In the late 1980s, Smith achieved modest fame as a rapper under the name The Fresh Prince. In 1990, his celebrity increased dramatically when he starred in the popular television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The show ran for nearly six years (1990–1996) on NBC and has been syndicated consistently on various networks since then.
In the mid-1990s, Smith transitioned from television to film, and ultimately starred in numerous blockbuster films that received broad box office success. In fact, he is the only actor in history to have eight consecutive films gross over $100 million in the domestic box office as well as being the only actor to have eight consecutive films, in which he starred open at the #1 spot in the domestic box office tally.
In 14 of the 19 fiction films, he has acted and accumulated worldwide grosses of over $100 million, and 4 of them took in over $500 million in global box office receipts. His most financially successful films have been Bad Boys, Bad Boys II, Independence Day, Men in Black, Men in Black II, I, Robot, The Pursuit of Happyness, I Am Legend, Hancock, Wild Wild West, Enemy of the State, Shark Tale, Hitch and Seven Pounds.
He also earned critical praise for his performances in Six Degrees of Separation, Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness, receiving Best Actor Oscar nominations for the latter two.
Family And Early Life
Smith was born and raised in West Philadelphia, and also spent time in Germantown in Northwest Philadelphia. His mother, Caroline (née Bright), was a school administrator who worked for the Philadelphia school board, and his father, Willard Christopher Smith, Sr., was a refrigeration engineer.
He was raised Baptist. His parents got separated when he was 13 and divorced when he was 32. Smith’s charming and sly demeanor in school resulted in the nickname “Prince”, which eventually turned into the “Fresh Prince”. While still in his teens, Smith began rapping and eventually began collaborating with Jeff Townes (a.k.a. DJ Jazzy Jeff), whom he met at a party.
He attended Overbrook High School in West Philadelphia for the majority of his high school years. However, he also spent a short time attending Archbishop John Carroll High School in Radnor. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince was born with Smith handling the rhymes and Townes overseeing the mastery of mixing and scratching — the combination was a pop and hip-hop hit during the 1980s and early 1990s.
While it is widely reported that Smith turned down a scholarship to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he never applied to MIT, although he was admitted to a “pre-engineering program” there.
Recording And Acting Career
Early Work (1985–1995)
Smith started as the MC of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, with his childhood friend Jeffrey “DJ Jazzy Jeff” Townes as turntablist and producer as well as Ready Rock C (Clarence Holmes) as the human beat box. The trio was known for performing humorous, radio-friendly songs, most notably “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “Summertime.”
They gained critical acclaim for winning the first ever Grammy in the Rap category (1988). He had a line in “Voices That Care”, a 1991 Gulf War song by a celebrity group. Smith spent money freely during his early career and underpaid his income taxes. The Internal Revenue Service eventually assessed a $2.8 million tax debt against Smith, took many of his possessions, and garnished his income.
Smith was nearly bankrupt in 1990, when the NBC television network signed him to a contract and built a sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, around him. The show was successful and launched his acting career. Smith set himself the goal of becoming “the biggest movie star in the world,” studying box office successes’ common characteristics.
Although he made a notable dramatic film debut in Six Degrees of Separation while still appearing in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Smith’s film career took off with his role in the buddy cop film Bad Boys (1995) along with co-star Martin Lawrence.
After The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ended May 20, 1996, Smith began a successful solo music career while simultaneously starring in a series of films. The first two films were hugely successful summer blockbusters: Independence Day (1996), in which he played a fearless and confident fighter pilot, and Men in Black (1997), where he played the comic and confident Agent J against Tommy Lee Jones’ deadpan Agent K. Smith’s acting in Men in Black won critical praise.
He originally rejected the lead role in Men in Black, but wife Jada Pinkett Smith coaxed him into acceptance. The two films established Smith’s commercial reputation as a bankable star whose appeal across age, race, and gender lines could “open” a film at the box office, a reputation Smith would begin to term a “Big Willie Weekend”. It was around this time that he co-founded Overbrook Entertainment.
In 1998, he starred with Gene Hackman in Enemy of the State. Smith turned down the role of Neo in The Matrix in favor of Wild Wild West. Despite the disappointment of Wild Wild West, Smith has said that he harbors no regrets about his decision, asserting that Keanu Reeves’s performance as Neo was superior to what Smith would have achieved.
Smith then went on to gain leading roles in several box office successes, including Men in Black II, Bad Boys II, Hitch, and I, Robot.
