The blessings and curses of being Carlton Banks 4 years ago

The blessings and curses of being Carlton Banks

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air remains one of the most iconic and best-loved shows from the 1990s.

Though Will Smith was the star of the show, the Banks family home housed many beloved characters: Uncle Phil, Aunt Vivian, sisters Hilary and Ashley, Geoffrey the long-suffering butler, and a preppy but ambitious young man named Carlton, played by Alfonso Ribeiro.

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It's been over two decades since the show ended, but 20 years later we still love Fresh Prince. It's just returned to British TV screens on Comedy Central, but what is it about this show that keeps us coming back for more?

"That is the question of the ages," says Alfonso.

"I really don't know why people still love it so much, but if I was to take a guess at it, I think it’s because it's one of the last true, funny, family sitcoms that was ever made."

Indeed, Fresh Prince was all these things and more. The show talked about issues with a candour rarely seen on family television, looking at race, sex and class. And funny? If you didn't laugh every time Uncle Phil threw Jazz out of the house, there was something wrong with you.

But alongside the hijinks and chasing after girls, there were real moments of tenderness, and real tears.

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No one could forget the heartbreaking moment when Will's dad abandons him for a second time; the words "How come he don't want me, man?" still bring a lump to the throat, even in isolation on a YouTube clip.

The relationship between Carlton and Will was often the foundation of these key moments in the series, like Carlton accidentally taking speed or when Will got shot. Though the first word you might associate with Carlton would probably be "dance", he was both the foil and foundation on Fresh Prince.

"I actually feel like the love for Carlton is because Carlton was a truly three-dimensional character," Alfonso says.

"People fell in love with certain aspects of the character and things the character did, but I felt like I was probably playing the most three-dimensional character on the show. Four-dimensional, in a lot of ways.

"The dancing is something that people fell in love with a lot later."

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In the age of the meme and looping GIFs, Carlton has taken on a new lease of life. He's on posters, t-shirts, hats, pendants - if you can buy it on Etsy, there's a Carlton version of it.

But characters are not just pieces of fiction - that's Alfonso's face on all that (presumably unlicensed) merchandise. Lots of actors become typecast or known for a specific role, but Carlton has a kind of kitsch value that, say, Niles Crane from Fraiser doesn't.

When a character has that kind of quality, people start to take ownership of it, and that can be a problem.

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"When you play a character that people connect to the way that they did with Carlton, people in this day and age can't separate the two," Alfonso says. "They can't separate the fact that they're watching a character on TV from reality."

"Reality TV has become such that people really can't separate. They think that everything they see on TV is real now, even when it’s clear that it's not."

Creating a character like Carlton is an all-in experience. Alfonso is right when he says that Carlton is one of the most well-rounded characters on Fresh Prince: you might not have a Carlton in your circle of friends, but you can absolutely believe that he's a real person.

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But Alfonso is not Carlton, not even remotely. Growing up in the Bronx, New York City, then heading out to graft as an actor in California is a far cry from Carlton's pampered life in Bel-Air. Not only is Alfonso not Carlton, he wouldn't even want to hang out with him.

"Carlton wouldn't be one of my friends," he says. "I don't relate to him and nor would I. Our lives are incredibly different.

"My life is in show business, his life would have been as a lawyer. I don't have any lawyer friends, so why would that character be someone that I would get along with better than any other lawyer?"

But is he still able to love the character of Carlton, despite their differences?

"The question would be: have I ever loved the character?" Alfonso says.

"I loved playing the character because it was so complete and so different from me. Being able to dive into the creation of anything is wonderful, so my love was playing the character, not being the character."

Photo: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Though it was a little disheartening to hear that Alfonso had no love for Carlton, you couldn't blame him for wanting to keep a distance between himself and the character.

He's made public appearances at nightclubs, performing Carlton's dance for crowds of drunk students. In 2013 he went into the jungle on I'm a Celebrity, and he wasn't too fond of it. "There is literally absolutely nothing that they could do or say that would ever get me back in that jungle," Alfonso tells me.

Of course, the dance made an appearance there, as it did in 2014 on Dancing with the Stars. Alfonso is tremendously good-natured about it all, and while he's right that Carlton was a full and important character, it's the dance that seems to follow him around.

It's not called the Carlton Dance for nothing.

"At the end of the day, playing Carlton was a blessing and a curse all at the same time," Alfonso admits.

"The blessing is that I got to play an amazing character that changed my life - that I can appreciate. The curse that is that obviously it stopped me from being able to play characters that I would have loved to in my career."

So what do you do if you can't play a character? You play yourself. Alfonso has transitioned from acting into hosting, presenting America's Funniest Home Videos, a gig he got off the back of winning Dancing with the Stars, and from other interviews with him, it's clearly a job he enjoys.

Now, if you go back and look at the video of Alfonso incorporating the Carlton into a spectacular dance on DWTS, one of the judges' comments stands out: "I think that not only did you separate yourself from Carlton tonight... people are gonna remember Alfonso."

We'll always have Carlton, but Alfonso is his own man.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is on Comedy Central weekdays from 3pm.