Handsome looks, a winning personality, charisma, passion, and smart decision making. Will Smith has utilized all of these attributes to reinvent himself from rapper to personality to box office attraction to respected actor.
In this issue of the Limelight, we will trace Will Smith's path to superstardom, spotlighting how his attributes have paved the way for his success.
Just the four of us: Three Generations of Big Willies...
Born on September 25, 1968 in West Philadelphia, the second of four children, Smith was told about the perils of not working hard and shown the rewards that come with a strong work ethic. In a testament to the values of his upbringing, the family unit remained tight even after Will's parents (His father installed refrigerators; His mother worked on a school board) divorced when he was 13.
Smith kept his nose to the grindstone in and out of the classroom. Smith was so charming in interactions with both students and faculty that he received the nickname "Prince." Smith worked so hard in the classroom that he was offered a full ride to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
However, Young Will, who was surrounded by music as a child, had other plans. He had found a passion for rap music and had started making tracks with DJ legend Jeff Townes, better known as DJ Jazzy Jeff, after meeting Townes at a party. Smith added "Fresh" to the nickname to form the moniker by which he would be known to the world.
Pioneering Hip Hop Icons DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince
The duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince found much success with their seminal sophomore album, 1988's "He's The DJ, and I'm The Rapper." The song "Parents Just Don't Understand," a great example of the group's combination of humorous lyrics and funky beats, became a staple on music video stations and went on to win the first "Best Rap Performance" Grammy. Their next recording, 1989's "...And In This Corner" maintained their success, with the smash hit "I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson."
The duo, like contemporaries such as Young MC and Tone Loc, were accused by some of watering down the street edge of rap music. Their name became a punchline in some circles.
The criticism would only grow louder when, after making a connection with record executive Benny Medina at a television special, Smith agreed to star in a half-hour sitcom starring a character based on Medina who relocates to Beverly Hills to live with rich relatives.
Making Television History...
"The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air" began airing on NBC in September of 1990 and was criticized by some for rehashing what some people viewed as tired stereotypes of the black bourgeoisie. Yet, thanks to a talented supporting cast, particularly James Avery as Uncle Phil and Alfonso Ribeiro as Carlton Banks, the show ingratiated itself to viewers. The show was so popular that a letter writing campaign convinced Smith to come back to the show after it's third season, even though he had planned to focus more on film and music; the show ended up running for three more seasons.
While his acting career was blossoming, he also kept himself grounded in his first love. 1991's "Homebase" featured the laid back, Kool and the Gang-sampling seasonal anthem "Summertime," which became the group's biggest hit to date. "Homebase" eventually went platinum.
Flipping The Script On The Homosexual Tip...
Ever looking for a challenge, Smith made it clear that he was committed to becoming better as an actor by appearing in a variety of roles. He made his big screen debut as a homeless paraplegic in the gritty ensemble piece "Where The Day Takes You." His next silver screen appearance, as a gay hustler in the 1993 film adaptation of the play "Six Degrees of Separation," was especially noteworthy. Although criticized for not committing to a gay kiss, Smith was praised for his nuanced portrayal. This role established that Will could play someone other than himself, silencing some of his detractors.
Bad Boys With Guns Will Travel..All The Way To The $Bank$...
His big breakthrough would come when he and fellow black sitcom star Martin Lawrence became aware of an action/comedy film project that had been abandoned by Saturday Night Live vets Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey. The project was "Bad Boys." The witty report of Lawrence and Smith, the visual assault of director Michael Bay and the popcorn movie aesthetic of the production team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, catapulted the film, budgeted at $20 Million, to a 65 million gross.
Will Smith All-American Hero:
"Bad Boys" began a string of hits (including "Independence Day" and "Men In Black") that made it clear to Hollywood that it wasn't just the action-packed set pieces that packed movie houses; it was Smith that brought people to the theater in droves.
