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Smith, Will(1955–) - Actor, rap musician, Launches Television Career, Chronology, Early Movie Career, Continues Success, Stars in Ali

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Fun-loving and funny, Will Smith captivates audiences in a variety of media: music, television, and film. By his twelfth birthday, Smith was known as a rap musician. He and Jeffrey Townes, as D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, recorded several platinum albums and won the first Grammy ever presented for the Best Rap Performance. Smith also starred in the television series The Fresh Prince of Bel Air Then he moved into film, taking lead roles in such movies as Independence Day, Men in Black , and Ali .

Born September 25, 1968, Smith remembers his home as a supportive and solid environment and credits his parents with teaching him right from wrong. His father, Willard Christopher Smith, owned a refrigeration business, and his mother, Caroline Smith, served on the Philadelphia board of education. In Wynnefield, Pennsylvania, a suburb of West Philadelphia, the couple raised four children: Pam, Will Jr., and twins Ellen and Harry. Smith’s parents created a loving environment for their children. Even when they divorced in Smith’s thirteenth year, the entire family remained close.

Smith’s parents played major roles in his life. He described them to Lynn Norment as “the only people [he had] ever idolized.” His father, a veteran Air Force drill sergeant, focused on discipline. Smith recalls the routine of making tight hospital corners and bouncing coins off his bed. He told Janet Cawley that the question, “What do you think we could do to assist you in keeping your room clean?” sent him scrambling. But because of that discipline, he never tried drugs or became involved in some of the serious troubles many teens go through. One time, their father gave Will and Harry the time-consuming and challenging task of taking apart and rebuilding a crumbling brick wall. After they had completed the project, he pointed out that they had accomplished something that they had not thought possible. This memorable experience helped Smith find his self-confidence.

Caroline Smith helped her children learn to value education. The Smiths sent their children to a Catholic school, Our Lady of Lourdes, because it offered the best education available in their community. His mother encouraged Will’s love of reading. He found himself especially drawn to Dr. Seuss books, which he later noted carried a hip-hop sound.

Music also played a strong role in the Smith household. Will played piano, his father played guitar, and the family often engaged in jam sessions. In 1979, Smith heard the Sugar Hill Gang’s song “Rapper’s Delight.” He began to write and perform rap music for local parties and church programs. In 1981, he met Jeffrey Townes, and they began recording in the Townes’ basement.

Smith, who graduated from Overbrook High School in 1986, admits he had trouble paying attention in class. His winsome attitude in seeking pardon for late assignments gained him the title “Prince Charming” with his teachers. Going to school first among mostly whites and then among mostly blacks helped Smith develop interpersonal skills.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) offered Smith a scholarship, and the Milwaukee School of Engineering accepted him into their program. But when decision time came along, Smith chose not to attend college. He soothed his mother’s disappointment about this decision with a signed record contract and the reassurance that he had a workable plan.

DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s first album, Rock the House , released in 1987, sold around 600,000 copies. Two singles became especially popular: “Girls Ain’t Nothing but Trouble” and “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” In 1988, their album He’s the D.J., I’m the Rapper sold three million copies and received the first Grammy ever given for Best Rap Performance.

The duo’s early records contained some of the profanity expected of hip-hop music. But Smith told Nancy Collins, “My grandmother got ahold of my rap book, read it and wrote in the back: ‘Dear Willard, truly intelligent people do not have to use these types of words to express themselves.’” Smith’s recordings thereafter became known for their clean-cut lyrics, or what Dream Hampton called the “raised right” style of rap. When responding to criticism from rappers noted for their more violent content, Smith pointed out that his lyrics reflect his own experience, just as harsher lyrics reflect the reality of a different lifestyle.

And in This Corner , released in 1989, sold a million copies, and one of its songs, “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson,” received a Grammy nomination. A 900-number set up for fans brought in about $10 million. Smith rapidly spent his millions on cars, expensive travel, jewelry, and shopping sprees. He explained to Janet Cawley, “‘Being able to buy anything you want makes you a little crazy.’” Deeply in debt, he needed to tighten his spending habits and find a more dependable source of income.

Launches Television Career

In December 1989, Smith flew to Los Angeles to sing in NBC’s Disneyland’s 35th Anniversary Celebration . While there, he attended an Arsenio Hall Show and met producer Benny Medina, who oversaw the black music division of Warner Brothers Records. Medina had spent much of his early life in foster homes and juvenile detention centers and then found himself adopted by white parents and living in Beverly Hills. He approached Quincy Jones about making a television series around a similar theme. They found their star in Will Smith, and NBC gained a sitcom popular with both hip-hop and mainstream audiences.

