Family & Companions
With relentless energy and boundless charisma, rapper-turned-acclaimed actor Will Smith transformed himself from his early hip-hop persona The Fresh Prince to become both an Oscar-nominated performer and one of the biggest blockbuster action stars of all time. Smith started his career in the popular rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, which produced such hits as "Parents Just Don't Understand" (1989) and "Summertime" (1991). He capitalized on his popularity with the sitcom "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" (NBC, 1990-96) and had his first brush of dramatic acclaim following "Six Degrees of Separation" (1993). In the mid-1990s, Smith became a major action star with "Bad Boys" (1995), "Independence Day" (1996) and "Men in Black" (1997), and began earning both critical kudos and Oscar consideration for his performance as "Ali" (2001). Meanwhile, his marriage to actress Jada Pinkett-Smith - whom he wed in 1997 - made headlines mainly due to their rare stability and devotion to family. On screen, Smith rose to the top of all-time action stars, becoming only one of three actors to have seven consecutive $100 million blockbusters after starring in "I, Robot" (2004), "Hitch" (2005) and "I Am Legend" (2007). As he won more praise for his performances in "The Pursuit of Happyness" (2006) and "Concussion" (2015), Smith was so well-established that occasional critical or commercial disappointments such as "After Earth" (2013), a fantasy directed by M Night Shyamalan that starred his son Jaden Smith, did little to dent his appeal. Popular successes like "Men In Black 3" (2012) and "Suicide Squad" (2016) proved Smith to be that rare star whose infectious spirit and versatility transcended racial and generational borders, continually attracting record-breaking crowds to sci-fi adventures, comedies and dramas.
Willard C. Smith Jr. was born on Sept. 25, 1968 in Philadelphia, PA. His father, Willard Sr., was an Air Force veteran who owned a commercial refrigeration company, while his mother, Caroline, worked for the local school board. Smith himself was not a model student, however. Despite his naturally inquisitive mind and the quick-on-his feet negotiating skills that earned him the childhood nickname "the Prince," Smith's hyperactive energy hampered his academic efforts. But his outgoing charm and sense of humor already suggested that a different kind of success might be in store for the youngster, who cleverly learned to tailor jokes to predominantly white schoolmates, predominantly black friends and the locals in his Jewish and Muslim neighborhood. At the age of 12, he found a new outlet for his verbal creativity and began experimenting with Grandmaster Flash-inspired rap. When he met turntable ace Jeff Townes, or DJ Jazzy Jeff, on a playground four years later, the two joined forces and began performing on the local party circuit. They added human beat-box Ready Rock C to the act and released the single "Girls Ain't Nothin' but Trouble" on local label Pop Art records in 1985.
Rising rapper Smith immediately made a mark with lyrical content revolving around the trials and tribulations of teenhood, coupled with a rap style that was uniquely funny and refreshingly free of profanity. He had ditched earlier efforts to conform to a more R-rated mold after his grandmother read some of his lyrics and informed him, "truly intelligent people do not have to use these types of words." The brass at Arista imprint Jive Records agreed and signed them to a record deal. Two weeks before his high school graduation, Smith saw the release of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's first album, Rock the House (1987) and his career was set in motion. The duo landed a huge profile boost with an opening slot on tour with Run D.M.C. and Public Enemy later that year, with Smith recalling in interviews that a sold out stadium show of diehard rap fans in Japan truly ignited his fire for superstardom. The year 1988 saw the LP He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper and the breakout single and music video for "Parents Just Don't Understand," which transformed them into platinum recording artists and first-ever recipients of a Grammy Award in the new Rap category. The follow-up release And in This Corner (1989) was certified gold, though the group's mainstream sound was beginning to lose some audiences, in light of the rise of hardcore rap.