Having achieved success in Hollywood, Will felt the itch to return to music. Initial announcements of this decision were met with skepticism, with fans worried that Smith was yet another performer who did not know when to hang it up. Deciding to perform under his given name, Smith released "Big Willie Style" in late 1997. Powered by the mass appeal of the Sister Sledge-sampling "Gettin' Jiggy With It" (a song that added a new word to the American lexicon), "Big Willie Style" went 10 times platinum.
At Last: Will And Jada
At this time, Smith also found happiness in his personal life. Smith, who had been divorced for two years from Sheree Smith (the relationship bore one child, Trey), started dating actress Jada Pinkett, best known for her roles on the television program "A Different World" and films such as "Set It Off" and "Jason's Lyric." The two married in December of 1997 and have two children together, Jaden and Willow. Will and Jada have become one of Hollywood's most popular couples because, despite having achieved great fame and wealth, they have a genuine approachability that has endured them to people of all races and classes. Will had attributed the strength of their marriage to being focused on, and dedicated to, each other. Said Smith in a 2005 People Magazine interview, "When you know what you want, where you're going, what you're doing, [the pressure of being a couple in the spotlight] becomes less difficult to manage. That's why we work."
It's Been A Long Time...Will Smith Repping On The Mic...
Even at the pinnacle of his professional and personal lives, accusations of being soft still dogged him. Even Eminem, someone who was, at the time, struggling to gain credibility in the rap community, felt comfortable going after Will in some admittedly funny bits during Dr. Dre's "Forgot About Dre" video and Shady's own mega hit "The Real Slim Shady." Smith has stayed true to himself, though, repeatedly stating that he has always wanted to make music "that my mother could listen to." (It was reportedly for this reason that Smith declined to figuratively "drop the bomb" on Eminem when Smith released the impressive CD "Lost and Found" in 2005.)
Having gained invaluable acting experience, Will now felt comfortable taking on the role of a lifetime, that of boxing legend and cultural icon Muhammad Ali. Smith trained physically and mentally for the part, gaining 35 pounds of muscle to match Ali's fighting weight.
Although "Ali" received mixed reviews, with many critics finding the movie to be bloated and unfocused, Smith was praised for showing Ali's depth, for refraining from doing an impersonation, and for having great chemistry with co-star Jon Voight, who portrayed Howard Cosell. Smith earned a Oscar nomination for his effort. (On the set of this movie, Will's work ethic would rub off on someone else: Smith helped Jamie Foxx get the role of Ali cornerman Bundini Brown in "Ali", and Foxx credits Smith with forcing him to be disciplined about his approach to playing Ray Charles.)
"Will Smith Is $Money In The Bank$: "Hitch" Made Box Office History..."
After filming successful, if perfunctory, sequels to "Bad Boys" and "Men In Black," Smith appeared as relationship coach Alex Hitchens in the comedy "Hitch." The film garnered praise for having more smarts than the average romantic comedy, and accolades for chemistry between Smith and sitcom star Kevin James. Released the weekend before Valentine's Day 2005, the film set the record for the highest weekend opening for a romantic comedy ($43 million) and went on to gross nearly $180 million.
Smith showed how far he had come, with regard to appeal, with "The Pursuit of Happyness," a loose adaptation of the life of Chris Gardner, a man who rose from homelessness to become a successful stock trader. While some critics found the film's trajectory overly familiar and difficult to sit through, Will was praised for his chemistry with son Jaden, who was cast as Gardner's son. The film became Smith's 6th number one debut in a row and, at press time, has grossed $160 million domestically. The film also garnered Smith his second Best Actor Oscar nomination. The fact that he took a story largely unknown to mainstream audiences (and chose director Gabriele Muccino, a filmmaker unknown to U.S. audiences, to helm the project) proves that he has cultivated enough good will with North American audiences that he can now get a film made and sold to audiences merely by attaching his name to it.
Although he has come a long way since "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air," perhaps a quote from a 1990 interview with Vanity Fair best encapsulates his approach to life:
Will Smith has trusted his instincts, made his way to the top, and maintained his position. Hollywood, and our community, are much better for it.