Will Smith Shocked ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ Uncle Phil Actor James Avery With His Hidden Talent

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air showed that Will Smith was more than just a rapper. Not only did he lead the hit comedy series, but also showed some dramatic chops in some very special episodes. Smith said his co-stars were impressed by his breadth of talents, especially Uncle Phil actor James Avery.

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

Smith wrote about The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in his new autobiography, Will. It was filming the pilot episode of the NBC sitcom when Smith unleashed a hidden talent, and Avery was “stunned.”

Will Smith improvised this moment in the ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ pilot

The pilot for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air establishes the premise of the show. After the theme song explained Will (Smith)’s move to Bel-Air, California, the episode introduces Will to the Banks family. It’s a culture clash with Will showing contempt for their wealth and privilege, and his cousins at least aghast by Will’s street-wise nature. Uncle Phil, in particular, lectures Will on his superficial knowledge of Malcolm X. It’s a poignant moment, and then Smith did his own thing. 

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“One of the more famous moments on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the final scene of the pilot, where after an argument with Uncle Phil, he leaves the room and I sit down on the piano bench,” he wrote. “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. But when I sat down, I faced the piano and began playing Mom-Mom’s favorite, Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.” 

James Avery couldn’t believe ‘The Fresh Prince’

In the HBO Max Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reunion, Smith would talk about how much he learned from Avery. It was Smith’s first acting job outside of music videos and a small role in an afterschool special. Avery even got Smith where he needed to be in the episode where Will’s father (Ben Vereen) abandons him yet again. However, in that moment, it was Avery who couldn’t believe Smith had such talents. 

“James Avery, stunned, stepped back around the corner,” he wrote. “The set went silent as everyone realized this show was about to be special. The whole point of the scene had been to never judge a book by its cover. The producers were so inspired by this improvisational moment that they kept it, and it became the defining thematic premise of the entire series.”

How Will Smith learned to play the piano

Will tells Smith’s story from childhood to the present. Smith writes about tumultuous times with his parents, when his alcoholic father was abusive to his mother. He also credits his father with providing for the family and teaching his kids a work ethic. Will covers Smith’s rap career with DJ Jazzy Jeff and his love life, including emotional and vulnerable times. Then it gets into The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and his movie career. So, early in his musical life, Smith’s mother took him to piano lessons.

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“Both my parents encouraged music as well,” he wrote. “We all took piano lessons as kids because Mom-Mom played. My brother, Harry, blew a saxophone badly for a while, and I took drum lessons briefly in middle school, including a thankfully forgettable stint abusing a snare in the Our Lady of Lourdes marching band. But the piano was the only instrument that actually liked me.”