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The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business

For years, Alfonso Ribeiro couldn’t escape the shadow of his most iconic character, Carlton Banks. But pure, unfettered joy like his can be restrained for only so long.

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“I don’t think you ever make a conscious decision to be an entertainer—you either are or you aren’t.”

Alfonso Ribeiro is talking to me over the phone a week before Thanksgiving, explaining a life defined by decades of hard work. The entertainment industry has taken several twists and turns throughout Ribeiro’s 40-year career. It doesn’t take much to be considered an “entertainer” in this current era when anyone with 15 seconds of fame can flood the timelines of various social media platforms. But when Ribeiro thinks of entertainers, he imagines them in the classic sense. “We live in 2020 where the idea of being an entertainer is almost foreign,” the 49-year-old says. “But if you go back to the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, almost everybody who was on TV were entertainers. Sammy Davis Jr. was an amazing actor, but he was also a singer and a dancer. You can go through so many of the stars of that time and they did everything. … So I really look at myself as a throwback to a time long ago.” By 12, Ribeiro had won the lead role in the Tony Award–winning Broadway musical, The Tap Dance Kid. By 15, he had his own dance book (and an accompanying commercial) and a role on the NBC sitcom Silver Spoons. And by 18, he’d landed a role on another NBC sitcom, the one that’s brought him the most fame to date: Carlton Banks, Will Smith’s elitist cousin on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Yet as much as the world equates Ribeiro to Carlton, the years following The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air may have revealed more about the man—his persistence, his versatility, and his undeniability. If you let him tell it, for a while the role Ribeiro played so well was the role that held him back. “Imagine for a second you do a role so well that they tell you you’re not allowed to do anything else ever again because they can’t believe that you’re not that guy,” he says. But the ceiling Ribeiro hit as an actor forced him to develop other skills, which helped him emerge as one of the most versatile—albeit underrated—performers in Hollywood.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s 30th anniversary reunion special premiered on HBO Max in November—Ribeiro can be seen joining Smith to do the dance, as only he can, while the credits roll. But at this point, Ribeiro’s résumé is so strong that Carlton Banks is merely among the highlights. He’s done it all, from dancing with Michael Jackson to winning Dancing with the Stars. He remains a fixture in popular culture, appearing as an accident-prone Chris Paul impersonator in a series of State Farm commercials and as the weekly guide to all-ages humor as the current host of America’s Funniest Home Videos, a position he’s held since 2015. He’s a consistent source of unfettered joy, and while some people will always see him as Carlton Banks, he’s worked very hard to establish himself as Alfonso Ribeiro.

Alfonso Ribeiro on ‘Dancing With the Stars’
Walt Disney Television via Getty

Ribeiro grew up in the Bronx during the 1970s and 1980s. His foray into entertainment was basically genetic: Ribeiro’s grandfather, Albert Ribeiro, was a calypso singer known as Lord Hummingbird. His aunt was a dancer on the sketch comedy show Laugh-In, which aired during the 1960s and 1970s and was an early vehicle for Lily Tomlin and Goldie Hawn. Ribeiro’s parents noticed his talent at an early age and made a concerted effort to ensure he was a well-rounded performer.

“As a kid, my dad was my manager and he always said to me, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do: The more eggs you have in the basket, the more opportunities you have for one of them to hatch when you need them to hatch,” he says. “And so we’re just going to learn to do everything. We’re going to learn how to dance. We’re going to learn how to sing. We’re going to learn how to act. We’re going to learn how to entertain. We’re going to learn how to talk. We’re going to learn how to read. We’re going to be well-rounded in the business.”

His first role was in the 1980 PBS series Oye Willie, but his breakthrough came in 1983, when he was cast in The Tap Dance Kid. “I was the first kid to do it,” Ribeiro says. “I had a major part in a major Broadway show. And it just opened up everything else to me.” One such opportunity was the famous 1984 Pepsi commercial with the Jacksons, in which Ribeiro plays a young street dancer who literally moonwalks into Michael Jackson and ends up dancing beside him. “That came out of another commercial that I had done with Bob Giraldi, who was the director,” Ribeiro says. “Michael Peters, who ended up directing the commercial for The Tap Dance Kid, was Michael Jackson’s choreographer and he was like, ‘Oh, we got a kid.’ And Bob Giraldi goes ‘No, no, no, I got a kid’ and comes to find out that it was the same kid and it happened to be me.”

The Tap Dance Kid helped Ribeiro land his first major TV role. “Nell Carter actually brought Brandon Tartikoff, who was the president of NBC, to the show and said, ‘You’ve got to see this kid. You’ve got to sign him,’” he says. Ribeiro joined the cast of Silver Spoons in 1984 following his run on Broadway. After the show ended in 1987, he took a break from acting to finish high school and did a year at Cal State, Los Angeles, where, after appearing in the play The Meeting—which depicts a hypothetical encounter between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.—he decided to get back into acting full time. Ribeiro did an episode of A Different World in 1990 (he’d previously appeared in showrunner Debbie Allen’s TV special Dancing in the Wings) and was slated to return as series regular the following season—until he got an audition for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Forced to choose between two NBC series, Ribeiro rolled the dice on the bigger role. “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,” he says. “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.”

