Nationality: American. Born: Willard Christopher Smith II, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 25 September 1968. Education: Attended Our Lady of Lourdes elementary school and Overbrook High School, Philadelphia; turned down a scholarship in computer science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to pursue his career as a performer. Family: Married Sheree Zampino, 1992 (divorced 1995); one son: Willard Christopher Smith III; married Jada Pinkett, 1997; one
Where the Day Takes You (Rocco) (as Manny)
Made in America (Benjamin) (as Tea Cake Walters); Six Degrees of Separation (Schepisi) (as Paul Poitier)
Bad Boys (Bay) (as Mike Lowrey)
Independence Day (Emmerich) (as Steven Hiller)
Men in Black (Sonnenfeld) (as James Darrel Edwards III)
Enemy of the State (Scott) (as Robert Clayton Dean)
The Wild Wild West (Sonnenfeld) (as James West); Legends of Bagger Vance (Redford) (as Bagger Vance)
Grant, Steve, "The Ace of Space," interview in Time Out (London), no. 1405, 23 July 1997.
Robb, Brian J., Will Smith: King of Cool , London, 1999.
Lambert, S., "Will Smith Saves the World," in Boxoffice (Chicago), July 1996.
Rebello, S., "Iron Will," in Movieline (Escondido), December 1996.
Schoemer, Karen, "His future's so bright. . . ," in Newsweek , 7 July 1997.
Rhodes, Joe, "Iron Will," in Premiere (Boulder), November 1998.
Carson, Tom, "Invincible Man," in Esquire , August, 1999.
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Will Smith's success as an actor, both on television and in the movies, is largely due to the same qualities that rocketed him to national attention as a star of rap music when he was only eighteen. Born into a middle class African American family in Philadelphia, Smith has become a crossover performer on many levels. Immensely popular with black audiences, Smith has been able to make elements of black identity and black popular culture not only accessible but comfortably appealing to white audiences. His relaxed stage presence and easy rapport with audiences led Esquire's Tom Carson to compare him to screen giant Clark Gable.
Hip-hop culture and its soundtrack rap music was just beginning to capture the imagination of American youth when Smith started rapping at age thirteen. With his partner "Jazzy Jeff" Townes, he helped create a softer brand of rap that spoke to middle-class teens of all races in a way that the hard-edged rap born of urban poverty did not. Though some sneered at what they called "suburban rap lite" and accused Smith and Townes of writing rap for white people, record sales soared for "Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince." It was Smith's playful and ebullient style as much as his songs about girl trouble and clueless parents that attracted fans.
In 1990, when Benny Medina and Quincy Jones conceived a sitcom about a streetwise kid from the east coast transplanted into a wealthy California suburb, they immediately saw how the exuberant young rap star from Philly fit the role. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air stayed on the air for six years, and even critics who panned it as banal TV froth recognized the charismatic quality of young Will Smith.
When Smith joined the cast of The Fresh Prince , he had virtually no acting experience; the first seasons show the unevenness and tension of his learning years. It took three seasons before he was able to relax into the role, but even in the early years, Smith's ability to convey a mix of sweetness, cockiness, and intelligence in the central character held the slight show together.
In 1992, Smith surprised critics with his performance in a small but intense role as a homeless man in the film Where the Day Takes You , but it was his standout performance in the 1993 film Six Degrees of Separation that made critics and adult audiences begin to take him seriously as an actor. Three years later, his role in the heavily hyped action film Independence Day made him a star.
Smith's good looks and playful, low-key style made him a natural hero of the Hollywood comic-action blockbuster genre, and he was given roles in a succession of films of that type, beginning with Men in Black , a spoof of the type of sci-fi film that had just given him his stardom. One after another, Smith's films were box office successes, and his salary approached $10 million per film. Even when a film flopped, as did The Wild, Wild West in 1999, critics singled out Smith as the one bright spot in an otherwise dismal movie.
Though Smith has been called "the next Eddie Murphy," he has a quality that Murphy has never possessed, which is his ability to inspire comfort in a broad range of audiences. Though Smith is African American and expresses himself both in the vernacular and cultural genres of black culture, he has an everyman kind of humor that disarms white audiences. Film studios have been quick to cash in on this crossover potential, perhaps neglecting to develop his considerable acting ability in favor of showcasing his style, flash, and product placement potential. Smith's highly popular songs for films like Men in Black and The Wild, Wild West are another benefit of his crossover appeal, and are one more reason he has been given more action movies than serious roles.