Daphne Maxwell Reid won the part and ended up portraying the loving yet hysterical Aunt Vivian for the remainder of the show’s run, alongside Will Smith and James Avery.
Although Reid joined the cast of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” in its third season, this was not the first time that she had been sought out to play the role of Aunt Vivian.
“I remember back in 1989 when we first decided to leave California, I was asked to audition for a little television sitcom with a rapper. And I said, ‘I’m really not interested in doing a sitcom with a rapper who’s not an actor.’ And it turned out to be “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and when I saw it on the air that fall, I said, ‘Oh, this is a cute show. I guess I missed that opportunity,’ ” Reid said. She luckily reacted differently the second time the role was available.
“Three years later, they called and said, ‘We are casting the Aunt Vivian part for ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,’ and I got there as fast as I could. I had to audition against 200…300 other women that they found all over the country. And had the blessed, blessedness to meet James Avery and strike a chemical cord with him. I just adore the man and I guess our chemistry worked because I got the job.”
During those three years on the show, Reid truly connected with her co-star, the late James Avery. The cast recently had a reunion special on HBOMax and Reid explained how much it felt like she was working with family on that particular show. “We just had such a wonderful, warm relationship with everybody on that show that they really are family to us now. And since we lost James, it was a blow to all of us,” she said. “But he and his wife and my husband and I used to travel together. We would have a hoot. You only have a few of those relationships in show business because it’s difficult to connect with people when they move on. But when you move on with them and when you really secure a friendship while you’re working, then they’re very valuable friendships.”
Reid said she viewed her taking over the role of Aunt Vivian midway through the show’s run as nothing more than business. “I did not feel anything about ‘replacing‘ the original Aunt Viv. All actors are ‘replaceable’ according to the choices of the creators and producers of the project. I was delighted to have a job on such a wonderful show. I had to earn my spot, and was thrilled when it came to be. When we all reunited last fall, I was grateful to finally meet Janet. She belonged in our reunion as much as I did, and I was happy that whatever transpired before I was hired, of which I had no knowledge, had been dealt with, and life moved on.”
Avery and Reid were well-respected members of the cast and were valued by the writers of the show, too. “We had the permission to give our cultural perspective on how black families raised children and it was something new to television and well done; I think.”
When discussing one of the most popular episodes of the show’s run, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse,” that aired in season four of the show, Reid recalled a very teachable moment that she witnessed between Will Smith and James Avery. “My favorite episode. It makes me cry every time I see it…[Will] didn’t know how he was going to deliver his lines. And he wasn’t pleased on the first couple of shots at it. And James Avery grabbed him and told him something and he delivered that line and fell into James’ arms. And all I know is James said, ‘Now that’s acting.’ ”
Reid and Avery played the patriarchs on the show and in real life. Reid said that even off-camera they mentored the younger actors. “It was wonderful because we had had conversations with Will about commitment to what he was portraying when he did ‘Six Degrees of Separation.’ We sat him down on the couch and said, ‘You know, you didn’t commit.’ And he said, ‘I know. I was afraid of the guys in the neighborhood. You know, thinking I was gay.’ And I said, ‘Then don’t take the part.’ And he understood what committing to the role was and learned and was just able to understand how to commit in acting… What I am really pleased with is watching [him] bloom because he had such an energy that he brought to that show and such a kind of thirst for learning that it was wonderful to be the elder with James Avery…and share our experiences with the young folks, who we’re watching as we would watch our own children just bloom and fly.”
Once “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” ended its run, Reid and her husband decided to build their own production company. “We built New Millennium Studios on a 54-acre lot and started producing content and television shows for Showtime and doing our own movies…Hosting people like Steven Spielberg, who came and shot some of ‘Lincoln’ there and doing lots of things like that. And we did that for about 15…16 years.”
Reid has been in the entertainment industry for well over 40 years. She is most known for starring in shows like “Simon & Simon,” and along with her husband, in “Frank’s Place” and “Snoops.” She continues to work and her upcoming projects include: “The Business of Christmas 2,” “The Trophy Wife” and “The Jazz Man’s Blues.”