Question: Do you remember where you were on May 9, 1994? Well if you don’t, it’s OK because thankfully through the magic of videotape and YouTube, you can be reminded where you should’ve been and where you can be at any moment to stamp the exact time when Will Smith, on the set of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, officially became an actor.
The episode, of course, is the extremely emotional “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse,” where Ben Vereen guest stars as Will’s long-estranged father Lou, showing up at Will’s college job in an attempt to get to know his now-grown son. As you’ll recall, Uncle Phil (the late, great James Avery) wasn’t having it, essentially telling Lou to beat it. The deadbeat dad swears he’ll be around for the long haul (pun intended), annnnnnnnd of course he’s not. He leaves again, but not before an epic master class of a performance by Avery, berating Lou for not being there for his son. Vereen, who was admittedly more of a star of stage at this point in his career, will forever be known for his very Tyler Perry play-like responses: “You-you-you the man!” “You think I want this? It. Just. Happennned.” Pure unintentional comedy.
And then the last scene, after Lou bolts, where Will, for the first time on the show (and maybe forever) shows a vulnerability that would help him eventually become an Oscar-nominated actor. About the scene, Smith said on the Rap Radar podcast that Avery was “relentlessly on me to elevate,” adding that the veteran actor wouldn’t give him an inch. “Everything I said, everything I did for James Avery was like nope, not good enough.” He demanded “absolute committed perfection,” according to Smith.
So when it was time to shoot the scene, Smith recalls messing up the lines “because I wanted it so bad,” Avery calmed him down, saying “It’s already in there, you know what it is. Look at me, use me. Don’t act around me, act with me.” The rest, as they say, is history. A history that turns 25 years old today.