Born: 25 September 1968
Where: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Awards: 1 Oscar nomination, 3 Golden Globe nominations
Height: 6′ 2"
The history of pop icons attempting to make it in Hollywood is a long and often sad one. Cher was a big success, with Jon Bon Jovi looking good for the future, while the likes of David Bowie and Mick Jagger have made many a sorry attempt to cut it. The world of rap has a far better record of producing film stars. Tupac caused a major stir before his untimely death, LL Cool J’s star is rising, as is Queen Latifah’s. And then there’s the biggest of them all — Will Smith, formerly known as The Fresh Prince, surely the most successful crossover star of the modern era.
Born Willard Christopher Smith Jr on September 25th, 1968, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Smith grew up amidst the middle-classes, his father owning a refrigeration company. The second of four children (the younger Harry and Ellen are twins), Will was a bright child, constantly playing upon his natural charm, a habit which, at Overbrook High School, earned him the nickname Prince.
Influenced both by Eddie Murphy and new hip-hop heroes like Grandmaster Flash, Will began rapping at the age of 12, quickly developing his own slick, semi-comic style. Then, at age 16, he met the man with whom he would score his first worldwide success. At a party in Philadelphia, he cracked a joke that fell flat with everyone. Everyone, that is, except DJ Jazzy Jeff — real name Jeff Townes — who had himself been working at music since the age of 10. The pair became firm friends and began to collaborate, Jeff as DJ, Will as rapper (having expanded his nickname to Fresh Prince). So vigorous was their pursuit of musical excellence that Will even turned down a scholarship to Boston’s super-prestigious MIT in order to follow his dream.
The pair’s music was quirky, cheery and squeaky clean, a far cry from the new Gangsta Rap that was beginning to rear its bloodied head, and mainstream success was near-immediate. Their first single, Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble (sampling the theme to I Dream Of Jeannie) was a hit in 1986, boosting the sales of their debut album Rock The House and making Will a millionaire at the age of 18. More hits followed, including the album He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper, the first hip-hop LP to go double-platinum. In 1989, they won the first ever Grammy for Best Rap Performance for the track Parents Just Don’t Understand, and received the three millionth call to their own 900 number (the US equivalent of 0898), the first ever set up by pop stars. A further Grammy was won in 1991, for the track Summertime, and the hits kept coming till Code Red, their final album together, in 1993. This, of course, was not the end of Will’s rapping career. He would re-emerge in 1997 with a debut solo LP, Big Willie Style, which spawned the enormo-hit Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It, and would strike again with 1999’s mighty Willennium.
But by this time Will was already at the top of another profession. Back in the late Eighties, he’d met one Benny Medina, who had an idea for a sitcom concerning his experiences in Beverly Hills. NBC took up the option and, casting Will as a sassy, street-smart kid coping comically with life in Los Angeles’ richest area, produced a series titled The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. The show, a major success, ran for six years, and gave Will a foot-hold in Hollywood, with movie offers soon coming thick and fast.
First came the bleak and melodramatic Where The Day Takes You, about young runaways in Hollywood, with Will way down a cast including Dermot Mulroney, Lara Flynn Boyle and Kyle MacLachlan. Then came a bigger role in Made In America, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Danson, where Will performed a superb comic turn as Teacake, best friend to Goldberg’s onscreen daughter Nia Long (also Will’s girlfriend in Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air). Critics were mightily impressed by his first dramatic lead, as a manipulative imposter in John Guare’s Oscar-nominated Six Degrees Of Separation, then the public came on board with Bad Boys. One of the first modern, high-budget action thrillers to feature two black leads, this paired Will with fellow comic Martin Lawrence and took the box-office by storm. Will was now big business.
This he proved in his next feature, the sprawling, explosive Independence Day. As Marine Corps Captain Steve Hiller (a character he based on childhood hero Harrison Ford’s Han Solo), he made the very best of limited dialogue, and stole the show by punching out a grotesque, murderous alien then delivering a deadpan "Welcome to Earth". For a while, he could do no wrong. With Tommy Lee Jones as his straight-man, he scored an spectacular cross-generational hit with Men In Black, then starred in the superior conspiracy thriller Enemy Of The State. Next came his one major set-back, with the relative failure of Wild Wild West. Despite the popularity of the Smith-rapped theme tune, the public did not take to the movie’s bizarre combination of buccaneering cowboy action and gothic science fiction. Maybe if George Clooney had not pulled out of the role taken by Kevin Kline things might have been different.
