William "Will" Smith (played by Will Smith) was born on July 3, 1973 in West Philadelphia. He often has spats with his cousin Carlton, whom he sees as not quite "black." Despite their differences, Will grows extremely close to the Banks family, even turning down his mother when she offers to let him move back in with her again in Philly.
During one of Will's trips back to his old neighborhood, he confronts the old park bully, Omar (depicted spinning Will over his head in the opening credits), to restore his damaged reputation. When Will challenges him, he is startled when a reformed Omar refuses to fight. Omar misses Will, and through him Will gradually realizes that his reputation is not important, and returns to Bel-Air. At the conclusion of the story's run, he remains in Los Angeles to finish up his last year of college.
Judge Philip Banks (played by James Avery) was born on January 30, 1946 in Yamacraw, North Carolina. Phillip was raised on a farm where he was referred to by his parents (Hattie and Joe Banks) as "Zeke." He moved to Baltimore at age 16, went to Princeton University on a scholarship, and in the 1960s, became an activist for the civil rights movement. He was present at the riots in Selma in 1965 and Watts Riots, and in the pilot episode also mentions he had heard Malcolm X speak. In 1963, he was awarded a scholarship to study at Princeton University, after which he went to Harvard Law School. In 1975, Philip was put on the board of the NAACP and was later awarded the Urban Spirit Award for his work in promoting civil rights. At the beginning of the series, Philip is a lawyer with the firm of Firth, Wynn and Meyer, but in the third season is appointed to the judiciary; he becomes judge after his ex-mentor, Judge Robertson, who beat Phillip by a landslide in the elections, dies suddenly, and the state appoints Phil the position. Philip later considers making a deeper foray into politics, but decides against it when his wife disapproves.
After meeting and dating his future wife Vivian, he proposed to her while on live television during an episode of Soul Train.
Philip is a somewhat strict and gruff man, but he does have a softer side, and is an upstanding citizen. Nonetheless, his anger can get him into trouble at times, especially when he feels his image is being besmirched. Additionally, Philip can be financially greedy. He pays his butler Geoffrey a salary so low that Geoffrey quits after Philip gives him a mediocre additional annual raise, and only returns when Philip apologizes for taking him for granted and agrees to increase his salary and benefits. Similarly, while he always spoils Hilary, Philip refuses to increase the allowances of his children.
However, despite his being a miser, Philip is a very caring and loving husband and father. He makes sure that he does what is best for all his children, including Will. Although Will is only related to Phillip by marriage, he very much cares for him as his own son. Throughout the series, Phillip has been there for his children in their time of need. If anything, he will go out of his way to make sure his children become something of themselves.
A common occasion for humor on the show is Phillip's portly shape and big appetite. Will commonly makes cracks about his figure, as does Geoffrey at times. Unfortunately, Phillip's appetite has given him trouble and a heart attack.
Uncle Phil also turned out to be an amazingly adept pool player, winning a profit of $900.00, after faking his incompetence, so as to up the ante, to $100 a ball.
Phillip gets very angry a lot with Will most of the times. But he is too overprotected with all of Ashley's boyfriends and scares them away when they act different. Phillip always hates Jazz and everytime Jazz says or does something that irritates Phillip, he throws Jazz out of the house by carrying him and throwing him across the yard. Phillip does get angry with a lot of rude and obnoxious people in general. The farthest he went was by punching Paula Hoover's (Ashley's bully) father in the face. Phillip has gotten mad at Will for being immature and doing bad stuff. He gets mad at Carlton for being annoying. He gets mad at Ashley for misbehaving. He gets mad at Hillary for being irresponsible. The only kid he never got mad at was Nicky.
Professor Vivian Smith Banks, born on October 21, 1951, was portrayed by Janet Hubert-Whitten from Seasons 1 to 3 and Daphne Maxwell Reid from Seasons 4 to 6, She has been a professor of Black History and Literature (Ph.D.) at UCLA since 1971, and in one early episode takes a temporary job as a teacher for a unit in Black History at Bel-Air Academy, the upscale preparatory high school attended by Will and Carlton. She has three sisters: Helen, Janice, and Will's mother Viola.
Vivian's personality and role in the show changes over the run of the series. During the Janet Hubert-Whitten years, she is a no-nonsense, vocally-talented, forthright, and career-minded woman who plays a part in the show equal to her husband Philip. She also was given a lot more airtime. After Reid took the part in 1993 and baby Nicky was added to the cast, the writers toned down Vivian's former persona and portrayed her as a homemaker who showed reluctance toward ambitious career moves, such as Philip's political aspirations, she also spoke and appeared less than Janet, despite them both being on the show for an equal time. She always supported her children in whatever they wanted (even if it was wrong), especially the air-headed Hilary, like allowing her to pose naked in a magazine, get abruptly married and do a seance despite Philip's disapprovals.