By the time Smith was 21 years old, the jug-eared kid from Philly had earned - and lost - a million dollars. Luckily his theatrical charisma had attracted the attention of Hollywood. NBC was interested in building a sitcom around Smith. The result was "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" (NBC, 1990-96), in which Smith opened the show by rapping its back story about a streetwise kid from the Philly 'hood who moves in with wealthy relatives in Bel Air, CA. The show, like Smith's music, was popular with a large cross-section of both black and white audiences, bringing a non-threatening portrayal of hip-hop culture to primetime TV. Taking advantage of his heightened profile, he and Jazzy Jeff released the platinum-selling, Quincy Jones-produced Homebase in 1991. The single "Summertime" earned the duo a second Grammy, hitting the tops of both the R&B and Rap charts and proving to be one of the most memorable hits of their music career. The self-proclaimed "psychotically driven" Smith followed up his second round of success by marrying girlfriend Sheree Zampino, earning his first Golden Globe nomination for "The Fresh Prince," and setting his sights on feature films. He debuted in theaters in a small role in a gritty profile of runaway teens called "Where the Day Takes You" (1992), before landing a supporting role in the Whoopi Goldberg/Ted Danson vehicle "Made in America" (1993).
Smith, now living in Los Angeles, was determined to become a Hollywood star. Convincing a director that he could play something other than a wise-assed urban kid was going to be a challenge. Director Fred Schepisi took that chance, casting Smith in the lead as a charming con-man who ingratiates himself with an affluent white New York couple (Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland) by posing as the son of Sidney Poitier in "Six Degrees of Separation" (1993). The untrained actor spent months working with drama and dialogue coaches for his turn in the adaptation of the Tony-nominated play and the work paid off, with Smith delivering an impressive performance amidst a cast of seasoned acting pros. The same year, he earned a second Golden Globe nomination for "The Fresh Prince" and he and Jazzy Jeff released the album Code Red (1993) which hit gold status and produced the number one single "Boom! Shake the Room." In 1994, Smith assumed executive producer duties on the "Fresh Prince," and the following summer, enjoyed his true cinematic breakout opposite Martin Lawrence in "Bad Boys" (1995). The buddy cop feature, in which Smith played the wild bachelor to Lawrence's family man, was a blockbuster hit and proved Smith had the talent to carry a mainstream film.
"The Fresh Prince" aired its series finale in 1995. Off-screen, Smith also bid farewell to his three-year marriage, which had produced son Willard III, nicknamed Trey. Perfectionist Smith was saddled with feelings of failure and sadness over the break-up and found a shoulder to cry on in actress Jada Pinkett, whom he had been friendly with for years in the relatively small circle of successful black Hollywood actors. Within a year, their friendship blossomed into love, and the spiritually renewed Smith triumphantly returned to theaters as a cigar-chomping military pilot trying to save the U.S. from an alien invasion in the sci-fi thriller "Independence Day" (1996). One of the most anticipated films of the summer blockbuster season, "Independence Day" went on to earn over $800 million dollars worldwide and bumped Smith up to Hollywood's A-list. The following summer he continued his hot streak in yet another space alien success, starring as comically deadpan Agent J opposite Tommy Lee Jones' humorless Agent K in "Men in Black" (1997). In addition to the critical kudos Smith earned for his role in the year's highest grossing film, his performance of the theme song earned a Grammy Award for Best Solo Rap performance. The song also appeared on Smith's debut solo album released on Columbia Records that year, Big Willie Style, which spawned chart-topping hits "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" and "Just the Two of Us," an homage to father/son relationships and dedicated to his son, Trey.
Smith and Pinkett capped 1997 with a New Year's Eve wedding outside Pinkett's hometown of Baltimore, MA. Nearby, Smith had been shooting the dramatic thriller "Enemy of the State" (1998), in which he offered a dramatic performance as a labor lawyer targeted by the National Security Agency after acquiring evidence pivotal to a politically-motivated killing. His next outing was his first box-office disappointment, "Wild Wild West" (1999), in which he was cast as a Civil War-era government agent in a loose interpretation of the popular 1960s TV series. He changed course with the period fable "The Legend of Bagger Vance" (2000), in which he played a mysterious caddy who dispenses inspirational support to a washed-up golf pro (Matt Damon).
