Janet Hubert Admits Decades-Long Feud With Will Smith Felt Like ‘Being In Prison For 27 Years’

The actress who originally played Aunt Viv on ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ reveals what it feels like to finally end her bitter war of words with her TV nephew.

Janet Hubert, Will Smith, James Avery
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Image Credit: NBC Studios/The Everett Collection

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For nearly three decades Janet Hubert, 64, has been trying to salvage her reputation. Now, after HBO Max premiered its Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reunion special, she feels like a wrongfully convicted murderer who has finally succeeded in convincing the world that she’s innocent. Since it started streaming on Nov. 19, fans have watched as Janet hugged and shed tears with her former on-screen nephew, Will Smith, finally putting to bed a lengthy, bitter feud.

“People keep asking, ‘How do you feel?’” Janet says. “And I [say], ‘Like a person who’s been in prison for 27 years, who knew they didn’t rob the bank; who knew they didn’t kill or murder that person and everybody has accused you.’”

Will Smith, Janet Hubert
Will Smith and Janet Hubert delighted fans by reconciling on HBO Max’s ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ reunion special. (AP/Splash News)

It gets better. Not only does Janet feel a sense of peace, the reconciliation that she and Will, 52, had in front of the camera wasn’t just for show. Since they reconnected back in September the actress says they’ve remained in contact.

“Will and I have been corresponding and texting back and forth. It’s just wonderful to have this weight, this albatross from around my neck that was only put there by the media, the cast, talk show hosts,” she tells HollywoodLife EXCLUSIVELY.

Janet has good reason to be upset, to “despise fame.” When The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air burst on to the scene in 1990 it was a huge hit. While it turned a young rapper from Philly into a bankable, Oscar-nominated Hollywood star, it brought Janet – an acclaimed Broadway actress – worldwide exposure and legions of fans. As Will’s on-screen Aunt Viv, she was poised and elegant, boasted a perfect bone structure, quick wit and a sharp tongue. She didn’t suffer fools and could slay her enemies with a cold glare.

But she was fun too. The fictional college professor who lived in Bel-Air with her lawyer husband and their three children, could get down with the best of them and was willing to whip off her earrings to fight if she had to.

Fresh Prince of Bel Air cast
The original ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ cast, including Janet Hubert and Will Smith. (NBC Studios/The Everett Collection)

Then, she was gone. From Season 4 onwards, actress Daphne Maxwell Reid took on the role. “The misconception of me was that I was haughty, difficult, wanted to be the star of the show,” Janet said on the reunion special. That bad reputation haunted her and she lost everything, including her home.

The truth, Janet says, was far different. In reality, she said on the HBO Max reunion, she’d only been offered a 10-week contract that prohibited her from working for anyone else. It was a deal that she couldn’t afford to take. She also said that she was “banished” to her dressing room between takes because she didn’t laugh at Will’s jokes. For his part, on the reunion special he seemed stunned to find out that, pregnant and in an unhappy marriage, she was facing her own challenges. Laughing and joking on set was not at the forefront of her mind.

Janet Hubert, Daphne Maxwell Reid
When Janet Hubert left the show, Daphne Maxwell Reid (right) took on the role of Aunt Viv. (NBC Studios/The Everett Collection)

But the myth of Janet being difficult to work with persisted until very recently and it was this that partly prompted her to set the wheels in motion that led to the reconciliation. During an August 2020 interview on the Hip Hop Uncensored podcast, Joseph Marcell (who played Geoffrey, the British butler on the show) said that, while he “respected” Janet, she struggled to accept that Will was the sitcom’s star. “I feel that perhaps Janet was not able to deal with that,” he said.

“[That] really put me in hell,” Janet says of the interview, “and I was trying to understand why he did it.” Around the same time she found out about the HBO Max special. She wrote to the network and to Red Table Talk, the Facebook Watch show that Will’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith, daughter Willow and mother-in-law Adrienne Banfield-Norris co-host. The actress had a challenge.

“I said, ‘Either you sit down with me and the cast sit down with me and we clear this, because only you and I, Will, know what really happened… or shut up for the rest of your life about it because I’m tired of it and I’m not going to serve…another 30-year sentence for something that I did not do.’”

To her surprise Will and his team actually wanted her on the reunion special. Within a day of getting that information Janet was on a plane from her home in New Jersey to film the reunion in Los Angeles.

Janet Hubert
Janet tweeted about the reunion show after it premiered on HBO Max on Nov. 19. (Twitter)

Looking back on their feud Janet believes that “a lot of misunderstanding” was created by she and Will not “being able to sit down and talk honestly.” “Power can really make you, sometimes close your ears,” she says. “All one thinks about when one has power over everyone’s life is maybe themselves. And he owned that and I respect that, highly.”

In a bittersweet twist the reunion that was 27 years in the making could have happened back in 2009 when Janet says she reached out to Will to make peace. It was a message he said was not passed on to him. This year, however, the time was right.

“He’s a different person and I’m a different person and I want healing,” Janet says. “It’s 2020 and after the evils of President Donald Trump, four years of that, and COVID, I don’t want this ugly in my life anymore.” Or, as she put it at the end of a Nov. 19 tweet after the show premiered, “Life is too short.”

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