Hilary Violet Banks (played by Karyn Parsons), born August 18, 1972, is Will's attractive, but dull-witted, eldest cousin, known for her notable lack of intelligence, her pretentious attitude, for being spoiled, and her dependence on Geoffrey. In earlier seasons, Hilary's snobbishness is emphasized, as well as her shallow trendy environmental activism. During this time, she often claimed to hobnob with celebrities and loves being mistaken by people for Whitney Houston. Later on, Hilary is written as a self-centered airhead; she looks down on Will's upbringing and is obsessed with shopping and money. However, despite her apparent shallow personality, she has a strong sense of integrity and shows obvious affection to her family members. Will gets along with her better than with Carlton. Hilary is portrayed as a stereotypical valley girl and speaks with some strong valspeak habits, in spite of her disdain for the San Fernando Valley (as evidenced from when she said, "And hell is like, the Valley.").
During the series, Hilary attends and drops out of UCLA, after which she begins a long streak of luck that eventually lands her a nationally-televised daytime talk show titled Hilary. It starts when she becomes a weather reporter at a local TV station, where she meets and falls in love with news anchor Trevor Collins (portrayed by Brian Stokes Mitchell). However, Trevor dies in a bungee jumping accident while proposing marriage, part of an ill-conceived live publicity stunt. At the conclusion of the series, Hilary's talk show moves to New York City, as does most of the rest of the Banks family.
Hilary's hair styles have changed as the series progressed: Early in the series it was brown and bushy, it then became longer and curly with blonde highlights, but later it was black, straight, and shoulder-length.
Carlton Banks, (played by Alfonso Ribeiro), born August 4, 1974, is Will's pedantic and preppy cousin. Carlton is a firmly conservative Republican and proves both friend and foe for Will. Although Carlton and Will often trade insults, Carlton obviously cares about Will by referring to him as "the brother I've always wanted." On one occasion, Carlton is considerate enough to cover for Will when he is admitted to hospital after having taken speed tablets from inside Will's locker, but allows his parents to think that Will saved him. (This episode is rare on television owing to the unusually serious issue)
His role model is talk show host Bryant Gumbel, and his favorite singer is Tom Jones. His favorite actor is William Shatner, whom he annoys by making lame Star Trek jokes. Carlton also idolizes Macaulay Culkin, whom he once dressed up as for Halloween. Carlton is similar to Family Ties character Alex P. Keaton in many respects: he dresses in a preppy style, has conservative political leanings, is obsessed with college and his future career, is fairly short, and does not enjoy the popular music of most people his age. Carlton is often called upon to do a comic, usually improvised dance routine to Tom Jones' "It's Not Unusual." In earlier seasons, he makes frequent references to his virginity, and also plans to attend Princeton University. In later seasons, these arcs are both resolved: Carlton does indeed lose his virginity, but is not initially admitted to Princeton; instead he first attends the University of Los Angeles, where he briefly manages ULA's student store, the Peacock. Carlton also seems to have a gambling problem, and loses all of his money in any situation where gambling is involved and constantly imagines the gambling tables and slot machines talking to him. He usually declares that gambling is "evil" right before he goes all in and loses his and others' money. Will took a bullet for Carlton when they were being robbed after using an ATM machine. Later in the episode, Carlton buys a gun.
In the sixth and last season, Carlton finally gains transfer admission to Princeton University and leaves for the east coast in the series finale (in reality, Princeton does not accept transfer students ). Despite his geeky persona, he is surprisingly well-built, causing comment among Ashley's friends and the audience in particular when he appears in swim wear.
One running gag is that Carlton continuously being slapped across the head by various characters, usually due to making comments that are ridiculously self-centered (in second half of the show, for example, he would often make humorous comments about gaining his father's inheritance) or due to portraying ignorance of lives other than his own. Often Will would ask to hold what Carlton is holding and once receiving it he would slap Carlton across the head with the object.
He is sometimes portrayed as being extremely naive. For example, in one episode he and Will are arrested because the racist police officers believe that they stole the Mercedes-Benz they are driving. At the end, Carlton insists that "they were just doing their job", and that he and Will were arrested for driving too slow. However, he seems to wonder if they were wrong, as when he asks Phil if he (Phil) would pull over someone who was driving too slow, and Phil answers "I asked myself the same thing the first time I was pulled over", he seems dumbstruck.
