This ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ Pilot Scene Was Improvised By Will Smith

Will Smith is one of the world’s biggest stars, a rapper, producer, and actor who has been at the forefront of popular culture for several decades. Fans all over the world love Smith and his outgoing, relaxed personality, and these days, he’s still one of the most popular actors in Hollywood. Smith got his start in music before eventually transitioning to a career in acting, and most of his fans know that he first received critical acclaim in the classic ’90s sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Will Smith first ventured into acting in ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’

In the late ’80s, Smith experienced his first brush with success, releasing rap songs under the name the Fresh Prince. However, it was when Smith began starring in the TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that his fortunes really changed. The series debuted on television in 1990 and told the story of a young street-smart teenager named Will Smith who is sent to move with his wealthy aunt and uncle in Bel-Air, California.

Right away, Will’s personality and experiences clash with those of his wealthy relatives, and there are a lot of growing pains before the young man is able to fully adjust to his new situation. The character of Will was loosely based on Smith himself, and many of the elements of the show were taken from Smith’s own adolescence.

What was the pilot episode of ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ about?

James Avery talks to Will Smith in 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air'
L-R: James Avery and Will Smith | Alice S. Hall/NBCU Photo Bank

While The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air became a hit, it certainly didn’t become one overnight. The show featured a pilot episode that aired in 1990, an episode that was intended to gauge public interest in the series and introduce viewers to the characters and storyline. The pilot centered entirely on young Will Smith, who leaves his hometown in West Philadelphia to live with Uncle Phil, Aunt Viv, and his three cousins in their Bel-Air mansion. 

Throughout the episode, Will’s relatives find constant fault with his manners, the way he dresses, the way he conducts himself, and his use of slang words. At one point, at the very end of the episode, Uncle Phil chastises Will for making a “spectacle” of himself, dismissing his nephew’s attempts to explain a little bit more about himself. However, right after Uncle Phil takes Will to task, telling him “Before you criticize somebody, you find out what he’s all about,” the older man leaves the room. Will sits down at the piano and begins playing a classic Beethoven tune, which causes Uncle Phil to look back in the room, smiling as he realizes the depth of his nephew’s soul and talent.

What special moment in the pilot episode did Will Smith improvise?


Will Smith Regrets His Treatment of ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ Co-star Janet Hubert: ‘I Wasn’t Sensitive’

According to Insider, Smith actually improvised that special moment with the piano in the pilot episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. In his memoir, Smith detailed how producers originally wanted him to sit at the bench and stare into space with a pensive look on his face. “The producers had originally planned on me sitting with my back to the piano so they could push the camera in on my face as I pondered the profundity of Uncle Phil’s closing words,” Smith detailed. “But when I sat down, I faced the piano, and began playing Mom-Mom’s favorite, Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise.'”

The improvised moment “stunned” producers, and they decided to keep the scene in the pilot episode. Ultimately, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air would run on television for six years, becoming one of the biggest shows on television at that time and teaching a whole new generation not to judge a book by its cover.