Will Smith recalls Fresh Prince cast ‘went silent’ as he played Beethoven on piano in improvised scene

12 November 2021, 17:19 | Updated: 30 November 2021, 13:40

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air classic scene

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

Will Smith looks back at the off-script scene where he surprised the pilot cast of Fresh Prince by performing Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’ on piano.

In the pilot episode of the 90s American sitcom television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Will Smith performs Beethoven’s Für Elise on the piano for his onscreen Uncle Phil, played by James Avery.

The iconic scene is a fan-favourite, but until now, not many people knew that this scene was completely improvised.

In chapter three of Will Smith’s self-titled memoir, he reveals that he went against the crew’s directions for the original episode ending.

“The producers had originally planned on me sitting with my back to the piano so they could push the camera in on my face as I pondered the profundity of Uncle Phil's closing words,” writes Smith. “But when I sat down, I faced the piano, and began playing Mom-Mom’s favorite, Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’.”

Read more: Will Smith sings ‘Prince Ali’ in this new clip from Aladdin – here’s the musical analysis

James Avery and Will Smith on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
James Avery and Will Smith on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Picture: Alamy

The tense scene begins with Smith’s character exchanging tense words with Uncle Phil, as Smith accuses his uncle of forgetting his roots and where he comes from.

Phil replies, “Before you criticise somebody, you find out what he’s all about”, and ends the conversation by leaving Smith alone in the room after he refuses to listen to Smith’s side of story, therefore not taking his own advice.

When Smith starts playing the piano after his uncle has left, Phil returns to the doorway, unbeknownst to Smith’s character.

He watches on in subdued shock for a few moments, as he realises he may have misjudged Smith, and taps his hand thoughtfully against the doorframe as if he’s going to say something, before leaving once again.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ran from 1990-1996
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ran from 1990-1996. Picture: Getty

Prior to the scene, Smith says that no one in the cast knew that the actor had previously had piano lessons. So when he started playing, “the set went silent as everyone realized this show was about to be special”.

Smith recalls: “The point of the scene had been to never judge a book by its cover. The producers were so inspired by this improvisational moment that they kept it, and it became the defining thematic premise of the entire series.”

And fans are in agreement with this inspirational moment. One commenter on an upload of the scene to YouTube remarks, “I love the ending of this scene. Uncle Phil sees potential in Will and misjudged him like he told Will not to.”

To find out that this heartfelt ending is completely improvised is just one of the reasons the show remains a beloved fan-favourite, and it’s easy to see how the show quickly became America’s highest-rated new sitcom in its first season.