“First things first, rest in peace Uncle Phil.”
That opening bar from J.Cole’s “No Role Modelz” also kicks off the pilot for Bel-Air, the buzzy new Fresh Prince of Bel-Airreboot that puts a dramatic spin on the beloved ’90s sitcom, giving you an idea of the reverence the gritty new reimagining has for its source material.
“We put [the song] in the show as well, in the pilot. The very opening, when Will wakes up. ‘First things first…,’ and then he wakes up,” says Adrian Holmes, who’s tasked with one of Bel-Air’s tallest orders: taking over the late James Avery’s role as Uncle Phil, the tough but lovable Banks patriarch.
“We're all fans of the show just as much as you and the rest of the world. So going into this, we wanted to make sure that we didn't drop the ball,” the Welsh-Canadian actor tells Complex Canada, saying that if Avery were still alive, he hopes he’d be happy with what the Bel-Air team has produced. “Shout out to Morgan Cooper. He’s the man behind this whole thing,” says Holmes, who grew up in Vancouver watching the original series. “He actually made playlists for us, for our characters, different playlists that we could listen to and just get into the emotion, into the vibe of the characters.”
After Cooper’s fan-made trailer upcycling Fresh Prince’s sitcom-friendly concept—a West Philly kid gets shipped off to live with his uber-rich Bel-Air relatives—into a dark indie drama went viral back in 2019, it caught the attention of the Fresh Prince himself, Will Smith, who called the reimagining “brilliant” and expressed interest in developing the idea into a full-fledged reboot. The resulting hour-long drama was immediately picked up for a two-season order and premiered this past February to strong reviews.
While Bel-Air uses Will’s fish-out-of-water story as its starting point, spinning that into a gritty modern-day drama allows the series to tackle issues of race and class the lighthearted ‘90s network sitcom version could only dance around back in the day. “It’s a whole new world,” promises Holmes, saying his goal was to channel the spirit of Avery’s performance while bringing his own experiences to the iconic role.
“When you're in the moment, you can't be thinking about, ‘OK, what would James Avery do?’ ” he explains. “You just got to go in there and have fun and trust your instincts, trust yourself, and be truthful and honest in the moment.”
“That's why James Avery was so amazing in that role. And all the other actors in the original series… They brought parts of themselves to the characters. And that's what we've all done on this show as well.”
Still, for everything else the original Fresh Prince had going for it—Smith’s star-making performance, that instant-classic theme song, Alfonso Ribeiro’s dance moves—Avery’s Uncle Phil deserves a spot front-and-centre on the Mount Rushmore of TV father figures, and Holmes is well aware of the weight that carries.
“We need positive Black characters on screen, role models, characters that are inspiring and aspiring,” he says, calling Uncle Phil an “anchor” for the show. “That comes with a lot of responsibility, and I'm just grateful to be given the assignment.”
Complex Canada’s Alex Narvaez spoke to Holmes about that responsibility, paying tribute to Avery, and coming up in Vancouver’s film/TV industry. See their full conversation above.
Bel-Air airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on STACKTV and Showcase.