Chronology

1968

Born in Wynnefield, Pennsylvania on September 25

1987 Releases album Rock the House

1988 Releases album He’s the D.J., I’m the Rapper

1989 Releases album And in This Corner

1990 Begins role in television show The Fresh Prince of Bel Air

1991 Releases album Home Base

1992 Marries Sheree Zampino

1993 Appears in film Six Degrees of Separation

1995 Divorces Sheree Zampino; releases film Bad Boys

1996 Appears in film Independence Day

1997 Marries Jada Pinkett; appears in film Men in Black ; releases album Big Willie Style

2000 Appears in film The Legend of Bagger Vance

2001 Appears in film Ali

2004 Appears in film I, Robot

2005 Appears in film Hitch ; releases album Lost and Found

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air ran for six seasons (1990–96). In the show, the character Will Smith moves from an East Coast ghetto to live with his rich aunt and uncle in Los Angeles. Smith’s friend Jazzy Jeff appeared frequently in the series. New to acting and nervous, young Smith overcompensated by memorizing the entire script. But even in those first seasons, audiences responded to Smith’s wit and charm. A TV Guide poll named Smith the"hippest teen on TV." In its second and third seasons, the show placed among Nielson’s Top Twenty ratings.

Smith spent the first years of the show observing set dynamics, studying the genre, and building his acting skills. By the fourth season, he began producing the program, making significant changes to the scripts. In 1992, Fresh Prince won an NAACP Image Award for Best Situation Comedy. Smith’s hilarious antics won him a Golden Globe Award nomination for best actor in a television series. By the show’s sixth season, it had become one of the longest-running comedies on prime-time television. In 1996 and 1997, Smith received a nomination for an Image Award as outstanding lead actor in a comedy series.

During summer breaks, Smith had begun making movies and found that he liked the chance to become different characters in front of the camera. That experience made the television role seem confining. He decided to make the sixth season the final one, choosing to quit while the show maintained its broad popularity. Smith had also continued recording with Jeffrey Townes. One of Smith’s favorite songs, “Summertime,” from their album Homebase (1991), won a Grammy for Best Rap Performance. After releasing the album Code Red in 1993, Smith decided to quit recording—partially in protest to increasing violence in rap lyrics—and focus on his acting career.

In May 1992, Will married songwriter Sheree Zampino in Santa Barbara, California. They divorced in 1995 and share joint custody of son Trey-Will Smith III.

Early Movie Career

In one of his early films, Where the Day Takes You (1992), Smith played Manny, a homeless man wrestling with survival in Los Angeles. In 1993, he played Tea Cake Walters in Made in America , featuring Ted Dansen and Whoopi Goldberg. That same year, he prepared for his first dramatic role by working with an acting coach and a dialect coach. Six Degrees of Separation (1993), a film version of John Guare’s Broadway play, starred Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland. Playing the role of a hustler claiming status as Sidney Poitier’s son Paul stretched Smith’s acting skills. But he performed the part in a way that made critics note his versatility and depth as an actor.

In 1995’s Bad Boys , Smith and Martin Lawrence played undercover cops. Their assignment involved recovering $100 million of heroin that had been stolen from the police department while also protecting a witness to a murder. Smith’s portrayal of Mike Lowrey contributed to the film’s box office success, bringing in $15.5 million the first weekend, and won him the ShoW-est Award for Male Star of Tomorrow. The movie garnered $140 million worldwide and a nomination for an MTV Movie Award for the best on-screen duo. Smith and Lawrence formed a lifelong friendship.

In 1996, Smith took on the role of Marine Corps Captain Steven Heller in the science fiction film Independence Day . With stars Bill Pullman and Jeff Goldblum, Smith’s character protected the earth from an alien invasion. The film became a number one hit at the box office, grossing $96 million during its first six days and $306.1 million by year’s end. The year 1997 brought Smith an MTV Movie Award nomination for Best Male Performance and a Blockbuster Entertainment Award for favorite actor in a science fiction film.

Director Steven Spielberg sent a helicopter for Smith to talk about a new film, and Smith noted that an actor does not say no to Spielberg. As James Darrel Edwards III, or “Agent J,” Smith joined Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black to once again save the world. In 1998, Smith won a Blockbuster Entertainment Award for favorite actor in a science fiction film. He and Jones received nominations for best comedic performance and best onscreen duo in the MTV Movie Awards. Smith’s performance of the title song on the movie soundtrack won another NAACP Image Award and his third Grammy.

