Joining The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air Was A Roll Of The Dice For Alfonso Ribeiro

The connection between "The Cosby Show" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" is easy to make. Both sitcoms were incredibly important for Black representation in American popular culture. In 1984 "The Cosby Show" broke barriers by presenting an upper-middle-class African American family to television audiences like never before. Six years later, "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" upped the ante with a wealthy Black family, living in the affluent Los Angeles neighborhood of Bel Air, taking in their troubled nephew from West Philadelphia. Traditionally, that story would be a white savior narrative (think "Diff'rent Strokes").

So, it's fair to say that "The Cosby Show" paved the way for "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." But the connection between "The Cosby Show" spin-off "A Different World" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" has a more intricate connection, especially for actor Alfonso Ribeiro. For the actor, joining one show would mean missing out on the other.

'A Different World' was his return to televsion

After the success of "The Cosby Show," NBC developed a spin-off sitcom in 1987 where the oldest Huxtable daughter Denise (Lisa Bonet) goes off to college. The series explored life and culture at historically black colleges, taking place at the fictional Hillman College. Like "The Cosby Show," the series pushed the envelope for primetime television. It was the first series depicting life at an HBCU and one of the first to address the issue of Aids/HIV.

Alfonso Ribeiro, who took a break after a 72-episode run on "Silver Spoons," appeared in a 1990 episode of "A Different World." Ready to return to acting full-time, Ribeiro's character, incoming freshman Zach Duncan, was slated to join the show as a series regular the following season. His character was insufferably cocky, yet always the butt of the joke.

Ribeiro, an established entertainer since the age of 12 when he began performing in the Tony Award-Winning music, "The Tap Dance Kid," had another big opportunity in front of him: A supporting cast member in a popular sitcom that was radically telling Black stories in primetime.

And then, a new show called "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" came along.

Despite the promise of joining "A Different World" as a regular, Ribeiro auditioned for the role of the smug, preppy Carlton Banks on NBC's new show starring rapper Will Smith. When offered the part, the actor had to choose between an established program or a risky new series.

Ribeiro had a backup plan

Facing a crossroads in his young career, Ribeiro tried to hedge his bets while opting to join the unproven show "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." The actor told The Ringer:

"In the back of my mind, I always felt like if this thing doesn't go anywhere, it may not be too late to actually come back on 'A Different World.' So it felt like I was kind of leaving myself the best possibility. And as soon as we got on set, we all knew there was something special there."

Ribeiro made the right choice. By its second season, "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" was NBC's second-highest-rated show. The shorter Ribeiro was a natural playing opposite the street-smart Will Smith, both in physical stature and demeanor.

In 2018, Ribeiro told Larry King, "For some reason, this [Carlton Banks] character just connected for me. I just, I knew who this guy was."

Ribeiro gave Carlton Banks depth. If you look beyond the iconic "Carlton Dance," you'll find a character wrestling with being Black and wealthy throughout the series. His struggle was highlighted in season 4 when Carlton's Blackness is questioned while pledging a Black fraternity.

Today, Ribeiro is one of Hollywood's most versatile entertainers. In addition to acting, he's hosted ABC's "America's Funniest Home Videos" since 2015. He won season 19 of "Dancing with the Stars" (with partner Witney Carson) and was named the show's co-host last year alongside Tyra Banks. Ribeiro is also accomplished behind the camera, directing several movies and TV shows.

There's no denying Ribeiro's talent and taking a chance on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" also showed his wisdom at a young age. The Carlton Banks character was integral to a show that gave U.S. audiences an entirely new perspective on Black culture.