He was adored as Geoffrey the butler in the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Now, as he stars opposite Cush Jumbo in Hamlet, the actor discusses stardom, being one of the first Black Othellos – and why Smith should play Mark Antony
Joseph Marcell’s life has been dominated by a lot of Shakespeare and by one smash-hit sitcom. So when we meet, I bring the lyrics to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s theme song, which some joker online has translated into blank verse. “In west Philadelphia born and raised / On the playground was where I spent most of my days” has become “From western Philadelphia I hail, / where in my youth I’d play upon the green” and so on. Sitting opposite me in the bar of London’s Young Vic, the 73-year-old actor laughs sweetly, stroking his frosted beard as he reads the print-out. “Oh heavens!” he says. “May I keep it? I’ll have to show Will.”
That’s Will Smith, of course, who played an ebullient goofball living with his affluent Californian relatives, while Marcell was Geoffrey, the family’s withering English butler. When I mention one of his driest rejoinders – “Run Geoffrey! Fetch Geoffrey! Perhaps you’d like me to catch a Frisbee in my teeth?” – he summons the character right there in the empty bar, baring his fangs as he savours that final word, then laughing at the memory.