It was the right decision. Choosing The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air allowed Ribeiro to portray a playfully antagonistic character whose complexities were revealed throughout the show’s six-season run. While it could’ve been easy to write Carlton Banks off as everything that’s odious about the concept of Black Excellence (especially at the beginning of the show), he was tested in ways that forced him to reconsider his perspective and who he was beyond his sheltered world. He also avoided strictly being a punchline, as so much of the show’s humor came at his expense via Will. “One thing I should say is that Alfonso Ribeiro was unbelievably great in the show,” Andy Borowitz, who helped create The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, told me earlier this year. “His role has been kind of underrated, because first of all, playing a foil can be a very thankless job.”

Carlton Banks may have been “cool” in his world of tony prep schools, Brooks Brothers ensembles, and junior conservatism, but not by any conventional measure. What stood out about him, from the moment he was introduced, was that he didn’t care. Carlton had no desire to be one of the cool kids; he thought they were idiots. And Ribeiro did an exceptional job of conveying his smugness: “There was an air about him that was like, ‘No, no, no, Will. You’re never going to be me,’” he says, the condescension in his tone rising as he slips back into the character. “‘This is your time, live your heyday where people think you’re the guy. I’m the guy when we become adults.’”

One of Ribeiro’s issues with the role was that people occasionally struggled to differentiate between Carlton and the guy playing him. It’s one of the downsides of fame where, because of the visibility that comes with portraying a polarizing character on a popular show, people feel as though they know the actor. People questioned Ribeiro’s Blackness just as they did Carlton’s. When we spoke over the summer, producer and screenwriter Devon Shepard (who wrote the fourth season episode “Blood Is Thicker Than Mud,” in which Carlton’s Blackness is aggressively questioned) said he initially wrote Ribeiro off because of preconceived notions based on the character. “I didn’t even like Alfonso Ribeiro at first. I just thought, ‘Man, this corny ass … ’” Shepard told me. “Once you start hearing his story about how he grew up, you stop judging and you start to open up your mind and understand and meet people where they are.”

Ribeiro says that sort of stuff bothered him more in his younger days. “The idea that people look at me and are like, ‘You’re that white kid, you ain’t Black,’ you know, I’m like, ‘Whatever,’” he says. “Do you know me? Yeah? Tell me the first thing about me. ‘You like Tom Jones.’ Before the character, I’d never even heard of Tom Jones. I grew up listening to Run-DMC and Afrika Bambaataa.”

Instead, Ribeiro says the biggest issue was that his success as Carlton Banks prevented him from getting other roles. “For me, it’s a career. It’s a life. It’s what I have,” he explains. “It’s what’s going to put food on my family’s table. And somebody says, ‘You can’t do it because we think of you as that guy.’ So there was a lot of resentment for that character and for that time on that show.”

For a few years following The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Ribeiro was most notably cast as a Carlton clone, playing Dr. Maxwell Stanton on LL Cool J’s In the House. Playing adult versions of the same character wasn’t what he wanted. Then the opportunities dried up altogether. By the early 2000s, Ribeiro had to switch gears to keep working. After getting his first director credits on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and In the House and graduating from New York Film Academy in 1999, Ribeiro found salvation behind the camera.

“You wake up one day and you’re 30 years old, and you’re like, ‘OK, what am I good at? Well I’m good at a lot of things, but I’m successful in this business. So what else can I do?’” he remembers thinking. “I worked incredibly hard at becoming the best director that I could be. And I was fortunate enough to be able to do a ton of work as a director. And so I just focused on that.” Ribeiro racked up credits on UPN staples such as One on One and All of Us, Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns, the TV adaptation of Are We There Yet?, and Zendaya-driven Disney Channel shows like Shake It Up and K.C. Undercover.

But directing is another place where he was told he’d get stuck. “There were a lot of television directors that I’d known through the years who were like, ‘But once you make this move, you can’t go back. You’ve got to stay here,’” he says. “And I always looked at that as, ‘No, I don’t agree with that.’”

His justification? They couldn’t do all the different things he could.

Alfonso Ribeiro hosting ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’
Walt Disney Television via Getty

Hosting game shows requires a combination of personality, affability, and knowledge. It also doesn’t hurt to have a recognizable face. Ribeiro brought all of the above to the blackjack-meets-trivia show Catch 21 in 2008. The necessary enthusiasm was natural because he loves card games. “You make one decision here, it affects every decision you make down the line in the game,” he says. “And so understanding the game as a host allows you to essentially help the contestants make their decisions. I just really understood it.”

