Starring alongside Will Smith, Alfonso Ribeiro somehow made it cool to be the uncoolest man in the room on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Child stars should take notes from the actor, singer, dancer and game-show host who continues to stay relevant. At age 12, Ribeiro moonwalked his way to a plum role alongside Michael Jackson in a 1983 Pepsi commercial, battling the King of Pop with Jackson’s own dance moves, and he has never looked back. Now 36, the performer has continued to be a small screen favorite. Perhaps you remember him as the thorn in LL Cool J’s side on In the House, or that he was the winner of FOX’s Celebrity Duets in 2006. The New York native’s latest gig is host of GSN’s (Game Show Network) new Catch 21, which premieres July 21.
Ribeiro chatted with ESSENCE.COM about his new show, his first impression of Michael Jackson, upcoming projects with Will Smith, and how playing Carlton Banks was a blessing and a curse.
ESSENCE.COM: Congrats on your new game show, Catch 21, which you host. How has the experience been?
ALFONSO RIBEIRO: The show is a lot of fun, combining the popularity of game shows with pop trivia. I think right now I’ve become a personality and not just an actor. I do feel like one of the luckiest people in the world to be able to do what you want to do, and make a living, and I work hard. I’m hoping that people fall in love with Catch 21 and that the show continues for many years.
ESSENCE.COM: It’s great to see your career has continued to blossom after such a huge success with “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.’ Is it hard to move on from the role of Carlton Banks in your career? I’m sure people still ask you to do the dance (laughs).
RIBEIRO: (Laughs) It is what it is. We had an opportunity to make six seasons of great shows that I think were wonderful. I just know that, when I go out at some point, I’m going to be asked to do that dance and I have to live with it. It’s very funny, because in the script, it just said Carlton dances. So in rehearsal I was on stage thinking, ‘Okay, how will Carlton dance? What will be the dance that he would do?’ I stole that dance. It wasn’t an original.
ESSENCE.COM: Unfortunately, with such a signature role, a lot of actors sometimes get typecast. Did you experience that with Carlton after the show?
RIBEIRO: Of course. There’s no question that I’ve been stereotyped, but that meant I did something well enough for people to want to see more of it. It’s a compliment while it’s detrimental to your career. But I only do things that I want to do, and I did “In the House,” which was very similar to Carlton, and then I felt like I had exhausted that role. So there was no reason for me to continue to put new names on the same character.
ESSENCE.COM: After working so closely with Will Smith, how has your relationship been after the show?
RIBEIRO: Will has been so incredible and just so gracious with me after the show. Right now I’m in the process of creating a show with his company, which would be very different from any of the things that I’ve played before. Will gave me an opportunity to direct for “All of Us.” We still hang out, go on vacation, and have a great time together. The one thing that is clear is that he’s probably the hardest working person I’ve ever met. So he is not the biggest star in the world because things just happened that way, he’s the biggest star in the world because he worked very hard to achieve that and he deserves all he has achieved.
ESSENCE.COM: You lived every 80s baby’s dream—to work with Michael Jackson. How did you end up in that famous 1983 Pepsi commercial?
RIBEIRO: It was like a dream come true for a young performer. As a 12-year-old kid, I was a huge fan of Michael. Michael’s choreographer was directing a commercial I was in and saw me playing around on the set doing the dance and they gave me that opportunity. I met Michael in rehearsal. It was really cool to work with him. My dad and I hung out with him many times after that, but that was the first time I met him.
ESSENCE.COM: Wow! Handpicked to dance with Michael Jackson…
RIBEIRO: I’m certainly not a professional. I’m one of those people who, if I look at someone doing it, I can mimic it really well, which is what I did with Michael. I actually couldn’t do “Dancing with the Stars” because they said I have so much experience, which I really don’t because I never trained professionally. It’s just very interesting to me that I’m almost known for being a dancer and I was never a real dancer.
ESSENCE.COM: What have you learned from your career?
RIBEIRO: To never judge a book by its cover and don’t look back, look forward. Then find something that you want to do and spend your life doing it.
ESSENCE.COM: What is the craziest rumor you’ve ever heard about yourself?
RIBEIRO: I think the craziest rumor was that I broke my neck doing a head spin back in 1984. As I’m walking down the street in New York, some guy walked up to me and goes, “Hey man! What are you doing alive? You’re supposed to be dead.” So that was a little crazy.
ESSENCE.COM: You won “Celebrity Duets” in 2006 and sang on “Fresh Prince.” Have you considered singing professionally?
RIBEIRO: The biggest problem with music today is that there are not a lot of great singers. It’s really about an image, a look and a style, and not one that I really match up with. You look at these guys like Mario or Chris Brown—that’s not the audience that I’m going to have based on my past career. It’s not really what I see myself doing. I love singing and I love getting up on stage. I would rather do more of the classical Sammy Davis, Jr., stuff. I would maybe want to go and do Vegas.
ESSENCE.COM: And what do you hope the Alfonso Ribeiro legacy will be? RIBEIRO: My legacy is a huge question mark because I don’t really care what other people think of me. I do this because I love to do it, and trust me, I have been offered a lot of work over the last five years that I have turned down. I really feel like it’s important to do good work because it’s for me.