Saddened by the murder of rap star Biggie Small, Smith returned to music and released a solo album in 1997, Big Willie Style , which sold eight million copies. The single “I Jiggy with It” reached top ten multi-platinum status. Smith wrote another song, “Just the Two of Us,” for his son Trey. Smith considered it the best song he had written to date. He told Nancy Collins that he felt the emotions so strongly that he wrote the lyrics in five minutes. When he received a 1998 MTV Music Award for the song, he carried Trey to the podium with him.

Smith crowned a successful 1997 with a relatively secret wedding. On New Year’s Eve, he and Jada Pinkett married. They housed their guests in Baltimore, Jada’s hometown. On the morning of the wedding, the guests received envelopes containing directions to the location. They gave the envelopes to limousine drivers, who delivered them to The Cloisters, a sixty-five-year-old mansion featuring medieval architecture. When Smith arrived, he relaxed by playing chess before dressing for the ceremony. Jada had arrived earlier. The couple walked down the aisle together and gave each other away. They declared their love through letters they had written to each other. The family now includes son Jaden Christopher Syre and daughter Willow Camille Reign.

Continues Success

Smith released two more solo albums: Willenium in 1999 and Born to Reign in 2002. Dream Hampton observed that Smith “single-handedly created a space for ‘fun’ rap.” Smith told Hampton, “Speaking proper English on a rap record, rhyming about being punched in the eye and taking it, not pulling out some giant gun—that’s the hard part.”

Smith appeared in a succession of hit movies. In the 1998 thriller Enemy of the State , he co-starred with Gene Hackman. Smith played Robert Clayton Dean, a labor lawyer targeted by mobsters, spies, and National Security agents. In 1999, he played James West in Wild, Wild West , prequel to the popular television series. The year 2000 brought Men in Black: Alien Attack and a starring role as a golf caddy in The Legend of Bagger Vance . Smith observed to Dream Hampton, “Golf is the ultimate sport…. It’s the perfect blend of physical ability and mental prowess.”

Awards kept coming. In 1997, Smith won the National Association of Theater Owners/ShoWest Award for International Box Office Achievement. In 1998, he received the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Award for Best Male Actor. ShoWest presented him its 1999 Actor of the Year Award. That same year, he won three trophies at the American Music Awards: favorite male artist, favorite R&B album for Big Willie Style , and favorite pop-rock album for Big Willie Style . At the eleventh World Music Awards in Monte Carlo, Smith received four titles: world’s best-selling pop male, R&B male, dance male, and rap male.

Stars in Ali

For seven years, Smith declined a role as Muhammad Ali. Smith feared this part, but director Michael Mann outlined a convincing plan to help him prepare for the role. Mann told Harry Haun: “I knew this is the only person who could do it. I knew the commitment.” It took a telephone call from Ali himself to finally convince Smith to accept the challenge of playing the part.

Smith gained weight, trained in the boxing ring, and studied Ali’s faith and his gestures and speech for over a year. No one doubled for him in the boxing ring. He specifically asked that Jada appear in the role of one of Ali’s wives, Sonji Roi. Smith wanted to do the love scene with his own wife. In an interview with People magazine, Smith stated that when the movie premiered in 2001, Ali turned to him during the show and said, “‘Man, you almost as pretty as I was.’” Smith won an Oscar nomination in 2002 and Best Male Performer at the MTV Movie Awards.

Smith wanted a role in John Grisham’s Runaway Jury , but Grisham said no to Smith. Still, the movies, television shows, and music kept coming: Men in Black II in 2002, Bad Boys II in 2004. Also in 2004, Smith played Detective Del Spooner in I, Robot , a film based on Isaac Asimov’s 1950s short stories. That same year, Smith lent his voice to a little fish named Oscar in the animated film Shark Tale . He and Jada created the sitcom All of Us , relating the adventures of a blended family. In 2005, Smith starred in Hitch as the dazzling date doctor who specialized in solving romantic woes. Smith also kept singing. He released a new album, Lost and Found , in March 2005.

Aware of his public responsibility, Will Smith has chosen to live his life in a way that honors the parents who gave him such a good start in life. Writers often note his solid confidence and his charm. He has focused his talents in music, television, and film, but Smith assured Nancy Collins: “’I’m headed for something greater…. Right now I make people laugh. It’s an important service to make people feel good. But I want to be here for a bigger reason.’”

Smith, Will (1968–) [next] [back] Smith, Tubby(1955–) - Basketball coach, Chronology

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