Ashley Banks (played by Tatyana M. Ali) is Will's younger cousin, born April 29, 1979. Ashley was Vivian's baby, and always loved being with her mommy. Philip was always trying to control Ashley's life so she didn't become anything like regular teenage girls. Will's devil-may-care approach to life is an exciting alternative, which makes her generally more sympathetic and understanding towards him than other members of the Banks family. With that being, Ashley looks up to Will as a big brother and spent much time following him in her younger days. It seems that by spending time with Will, Ashley often acts rebelliously as she gets older, for which her father becomes very angry at Will. In the episode "Father Knows Best", Ashley lies and drops out of her private school and goes into a public school. She also spends less time with Will and sometimes get upset with him when he becomes overprotective like Philip. Ashley matures much in the series; she is a one-hit wonder with her brief singing career and strives to become a fashion model.
In the series finale, Ashley decides to attend a performing arts school in New York City. As Hilary is moving to New York with her talk show, the two sisters decide to live together and both are extremely excited about the whole idea much to the annoyance of Phillip who doesn't want to lose his daughters.
In the episode where her brother Nicky is born, Ashley mentions she knew how to drive since 12 years old.
Niko "Nicky" Andrew Banks (Played by Ross Bagley from Season 5 onward) is born to Philip and Vivian on February 22, 1993, towards the end of the third season. The character was primarily used as a plot device, often adding motivation for other characters, comic relief, or an emotional punch to the show's storyline. As is common in television series, especially soap operas, Nicky grows from newborn infant to preschooler between seasons, and confused characters on the show actually question how this came to be. This "spurt" begins in the fifth season.
Nicky's full name is Niko Andrew Michael Shawn Nathan Wanya Banks. His last four middle names are the names of the members of Boyz II Men; he was middle-named this way after they performed at his christening.
Geoffrey Barbara Butler (played by Joseph Marcell) serves as the Banks family's sarcastic butler. Geoffrey Barbara Butler was born in England in 1947. In addition to four years at Oxford University and a long career working for British aristocrats, Geoffrey was an Olympic runner several years before being hired by the Banks family, but fled his home country in shame after cheating in a race and being slapped by Queen Elizabeth II. In the 1970s, he was a butler for the band Led Zeppelin. In the early 80s, Geoffrey was sparring butler for Chuck Norris. Geoffrey's character changes over the series: in early episodes, he is very dutiful and gentlemanly, whereas he becomes very cynical in later episodes. Joseph Marcell explains that he began by playing Geoffrey as stereotypically English but then felt that the American audience was not accustomed to seeing Black Englishmen.
Geoffrey always refers to Will as "Master William", (except once on the last episode) and is the voice of caustic humor on the show, often commenting on Philip's weight, his own low pay, his lack of a social or romantic life, or the overall laziness of the family. He is known for his sarcasm. In early episodes, he has an interest in classical music and is often hinted at as leading a vibrant private life. Ironically, although a stickler for tradition, he incorrectly tells Will it is proper to refer to a butler by his first name, although this is possibly because his surname & job title are the same. He considers himself to be part of the English working-class, despite his speaking the Queen's English, and, in one episode, is wary of a relationship with a rich woman.
He becomes the godfather of Nicky Banks in the fourth season. Midway into the sixth season, Geoffrey discovers he has a son he never knew about, named Frederick, born to an ex-wife. During the same episode, it is also revealed that his middle name is "Barbara", which he explains is a "family name." Geoffrey leaves to be with his son in London in the series finale. However, in the fourth season episode "'Twas the Night Before Christening", a sequence set in the year 1998 portrays Geoffrey as still being the Banks family's butler.
Jazz was portrayed by Will Smith's musical partner Jeffrey A. Townes, popularly known as D.J. Jazzy Jeff. Jazz is Will's ill-mannered, not-so-bright best friend who lives in the inner-city community of Compton, California. He has had a long crush on Hilary, and almost every time his advances are rejected. Jazz eventually marries a prison inmate named Jewel who had appeared on COPS. In an episode titled "Mother's Day", Jewel reveals that she and Jazz are expecting a baby, though no other mention of their child is ever made again. He divorces her shortly afterward, realizing he knows nothing about her and that her real name isn't even Jewel (it is Hortense). Jazz is almost completely tactless, and succeeds in insulting or irritating Philip almost every time they are together. He knows how to play the drums very well, and once gave Ashley a lesson. Jazz wears sun glasses in every episode he is seen. In one episode, Hilary asks her boyfriend to take off his glasses. Thinking she was speaking to him, Jazz charmingly removes his glasses, revealing his face for the first and last time.
