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There’s a point in King Lear when I ask, “Does any here know me?” And at least once a week someone in the audience calls out: “Geoffrey!”

I’m currently on a world tour playing Lear, in the Globe Shakespeare production of King Lear — but, the world over, people remember me as Geoffrey, the well-mannered butler in [the US TV comedy] The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Last year we were in Adana, Turkey, just two hundred miles from the Syrian border, and people were going mad. Yesterday I had tea with a friend in Mt Vernon, on George Washington’s old plantation, and the servers were going beserk. It’s endless, but you just have to be thankful. If somebody is brave enough to come up and say hello, you should be polite.

Fresh Prince began in 1990, and twenty-four years later, it is still shown four times a day, seven days a week in America. The achievement of the show is beyond anybody’s imagination. It came on at eight o’clock on Monday nights. In the States that means football. [TV network] ABC ruled the airwaves, but people would switch over in the middle of a game for twenty-eight minutes just to watch Fresh Prince — that’s never happened before or since.

I got the part in the show while doing what I’ve done for decades, playing Shakespearean roles on the stage. In 1987, Patrick Stewart, of Jean-Luc Picard fame, invited me to go on a US university tour of Measure for Measure, after seeing me play Othello in London. We were at UCLA [in California] for three weeks, and it was a hit. Three years later, Andy and Susan Borowitz, the writers and creators of Fresh Prince, decided to work with a young rapper called Will Smith. A casting director remembered they had seen me at UCLA, and decided I was the person they wanted.

They tracked me down at a small theatre called the Tricycle in Kilburn, north London, where I was performing. They asked for an audition tape, so I did one. They said, “Can you be in Los Angeles by tonight?” And my agent said, “No he can’t, he’s in a play, it finishes in ten days.”

Thankfully they waited for me, and when I got there I met Quincy Jones — the show’s producer — and I met Will Smith, and we recorded a pilot over four days. I came back to England to do a BBC television play by the Nigerian Nobel Prize-winning playwright Wole Soyinka, called Madmen and Specialists. My agent rang me and said, “Darling, do you remember that thing you did in LA? They want you to be in the series.” I got on a plane, got a house in Sherman Oaks, and the rest is legend.

I had no idea what the future held for Will Smith. I knew nothing about rappers — he was just a pleasant young man, and it looked like it was going to be fun. But the role of the butler could quite easily have gone to James Avery, who played Uncle Phil, God rest his soul. I was up against him in the audition.

Will was a good leader, conscientious, worked hard at what he did, but most of all we liked each other. We’d spend time together, take our families out. My family — I have a wife, a son, and a daughter — would fly out to Hawaii or Jamaica for Christmas. Will and I got on very well — we were both very new to it all, so we stuck together.


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