forgiven each other and opened a new chapter in their relationship. And in a turn of events virtually no one could see coming, it was Hubert who quickly came to Smith’s defense after the infamous Oscar night slap. On her now-deleted Twitter page, she wrote, “I cannot tell you how many times I have wanted to slap the mess out of so many folks who have disrespected me. Will stood up for his wife, Chris Rock is always disrespecting Black women. Mean spirited hides behind comedy. BULL.” Suffice it to say, Hubert is firmly on Team Smith these days.

What Has Janet Hubert Been Doing Since ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’?The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air original cast

In recent years, Hubert’s acting career has had a resurgence. In addition to playing recurring characters on the daytime dramas One Life to Live and General Hospital, she has appeared in Tyler Perry‘s series, If Loving You is Wrong, and more recently, in Ryan Murphy‘s drama about the 1970s and 80s New York drag scene, Pose. Still, Hubert’s story is a cautionary tale for women in show business — particularly women of color — who dare to be candid, and outspoken, and who wear their emotions on their sleeves. While it can be argued that Hubert may have, to some extent, dug her own hole, she didn’t deserve to be left standing deep inside of it with nary a hand in sight willing to help lift her out. As Smith said to Hubert during their one-on-one, “I could not do a 30-year celebration of this show and not celebrate you…you’re still my Aunt Viv.”

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is available to stream on Hulu and Paramount+ in the U.S.

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