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Aunt Viv no more: 'Fresh Prince's' Janet Hubert rebounds, creates cartoon series


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TO SOME FANS of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," Janet Hubert will always be the real Aunt Viv.

Hubert played Will Smith's classy and well-to-do Aunt Vivian for the first three seasons of the '90s TV sitcom that made Smith, just 22 at the time, into a big star.

More than a decade later, "Fresh Prince" is finding a new generation of young fans watching it in syndication on cable's Nick at Nite.

Hubert, who lives in North Jersey, said she runs into school-age kids who ask: "When are you going to go back to the show?" , unaware that it hasn't been in production for years.

It was a fallout with producers over the show's direction - and not a rift with Smith - that led to her sudden departure, Hubert said.

"It was never a firing," Hubert said in a recent telephone interview. "It was a setup. They wanted me to sign a contract for 10 episodes rather than the usual 27, which meant my income, which was not that large in the first place, was cut in half."

Rather than try to renegotiate, she says the producers announced she had rejected her contract and they would recast her role. They brought in Daphne Maxwell Reid for the three remaining seasons.

At the time, gossip mags and the Hollywood grapevine buzzed that Hubert and Smith had clashed on the set, something Hubert denies.

She acknowledges that she did ask him to apologize to castmates if he showed up late for a shooting. "I'm a professional," said Hubert, an alumna of New York's Julliard School. "I believed in being on time."

But her major beef with the show was the way the producers diminished the roles of Aunt Viv and Uncle Philip (played by James Avery).

Eager to appeal to young audiences, she said, the show followed a TV sitcom pattern of denigrating parental authority. Aunt Viv was a college professor and Uncle Philip was a lawyer, but she said the show rarely gave them scenes befitting their professional status.

A scene that escalated her conflict with producers occurred when she was pregnant in real life and writers included the pregnancy in the script.

"I remember an episode where they had Will going to the Lamaze classes with me," she recalled. "I wanted to know why Philip wouldn't go with me."

She didn't think the scene made sense and she was especially upset when the action called for Smith to suddenly snatch a pillow from beneath her head and give it to Vanessa Williams, causing Aunt Viv's head to fall back hard on the floor.

Hubert loudly protested and says she was considered persona non grata from then on.

Hubert's break with "Fresh Prince" was a painful period of her life. She had just given birth to her first and only child, Elijah, and her then-husband, writer James Whitten, was unemployed.

Despite the lingering wound of what she calls the "public humiliation" of being dropped from "The Fresh Prince," Hubert says she is healing. And she is happy to see how successful Smith - hailed by Forbes magazine as Hollywood's top earner in 2007 - has become.

"I wish him nothing but the best," she said. "But I am not surprised. I always knew he would become very large one day."

Hubert has kept her foot in TV with guest appearances on series such as "Friends," "The Gilmore Girls" and "The Bernie Mac Show."

And she's been working on an animated cartoon series, "J.G. and the B.C. Kids," slated for DVD release. She's shopping the show around to children's TV networks, too.

The show is about a young, black female archaeologist who helps a boy named Vinnie learn about dinosaurs and science through the magic of time travel. A line of book bags and other products based on the show's characters will be available at Wal-Mart in time for back-to-school shopping.

The cartoon project grew out of her 15-year-old son Elijah's fascination with dinosaurs, beginning when he was 6.

"I've been trying to make it happen for nine years, until I finally did it myself. I produced it myself," said Hubert, who collaborated with illustrator Vincent Spencer in the creation of the series.

The "J.G." in the title stands for "Janet Granite," a name Elijah and two friends gave Hubert back when she gave presentations about dinosaurs to elementary school classes.

The "B.C. Kids" in the title can mean a number of things, Hubert said, including "bright children," "bold and confident" and "beautiful and caring."

"My son was my inspiration," Hubert said. "He knew every single dinosaur that there was. We had to get bugs and snakes and every book that existed because he was so driven."

She wanted to produce a show starring mostly black children because, she said, it is important for them "to see themselves as smart and excited about science and math."

"Our children are being bombarded with thug images," Hubert said. "J.G. and the B.C. Kids" is an antidote, a show about children who are eager to learn, she said. *


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