Smith's follow-up erased any doubt that he had the dramatic potential of one of his acting heroes, Denzel Washington - to say nothing of bumping his salary up to the $20 million mark. Preparing to play the lead in director Michael Mann's biopic "Ali" (2001), Smith followed the same training regimen as the heavyweight champion once did, challenging himself to dig spiritually and emotionally deeper than he had ever done before as an actor. The film concentrated on the tumultuous period in Ali's life spanning his surprise win over Sonny Liston through his draft difficulties, to his defeat of George Foreman in the infamous "Rumble in the Jungle." Smith's powerhouse performance earned him the highest critical accolades of his career, including nominations from the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, the Black Reel Awards, and the Image Awards.
Smith conquered entirely new creative territory with "Ali" but it was not his only landmark project of 2001. He also released his first book, the illustrated children's story Just the Two of Us, inspired by his 1998 hit song and dedicated to fathers everywhere. In 2002, he released the album Born to Reign before attempting to revisit his successful action film track record with a couple of summer blockbuster sequels that generated solid ticket sales, including reuniting with Tommy Lee Jones in "Men in Black II" (2002) and Martin Lawrence in "Bad Boys 2" (2003). In 2003, he returned to the primetime fold as co-creator and executive producer - along with Pinkett-Smith - of the UPN sitcom "All of Us" (UPN, 2003-07), which was based on their own experiences as a blended family. By now, the Smith-Pinkett household had grown to include not only Trey, but son Jaden Christopher and daughter Willow, all of whom would begin to express an interest in the family business.
Along with business partner James Lassiter, Smith formed Overbrook Entertainment, debuting as a feature film producer with an adaptation of Isaac Asimov's sci-fi classic "I, Robot" (2004), in which he also starred as a futuristic police detective. Smith followed up with a surprisingly belated visit to straight-ahead comedy, lending his distinctive persona to DreamWorks' CGI-animated "Shark Tale" (2004) as Oscar, the mouthy young fish who ends up in hot water after the death of a shark mob boss. Overbrook's next release, "Hitch" (2005), fully capitalized on Smith's considerable charisma and romantic appeal, with his starring role as a smooth professional date doctor whose technique goes awry when he meets his own potential lady love (Eva Mendes).
Now signed to Interscope records, following the lackluster sales of his final album with Columbia, Smith released Lost and Found and enjoyed another rise in the pop and R&B charts with the single "Switch." The actor shook things up again, returning to drama by giving a strong performance in the fact-based "The Pursuit of Happyness" (2006), starring as a single dad struggling to raise a son - played by Smith's own eight-year-old son, Jaden Christopher - while doggedly pursuing a career at a prestigious stock brokerage firm, despite being homeless. Reviews for the film were mixed, but critics were unanimous in their praise of Smith's touching, inspirational portrayal which earned the actor Oscar, Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, Black Reel, and Image Award nominations.
In 2007, Smith found himself listed as the top actor on the annual Entertainment Weekly list of "50 Smartest People in Hollywood," where he was touted for "achieving a level of global popularity unprecedented for an African-American actor." Further evidence of that claim came with the holiday release of "I Am Legend" (2007), a film departure that was darker in tone and more intellectually impacting than anything he had done in his career. The third adaptation of Richard Matheson's novel of the same name starred Smith as the potential sole survivor of a post-apocalyptic viral plague. The actor challenged himself by occupying nearly two-thirds of the screen time by himself. Smith celebrated the July 4th holiday of 2008 with "Hancock," a comedy about a fallen superhero rehabilitated by a publicist. Naturally, the film was a massive box office success - over $600 million worldwide - though critics were far less enthusiastic than audiences.
