Vivian Banks is Will Smith's maternal aunt. She is portrayed by Janet Hubert during the first two seasons and the majority of the third, and by Daphne Maxwell Reid for the balance of the series. She is one of the two pentagonists (alongside Geoffrey Butler) of the series.
Vivian was born on October 21, 1951. She is a no-nonsense, vocally talented, forthright, aspiring, understanding, nurturing, trusting, vivacious, independent, valiant, industrious, astute, nice and career-minded woman who plays a part in the show equal to her husband Philip. She has three sisters, one of them being Will's mother Viola. When she and all her sisters get together, they have a habit of jumping up and down in a happy way (after a couple times, Will starts to join in).
She is the mother of Nicky, Ashley, Carlton and Hillary Banks; the aunt of Will Smith and the wife of Phillip Banks. She earned her PhD at UCLA in 1971, where she met Philip Banks, who was also there attending law school. At some point she was hired by an unnamed university to teach English literature. At one point, when on sabbatical from the university, she took a temporary job as a teacher for a month in Black History at Bel-Air Academy.
One of her students had shown promise and later dated Will. However, when Will seemed to be monopolizing all her time, Vivian grew concerned about the girl's work sliding in quantity and quality. She shared with her and Will something that she never shared with her kids or students until now; when she was in high school she dropped out as she was enthralled with a boyfriend and ran off. However, the eloping failed as he found another woman. By the time Vivian had the confidence to return to high school, all her school friends had graduated, which left her feeling inadequate. Only after some soul-searching did she realize that she would never get an education until she applied herself, and she pursued her G.E.D., then later a bachelor's degree through night school, which was supported by her day job as a hotel maid. Eventually she earned her doctorate from U.C.L.A. and landed the professorship, saying that if she seems like a demanding teacher it is because she earned it.
Vivan and Philip Banks became engaged on an episode of Soul Train and they married later at an unknown time and place.
After Reid took the part in 1993 and baby Nicky was added to the cast, she was reimagined as a homemaker who showed reluctance toward ambitious career moves, such as Philip's political aspirations. The Reid-played Vivian showed a less fiery demeanor than how Hubert portrayed the role. She also supported her children in whatever they wanted, even if it was wrong. An example of this permissive behavior was when she let Hilary make the decision for herself to pose naked in a Playboy pictorial, as well as letting Hilary get abruptly married to her news anchor boyfriend Trevor.
Arguably the original Vivian would have disapproved of such attitudes. The change of actor is noted in the series with two humorous quotes from Jazz, breaking the fourth wall. One of them is in the fourth-season premiere, when he remarks: "You know, Mrs. Banks, ever since you had that baby, there's something different about you"; after this, Will stares uneasily into the camera. The other is in the fifth-season premiere when he sees the suddenly grown Nicky and asks: "So, who's playing the wife this year?".
Despite this, Reid's Vivian did have her serious and dramatic moments:
- In "When You Hit Upon a Star", she throws Jazz out of the house after he reveals he booked a stripper for Will's birthday party.
- In "You'd Better Shop Around", she along with Phil chastises Will for dropping out of school to become a car salesman, and notifies his mother, her sister Vy, to get him to re-enroll.
- In "Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse", when she learns that Will's father Lou intends to leave again for a new job and renege on his promise to take him on a cross-country road trip, she warns him that if he walks out of his son's life again, then he'd best stay out of it for good this time.
- In "It's A Wonderful Lie", in her arguably most dramatic moment, she severely chastises Ashley for lying to her and Phil about going ice-skating, sneaking over to a fraternity party, nearly hooking up with a college linebacker she knew from Bel Air Prep before being discovered at the party by Will and brought home, and then briefly running away before returning and hiding out in the pool house for a time, thus worrying her family even more.
- In the two-parter "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do", she briefly separates from Phil when he decides to pursue a political career. and doesn't bother to consult her or consider her feelings on it.
- There has been references in the series about Janet Hubert's replacement by Daphne Maxwell Reid as Vivian. Whenever a member of the family goes through old family photos, Will would occasionally comment who the mannish-looking person is in the photo, to which it is then revealed that the person in question is the Hubert-played Vivian.
- In a later interview, costume designer Carlo Tang commented that Smith and other cast members would jokingly refer to Hubert's Vivian as Marcus, a fictional bodybuilder