“How come he don’t want me, man?” - Will, to Uncle Phil, in “Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse”
Although viewers of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air found out pretty early in the series that Will's dad had abandoned him and his mother, it wasn't until Season 4 that they actually met Lou Smith. In the episode “Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse,” Will sees his father for the first time since he was 4 years old. Initially wary, Will begins to bond with his father, only to be brokenhearted when (SPOILER ALERT) Lou abandons him again.
As David Zuckerman, who co-wrote the episode with Bill Boulware, explained to The Washington Post, Lou Smith was originally conceived as being a pool shark. But the first table read of the script didn't go well: “Will did not like it at all. It was not one of our best moments.” So the writers rethought the character, making Lou Smith a truck driver, someone who wasn't cut out to be a father. “We tried to make him not a bad guy - sympathetic."
Shelley Jensen, who directed the episode, believed that “Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse” was a pivotal moment in Smith's acting career, telling The Washington Post:
It was that specific episode for me as a director [that] I saw him connect and make it work. His acting from that moment on improved dramatically. You saw the light bulb go off.
Will Smith agreed. In a 2018 interview on the podcast Rap Radar, Smith credited his co-star James Avery - who portrayed Uncle Phil - with making him a better actor:
James Avery was relentless on me to elevate. [He] wouldn’t give me a damn inch… He was the model for me… of an actor. He just had that acting power that I wanted to have… So we're doing that scene and I'm having a hard time… I’m messing up the lines because I want it so bad. We're in front of the audience and we're doing it and I'm furious. He holds onto me and says, “Hey. Relax. Relax. It’s already in there, you know what it is. Look at me. Use me. Don’t act around me, act with me.” He's talking me through it and everything. So I get it together, I do the scene… and he hugs me at the end. And while he’s hugging me, he whispers in my ear, “That’s f***ing acting right there.”
Although some thought Smith improvised the scene, Zuckerman denied that. "Every word was written by Bill and I. Will’s delivery was so perfect it seems like it was in the moment.”
Jensen, meanwhile, revealed that while the studio audience was usually very raucous for tapings of the show, during the filming of the final scene of “Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse,” the atmosphere was like “being in church.”