Smith also released a string of hit singles, often associated with his most recent film, throughout the late 1990s. The most notable of these were his #1 hit theme song “Men in Black”, the #1 hit “Gettin’ Jiggy wit It” (which made jiggy a catch phrase for a while in 1998), and a cover of “Just the Two of Us”, an affectionate message to his young son. His first two solo albums, Big Willie Style (1997) and Willennium (1999), went multi-platinum.
International Success (2001–present)
Smith was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, for the film Ali, 2001, for his portrayal of the boxer Muhammad Ali, formerly known as Cassius Clay, in the biopic. He was again nominated for Best Actor Oscar for his role in another true-life movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, where he played Chris Gardner in his rags-to-riches story.
Smith’s third album on Columbia Records, Born to Reign released in 2002, was a sales disappointment compared to his past efforts, and after a quick Greatest Hits release that was almost not advertised at all, he was dropped by the label. He later signed a recording contract with Interscope Records.
A year later, Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith created the UPN (later CW) sitcom All of Us, which was loosely based on their lives. The show debuted on UPN in September 2003, and aired there for three seasons before moving to The CW in October 2006, for one more season.
The CW cancelled All of Us in May 2007. Smith appeared as himself in Jersey Girl delivering the Silent Bob speech that appears in nearly all Kevin Smith movies. The lead character’s situation is due to the claim, “Will Smith is just a rapper.”
In 2005, Smith was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for attending a record breaking three premieres in a 24-hour time span. On July 2, 2005, Smith served as host for the Live 8 concert in his native Philadelphia in front of an enormous crowd, and later performed a set with DJ Jazzy Jeff. During this time, Smith released his fourth studio album, the successful Lost & Found.
The album was propelled solely on the smash hit single, “Switch”, which appealed to the mainstream. The single stayed atop the charts for months and returned Smith to the forefront of hip-hop. Smith appeared at Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice awards in 2005 performing “Switch”, as well as the BET awards in 2005. He appeared in the second game of the NBA Finals (San Antonio vs. Detroit) performing “Switch” to promote the album. Smith also made a special appearance in the reality talent contest show “Indian Idol”, when he visited India.
He has planned to star in a feature film remake of the television series It Takes a Thief.
On December 10, 2007, Smith was recognized at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. Smith left an imprint of his hands and feet outside the world renowned theater in front of many fans. Later that month, Smith starred in the film I Am Legend, released December 14, 2007. Despite marginally positive reviews, its opening was the largest ever for a film released in the United States during December. Smith himself has said that he considers the film to be “aggressively unique”.
A reviewer said that the film’s commercial success “cemented [Smith’s] standing as the number one box office draw in Hollywood.” On December 1, 2008, TV Guide reported that Smith has been selected as one of America’s top ten most fascinating people of 2008 for a Barbara Walters ABC special that aired on December 4, 2008.
Smith was raised by his parents, Willard and Caroline, in West Philadelphia. Smith credits his father’s dedication when discussing his own involvement in the lives of his three children: “I look at my father and how he was able to keep four kids fed and clothed and still managed to find time to spend with us.” Smith married Sheree Zampino in 1992. They had a son, Willard Christopher Smith III, also known as “Trey”, but divorced in 1995.
Trey appeared in his father’s music video for the 1998 single “Just The Two Of Us”. Smith married actress Jada Pinkett in 1997. Together they had two children: Jaden Christopher Syre (born 1998), his co-star in The Pursuit of Happyness, and Willow Camille Reign, who appeared as his daughter in “I Am Legend” (born 2000). Along with his brother, Harry Smith, he owns Treyball Development Inc., a Beverly Hills-based company named after his first son.
Smith was consistently listed in Fortune Magazine’s “Richest 40” list of the forty wealthiest Americans under the age of 40. Smith and his family reside on Star Island in Miami Beach, Florida and in Los Angeles, Stockholm, Sweden and Philadelphia. Smith donated $4,600 to the presidential campaign of Democrat Barack Obama.
Smith has said he has studied multiple religions, including Scientology, and he has said many complimentary things about Scientology and other faiths. Despite his praise of Scientology, Smith said “I just think a lot of the ideas in Scientology are brilliant and revolutionary and non-religious” and “Ninety-eight percent of the principles in Scientology are identical to the principles of the Bible…. I don’t think that because the word someone uses for spirit is ‘thetan’ that the definition becomes any different.”
He has denied having joined the Church of Scientology, saying “I am a Christian. I am a student of all religions, and I respect all people and all paths.” After his wife Jada made the film Collateral with Cruise in 2004, the couple donated USD$20,000 to Scientology’s literacy campaign, called HELP, the Hollywood Education and Literacy Program, which is the basis for Scientology’s homeschooling system.