‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’: Why NBC Executives Repeatedly Tried to Fire Will Smith

If you ask someone today what they most remember about the 1990s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, they will almost undoubtedly list the main character, Will, and the fact that he was played by Hollywood superstar Will Smith. The Fresh Prince himself was new to the entertainment scene at the time.

While today it’s difficult to imagine the show without Smith at the helm, not everyone was convinced that he was right for the part. In fact, the executives at The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air‘s home network NBC tried to give Smith the ax several times as the show was underway. 

‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ was a breakthrough role for Will Smith 

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Like the character he portrayed, Will Smith was born in Philadelphia. He earned the nickname “Prince” from a high school teacher who saw Smith carry himself with regal grace and smoothly talk his way out of many situations. The “Fresh” part of his nickname was just typical slang for the time. He and DJ Jazzy Jeff formed a rap duo, and adding the moniker — which meant “cool” — helped his name be more street worthy. 

According to IMDb, Smith even got to choose the name of the character he would portray on the show, and he chose with his future fame in mind. Alfonso Ribeiro, who played Will’s cousin Carlton, was savvy enough to recognize that whatever name Smith — a newcomer to the television scene — chose for the show would likely become the way fans recognized him.

With this advice in mind, Smith chose to name the character on the show “Will Smith.” The on-screen Will was short for William while Smith’s own name is short for Willard, but the goal was achieved. From that point forward, fans definitely recognized Smith by his name. 

Will Smith was in financial trouble when he took the role

Smith had a tremendous break with his performance in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The groundbreaking show first aired in 1990 and ran for a respectable six seasons, bringing plenty of laughs alongside some serious exploration of themes as heavy as racism and classism. The show’s themes continue to resonate with viewers today.

Smith has gone on to become a Hollywood megastar, and his achievements include dozens of film credits ranging from silly comedies like Hitch to serious dramas like The Pursuit of Happyness and classic action flicks like Independence Day. He even got to succeed Robin Williams in one of his most iconic roles by playing the genie in the live-action version of Aladdin

With that kind of success under his belt today, it’s hard to imagine Smith as the struggling startup rapper he was when he took the part on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. In fact, Smith took the part primarily to deal with his debt

Smith had seen some success as a rapper, but he had failed to pay taxes on the money he’d earned. All told, he owed a whopping $2.8 million in back taxes. The IRS took 70% of his paycheck from appearing on the show for the first three years that it was in production. 

NBC Executives wanted to fire Will Smith 

Will Smith in 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air'
Will Smith in ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ | Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank

NBC had a completely different rap group in mind when they created the concept for the show — Kid ‘n Play. The pair weren’t interested because they were harboring a grudge over NBC canceling their cartoon series, so the creators sought out a different set of rappers to take their place. 

Smith, however, proved to be a problem for the executives. He had no acting experience, and he struggled to memorize his lines. In fact, he’d memorize everyone else’s lines to help him with his own, and he can be seen mouthing along with them in early episodes of the show.

The executives wanted Smith gone — and even Ribeiro was briefly fired after the pilot before getting his role as Carlton back. The producers, however, knew that they had something special and argued on Smith’s behalf. As we now know, his acting abilities improved considerably.