Catch 21 ran on GSN until 2016 and was then revived in 2019. It was there that Ribeiro started to remind everyone of what he was capable of. He showed his poise when explaining situations to contestants. His charisma emerged while joking around with them. On occasion, he showcased his dancing ability without making it feel like an obvious flex. But most importantly, Catch 21 was proof of what he could do as Alfonso Ribeiro. (Last year, Ribeiro won a Daytime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Game Show Host.) It was a transition that showcased Ribeiro’s range—but the breakthrough that ultimately propelled his career forward involved reaching back to his past.

Ribeiro had wanted to appear on Dancing with the Stars since its 2005 premiere. “From the first year, I thought ‘Oh, I gotta do that,’” he says. He seemed like the perfect fit: a celebrity widely known as a great dancer. It also didn’t hurt that the show was on ABC, one of the original Big Three networks, and presented a major opportunity for exposure. But for a time, Ribeiro hit a familiar wall: He couldn’t get cast. “Deena Katz, who was the casting director, was always like, ‘Listen, someone at ABC thinks you’re a professional dancer and so they won’t have you on,’” he says. “I always used to make the argument: ‘Well, how am I more of a professional dancer than Jane Seymour? She was a professional ballerina. How am I more of a dancer than Joey Fatone and Lance Bass? ... And the list went on and on and on and I kept saying, ‘This is bull. Like, come on.’ And then finally—literally, the season they had me on—I was the last celebrity cast.” A few months later, he was holding up the trophy as the Season 19 champion.

At the risk of sounding like someone perpetually motivated by haters, Ribeiro acknowledges that the resistance to casting him on Dancing with the Stars felt like another situation when he was penalized for being too good at something. But personal satisfaction aside, his 2014 stint brought him back to major network TV in the way he’d long wanted to be. Tom Bergeron, who was the Dancing with the Stars host until this summer, was also the longest-tenured host of America’s Funniest Home Videos. According to Ribeiro, when Bergeron announced his exit from the latter in 2014, he approached America’s Funniest Home Videos creator and executive producer Vin Di Bona and suggested Ribeiro as his successor. ABC brought him in for a meeting because they wanted to keep him on the network, and Ribeiro was on the same page. “There was a picture of Tom on the office wall doing AFV and I said ‘I want to do that,’” Ribeiro recalls.

It’s telling that Ribeiro, who always considered himself an actor, didn’t take another shot at a sitcom. He recognized his leverage in the moment and used it to do something where he’d be recognized as himself, not as a character. He has a knack for imparting joy on audiences no matter what he does and America’s Funniest Home Videos, arguably the most wholesome and joyous show on TV, allows him to do it with stunning efficiency. But the move is also a testament to Ribeiro’s self-awareness: He truly understands what he’s good at and where he’s likely to have the most success. Instead of gambling on fleeting glory, he chose a show with proven longevity because there will always be an audience for someone tripping and falling—without injury, of course. “Listen, I’ll never give that job up,” Ribeiro says of America’s Funniest Home Videos, now in its 31st season. “I don’t care what’s going on.”

America’s Funniest Home Videos is the perfect job for Ribeiro because it lets him utilize his many gifts. He’s great with the audience because he knows how to work a room. His genial presence makes the steady stream of Dad Jokes bearable. And he always makes a memorable entrance—often by dancing onto the set. Being multitalented is how Ribeiro earned the spotlight in the first place, but it’s also what helped him evolve and create the niche he’s made for himself.

Ribeiro’s experience in the past four decades has taught him some hard lessons. Things end, sometimes before anyone is prepared for them to. “The time to move on is when nobody wants to watch it anymore,” he says. Still, Ribeiro resists the notion that people should move on before the job does so without them.

“I think you move on when the writing is on the wall,” he says. “It’s not like sports, where someone says, ‘He left on a high note. He won the Super Bowl, then retired.’ To me, that’s stupid—because you might have won the Super Bowl again the next year ... Do it until you can’t do it, because you don’t know how much longer you have on this planet.”

Besides being grateful for where he’s at in his career and what he’s accomplished, Ribeiro is comfortable. His work has afforded him a ubiquitous position in pop culture: You can find him on TV in a different capacity pretty much every day of the week. He’s on ABC hosting America’s Funniest Home Videos. There are reruns of Catch 21 airing on GSN. Syndicated episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air air on either BET or VH1 almost daily. During commercial breaks, you can see him pretending to be Chris Paul. He’s everywhere. And no matter where you see Ribeiro, he’s doing the same thing: spreading joy.

“I’ve always done everything for me,” he says. “But I recognize that if it makes me happy, it will make other people happy, hopefully. And I hope that through my 40 years, I’ve made people happy. I’ve certainly made myself happy.”

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