But Will pressed on, undeterred, charting high again in America as the mystical caddie helping Matt Damon re-find his golf game in Robert Redford’s The Legend Of Bagger Vance. Then came Will’s greatest challenge yet — Michael Mann’s bio-pic Ali. He actually turned the role down eight times, believing no one could successfully replicate Muhammad Ali’s skill and charisma. Only a personal call from the great man himself could change his mind. Once in, he was really in. He trained like a demon, gaining the approval of both Sugar Ray Leonard, and his own wife. "I’m human viagra," Smith said of his newfound vitality, "I’m Willagra. I’m a sex machine now. I’m raring to go every second of the day. My wife’s loving it". His involvement in the movie wasn’t purely as an actor either. With finance hard to come by, both Smith and Mann put up their fees to meet costs that eventually spiralled above the $105 million budget. Released on Christmas Day, 2001, Ali made $10.2 million in its first 24 hours, a record for a film opening on December 25th. but still only took $58 million. Nevertheless, for his stunning performance in the most challenging of roles, Will found himself Oscar-nominated, as was Jon Voight, earlier his co-star in Enemy Of The State.
Following this came the much-anticipated Men In Black 2 where, with the world threatened once again, Will sought out mentor and retired agent Tommy Lee Jones, now a post office worker, and attempted to give him back his memories so they could re-enter the alien-butt-kicking fray together. The movie also reteamed Will with Lara Flynn Boyle, star of his screen debut, who played the sulky, scary alien-queen who kidnapped the entire MIB staff. During production, a degree of rewriting took place due to the September 11th tragedy — initially Smith and Jones were supposed to wind up battling a giant alien worm on top of the World Trade Centre.
Now, to the great joy of Martin Lawrence, came Bad Boys 2, like the original directed by Michael Bay. This time Smith and Lawrence (with Will now seeing Martin’s onscreen cop sister) were on the trail of a drug dealer shifting his money between Florida and Cuba. Once again they were a hugely charismatic comedic duo, but this time they were rather overshadowed by stunt overkill, the high-speed action being too sharply edited to create any real tension or excitement. Like MIB2 it went into profit but, again like MIB2, the margin was much smaller than that of the original.
Will moved on to I, Robot, an adaptation of Isaac Asimov sci-fi stories, directed by Alex Proyas. This saw him in 2035 as a technophobic Chicago cop who’s called in to investigate when a robot kills a human at the giant US Robotics corporation. Thing is, robots cannot kill humans, they’re not able to, it’s one of the Laws of Robotics. So are they thinking for themselves, are they taking over the world — Jesus, have they taken it over already? Teaming up with robot psychologist Bridget Moynahan, Will aims to find out.
Next he would lend his voice to the animated Shark Tale, playing a young fish who’s found beside the body of the son of shark mob boss. Robert De Niro. Heralded as a hard-man killer, he boasts and brags and finds himself pursued by vampish Angelina Jolie and a vengeful De Niro. It was another huge hit, as was Hitch (originally known as The Last First Kiss), a rom-com released in time for Valentine’s Day, 2005. Here Will played a professional dating consultant who counsels lonely guys seeking dates in New York City. Setting pudgy accountant Kevin James up with wealthy power-babe Amber Valetta, he then discovers that his methods don’t work for their inventor as he struggles to impose himself on gossip columnist Eva Mendes. Interestingly, Hitch would also see Smith enter the Guiness Book Of Records when he appeared at three premieres in 12 hours, at Manchester, Birmingham and London.
Will Smith has been twice married: first to Sheree Zampino (1992-95), who he met in 1991 at a taping of A Different World, and with whom he had one child, Willard Smith III. Then there was actress Jada Pinkett (1997-now) with whom he has a son, Jaden Christopher Syre, and a daughter, Willow Camille Reign. He actually met Pinkett many years before they married, when she tried out for the part of his girlfriend in Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air (the part going, as mentioned, to Nia Long). Come 2003, he and Jada would create and write a TV show, All Of Us, based on their own lives. Both would make occasional guest appearances.
Having received $5 million for Men In Black, $14 million for Enemy Of The State, and an amazing 20 million (plus a percentage of gross profits) for Ali, MIB2 and Bad Boys 2, Smith is one of Hollywood’s prime earners. Deservedly so when you consider his movies’ box office takings ($144 million for I, Robot, $160 million for Shark Tale and $122 million for Hitch in juts three weeks). He’s also busied himself as a producer, having set up his own production company, Overbrook Entertainment with partner James Lassiter. The company is said to be working on a remake of Clint Eastwood’s infamous stalker-flick Play Misty For Me. Then there’s his Treybell Development company, which deals in building projects in Philadelphia. But not everything has been golden for this golden boy. It could have been considered a mistake to turn down the role of Neo in The Matrix and the lead in Phone Booth. It was certainly unfortunate when, in the summer of 2003, the relative failure of Will’s third album and his Greatest Hits led to him being dropped by Columbia Records.
But he’d already been there and done that. Having conquered the worlds of music and film, you’d think Will Smith would have no ambitions left, that there was no mountain left to climb. But, being Will Smith, he says the biggest is yet to come. In ten years or so, he plans to run for President. He said it, then he denied it. It just has to be true. Only a crazy man would bet against him.