In a recurring gag throughout the series, Philip usually ends up literally throwing or, as it was referred to the first time, drop-kicking Jazz out of the house, though sometimes Hilary, Geoffrey, Vivian, and even Will do it. Whenever Jazz is thrown out of the house, he is usually wearing the same clothes. This is because Warner Bros. decided to use the same clip over and over instead of throwing him out each time. Will was once on the receiving end of this punishment after making egregious changes to Uncle Phil's political campaign tape. During Halloween episode "Hex and the Single Guy", Jazz got revenge by throwing Philip out instead, as the main plot to the story was that misfortune plagued the Banks family following a so-called "hex" from a con psychic communicator. This was later shown to be in a dream Will was having, though when he woke up, the dream appeared to be a premonition, and it was implied that the whole ordeal may truly happen indeed. There was also an instance where Jazz was standing outside of the house, taunting Philip because he was already standing outside; as a result, Philip throws him inside the house. In another episode, Jazz was thrown out in the backyard along with a cardboard cutout of Bill Cosby that he was lugging around. There was also a scene at Jazz's apartment in episode "How I Spent My Summer Vacation," where Jazz throws Will out of his apartment. In this same episode, it is briefly mentioned by Geoffrey that Philip did also throw Will out of the house onto the front lawn when he was leaving the house, but was never shown. There was a time when Aunt Viv threw Jazz out through the back door for saying that he would bring a stripper to Will's birthday party. At the beginning of the episode 'Cased Up,' a nighttime version of the shot is used, with crickets as a sound effect.
Jazz's last appearance was in the first part of the series finale, where it was Uncle Phil's 50th birthday. He gave Philip his grandmother's teeth as a gift - because Jazz thought Philip was getting old. Thus, Philip was once again angry and threw Jazz out of the house. This was Jazz's final appearance.
After the house had been sold and Will had found an apartment, Philip was the only person to mention Jazz when asking when he was coming by to help Will pack, to which Will responded, "As soon as you leave." Philip was not surprised, but he did want to wish Jazz luck in the future.
Lisa's father was memorably played by veteran actor John Amos. When Lisa and Will cut their second wedding short, he and Will's mother decide not to let the ceremony go to waste; they get married right then and there, making Lisa Will's stepsister.
Hattie Banks, played by Virginia Capers , is Philip's mother, having appeared in six episodes over the series' run. She forms a close affinity with Will and even falls for some of his pranks, much to Philip's irritation.
Kellogg Lieberbaum (played by Michael Weiner) was a classmate and friend of Will and Carlton at Bel-Air Academy. Most of his appearances were in the first season, but he makes two appearances in the second season as well. As a pun on Kellogg's Corn Flakes, he is nicknamed "Cornflake" by Will. Much of the humor of his character comes from the dissonance of an unassuming Jewish preppie using such phrases as "She is one fly sister" and "Power to the people - say it loud: I'm black and I'm proud!"
Janice Smith, played by Charlayne Woodard, is the youngest of the Smith sisters, flighty according to Vivian, and married to a white man named Frank (portrayed by Diedrich Bader in Seasons 1 and 2, Robert Torti in one episode in Season 3), a marriage older sister Vy initially objects to. She also appears in the series with a baby son.
Lou drops in unannounced at the Peacock cafe where Will and Carlton work. Will invites Lou to the Banks' residence, but when he arrives, he is unwelcome; Vivian and Phillip want nothing to do with him, especially Phillip, who insults him. Will and his father go to a carnival where Lou explains to him he wasn't ready to be a father. When they return to the house, Lou announces that Will is joining him for the summer on a statewide trip in Lou's truck. Philip objects to this because he believes Lou will let Will down again. After Lou leaves the mansion to go to the pool house, Will and Philip get into a heated argument that ended with Will screaming at Phil, "Who cares what you think? You're not my father!" before storming out. Philip is hurt and begins wondering if he is a good father to his other kids. He apologizes to Will the next day and wishes him good luck.
After a while, the family is still waiting for Lou to return. Lou eventually shows up, claiming them he has found a "big" new job that will not afford enough space for Will. Before he leaves, Vivian tells Lou, "If you walk out of Will's life now, don't you ever come back." Philip then challenges Lou, reminding him of his responsibility to Will, and explains that being there for his family is what a man does. However, Lou refuses to listen. Will then walks in before Lou can duck out, again. Lou tells Will that he can't take him along because of his job, and promises to call him "next week." Will knows Lou has bailed on him again, and accepts the fact he will get through life without him. He disowns his father right on the spot, and Lou leaves for the final time. Will finally breaks down, asking Philip tearfully, "How come he don't want me, man?" The two embrace, and Will accepts Philip as the father he never had.
The episode fades out with Will's sobbing as the only sounds being heard. The camera fades in on a statuette of an apparent father figure embracing his son in his lap, displaying the symbolism of a father always being there for his son. This gift had been purchased by Will, intending it for his father.