Slipping into producer mode, Smith oversaw Neil LaBute's thriller "Lakeview Terrace" (2008), which starred Samuel L. Jackson as a veteran LAPD office who terrorizes his new neighbors (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington), and "The Secret Life of Bees" (2008), which featured an acclaimed performance by Queen Latifah as a South Carolina woman who shows a young girl (Dakota Fanning) the secrets of her mother's past. Also that year, he starred in "Seven Pounds" (2008), where he played a mysterious IRS agent determined to change the lives of seven people in order to achieve his own redemption. Back to producing, he steered his son in the remake of "The Karate Kid" (2010), in which Jaden played a 12-year-old kid who moves from Detroit to Beijing and learns martial arts from the aging Mr. Han (Jackie Chan). After the financially successful, but critically dismissed romantic comedy "This Means War" (2012), Smith was back in the saddle with "Men in Black 3" (2012), which saw Agent J travel back in time to the 1960s in order to save both the future and Agent K's (Tommy Lee Jones) younger self (Josh Brolin). This time critics were on the same page as audiences, expressing their collective thumbs up for the action comedy as it broke the $600 million mark worldwide. Reviews were far less kind to the fantasy "After Earth" (2013) a vehicle for Jaden Smith directed by M. Night Shyamalan and featuring a story credit for Will Smith, who also co-produced. The film's critical and commercial failure proved a minor glitch in Smith's burgeoning career as a producer, which scored another hit with a remake of the musical "Annie" (2014) starring Quvenzhané Wallis and Jamie Foxx. Aside from brief cameos in "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" (2013) and Akiva Goldsman's fantasy "Winter's Tale" (2014), Smith next appeared on screen as the star of twisty con-man thriller "Focus" (2015), which blended dark comedy and a romantic subplot in neo-Hitchcockian fashion. The far more serious "Concussion" (2015) starred Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a real-life medical specialist investigating head injuries in the NFL; controversy about the extent to which the NFL was able to whitewash the story hurt its awards season buzz as well as critical reception and box office take. Smith returned in a more familiar action role in "Suicide Squad" (2016), playing DC Comics anti-hero Deadshot, part of a squadron of supervillains brought together to save the world. Despite lackluster reviews, the film was Smith's biggest box office success in several years.
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Began collaborating on rap music with musician Jeffrey Townes (aka 'DJ Jazzy Jeff').
Appeared in his first film, a bit part as a pollster in "The Imagemaker."
Released the double album He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper with DJ Jazzy Jeff.
Produced and performed song "Jazzy's in the House" for feature "License to Drive."
Landed his first significant role in a feature film in "Where the Day Takes You."
Teamed with Tommy Lee Jones in the comedy "Men in Black," directed by Barry Sonnenfeld.
With childhood friend James Lassiter, formed Overbrook Entertainment, which soon landed a production deal at Universal.
Played a labor lawyer targeted by government agents in the thriller "Enemy of the State," marking his first screen appearance opposite Jon Voight.
Reteamed with Sonnenfeld to portray James West in the big screen version of "Wild Wild West."
Played a mysterious golf caddy in the period drama "The Legend of Bagger Vance," co-starring Matt Damon and directed by Robert Redford.
Reteamed with Tommy Lee Jones for "Men in Black II."
Guest starred on an episode of the UPN comedy "All Of Us," which he also executive produced.
Voiced the character of Oscar in the animated feature "Shark Tale."
Produced and co-starred with real life son Jaden Smith in "Pursuit of Happyness," a true rags-to-riches story based on the life of Chris Gardner, earning Smith Golden Globe, SAG, and Oscar nominations.
Co-starred with Charlize Theron in the superhero-themed "Hancock."
Played a suicidal IRS agent trying to help seven strangers in the drama "Seven Pounds."
Was nominated for the 2008 People¿s Choice Award for Favorite Male Star.
Reprised his role of Agent J in "Men in Black III," re-teaming with director Barry Sonnenfeld and co-star Tommy Lee Jones.