The Banks Family
The character of Will Smith, loosely based upon Smith’s own adolescent persona, is something of a scheming womanizer, constantly plotting schemes that will get him more money, more women, or, sometimes, both. Having grown up in the inner city of West Philadelphia, Will is unaccustomed to and especially in the early seasons even looks down on the Banks family’s high-class style of life, a situation which provides much of the show’s humor.
The character of Philip Banks (Uncle Phil) was portrayed by James Avery. At the beginning of the series, Philip was a lawyer with the firm of Firth, Wynn and Meyer, but in the third season was appointed a judge after the senile incumbent Judge Robertson (portrayed recurringly by Sherman Hemsley), against whom Philip had earlier run an unsuccessful campaign, died. He later considered making a stronger foray into politics, but because his wife disapproved, he decided against it. Philip is a somewhat strict and gruff man, but also upstanding. Philip was raised on the farm, and in the 70s became an activist for the civil rights movement.
The character of Vivian Banks (Aunt Viv) was portrayed by Janet Hubert-Whitten from 1990 to 1993, and by Daphne Reid from 1993 to 1996. She was a professor of Black History and Black Literature at an undisclosed university, and in one early episode took a job as a temporary teacher for a unit in Black History of Will and Carlton’s history class at predominantly white Bel-Air Academy, a fictional upscale preparatory high school.
The character of Hilary Banks (Hil), Will’s ditzy, stuck-up, spoiled eldest cousin, was portrayed by Karyn Parsons. In earlier seasons, Hilary’s snobbishness was emphasized. Hilary often claimed to hobnob with celebrities. During the series, she attended and then dropped out of UCLA, and became a weather reporter at a local TV station, where she met and fell in love with news anchor Trevor Newsworthy (referred to as Trevor Collins in earlier episodes). However, he died while proposing to Hilary in a bungee accident, as part of an ill-conceived, live publicity stunt. Toward the end of the series, she hosted her own talk show, called Hilary!
The character of Carlton Banks, Will’s pedantic and preppy cousin, was portrayed by Alfonso Ribeiro. Carlton was a firmly conservative Republican, and often proved both friend and foe for Will. In earlier seasons, Carlton sought to lose his virginity, and also planned to attend Princeton (Philip’s alma mater). In later seasons, these arcs were both resolved: Carlton did indeed lose his virginity, but was not initially admitted to Princeton. He instead first attended the (fictional) University of Los Angeles, where he briefly managed ULA’s student store, the Peacock. However, in the 6th and last season, he finally gained transfer admission to Princeton, and leaves for the East Coast in the series finale.
The character of Ashley Banks, Will’s youngest cousin, was portrayed by Tatyana Ali. She matured through puberty in the series, and became a one-hit wonder as a singer in her later teens. She also briefly strove to become a fashion model. In the final season she decides to attend a performing arts school in New York, and in the series finale leaves for the East Coast along with the rest of the Banks.
The character of Nicky (Nicholas) Banks was born in early 1993, towards the end of the 3rd season. However, as is common in TV series and especially soap operas, he grew from a newborn infant to a pre-schooler between seasons, confusing several characters when the reasons for this are questioned. After this “spurt”, beginning in the 5th season, he was portrayed by Ross Bagley.
The character of Geoffrey Butler, the Banks family’s British butler, was portrayed by Joseph Marcell. He was an Olympic runner several years before being hired by the Banks family, but fled his home country of the United Kingdom in shame after cheating in a race. He perennially referred to Will as “Master William”, and was the voice of caustic humor on the show, often focusing on Philip’s weight, his low pay, very short comic one-liners, or the laziness of the family. He left to be with his son Frederick in London in the series finale.
The character of Jazz was portrayed by Will Smith’s musical partner, Jeffrey A. Townes, popularly known as D.J. Jazzy Jeff. Jazz was Will’s not-so-bright best friend who lived in the inner-city community of Compton. He had a crush on Hilary, but then married a prison inmate who had appeared on the TV show COPS. Shortly after, he divorced her, after realizing he knew nothing about her. A common gag was that Jazz would offend Philip or get on his nerves, and Philip would literally throw him out of the house. There were instances in the series where Jazz and Hillary would fall in love.
Vy (Viola) Smith was Will’s mother, Vivian’s older sister. It was her idea that Will should go to Bel-Air so he can have a decent education instead of studying in Philadephia. She was portrayed recurringly by Vernee Watson-Johnson.
Helen, portrayed by Jenifer Lewis, was Vivian’s loudmouthed older sister. She had frequent marriage problems with her husband, Lester.
Lisa Wilkes, portrayed by Nia Long, was introduced in later seasons as the girlfriend who tamed Will into forsaking his womanizing ways. The two fell deeply in love and were engaged to be married, going so far as the ceremonies twice but never actually tying the knot. The first time, they eloped to Las Vegas to do a Shaft-themed wedding, but they held up the ceremony after they realized how much they wanted their families there. The second time, Lisa left Will at the altar just before they were about to say “I do” in front of all their friends and family, since she was having doubts. (She was never seen again.) Lisa’s father was memorably played by veteran actor John Amos. When Lisa and Will cut their second wedding short, he and Will’s mother decided not to let the ceremony go to waste; they got married right then and there.
Jackie Ames was portrayed by Tyra Banks in the fourth season. As the manager of The Peacock, she was the object of Will’s affection and frequent come-ons, but she continually spurned his advances, deeming him too immature. They were old childhood friends from Philadelphia, except she felt Will hadn’t grown up since those days.
Kellog “Cornflake” Lieberbaum
Kellog Lieberbaum was portrayed by Michael Weiner in the first, second, and third seasons. Kellog is a prep at Bel-Air Acadamy. He is nicknamed “Cornflake” by Will. Kellog often confuses himself with being black.
Other recurring characters in the early episodes include Will’s friend Tyriq, portrayed by Perry Moore; and Bel-Air Academy coach/history teacher Coach Smiley, portrayed by Dave Florek.
Celebrity Guest Appearances
The show had many guest appearances by celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump, Vanessa Williams, Naomi Campbell, Quincy Jones, Evander Holyfield, William Shatner, Tom Jones, Wayne Newton, Bo Jackson, Boyz II Men, Jasmine Guy, Ken Griffey, Jr., Chris Rock, Malcolm Jamal-Warner, and Zsa Zsa Gabor.