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Smith, Will

Will Smith

1968-

Actor, rap artist, film and television producer

On television he was the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, a streetwise Philadelphian sent to live with wealthy relatives in California. In real life he is Will Smith, a streetwise Philadelphian who has-by virtue of hard work and infectious charm-found stardom and wealth in Los Angeles. Smith has enjoyed vast success in two different fields of popular entertainment. While still too young to drink legally he released several platinum rap albums and won the first-ever Grammy Award given in the rap category.

With his accomplishment in the music industry behind him, Smith moved to television situation comedy and scored a hit with "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air." In the mid-1990s, while still a young man by any standards, Smith is in demand for television and film roles, some of which seriously test his acting talent. Premiere magazine contributor Veronica Chambers cited Smith for his "white-bread appeal that very few black men possess," noting that the engaging star is "Ben Franklin with a backward baseball cap."

Acting, for Smith, has often meant being his own quirky self in front of a camera. He has worked hard over the years to invest some realism into the character he played on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air-even if that meant flying in the face of stereotype. "Look what the Fresh Prince represents," Smith told Essence magazine. "He operates on several different levels-a symbol of urban youth, a symbol of Black youth and, most specifically, of Black male youth."

Grew up in a Loving Family

Willard Smith, Jr., was born on September 25, 1968, and raised in Wynnefield, Pennsylvania, a middle-class suburb of West Philadelphia. He was the oldest son and one of four children of a refrigeration engineer and a school board employee. His parents were loving but demanding, the kind who took their children to Mount Rushmore on vacation to prove that education does not end with the classroom.

"Dad was tough but not tyrannical," Smith told Essence. "He kept me in line. He'd get this look that said, 'One more step, Will, and it'll get ugly.' He was an independent businessman-he set up refrigeration in supermarkets-and he always provided for us. He's a steady and positive figure in my life. Mom worked as a school secretary-she's a supervisor now-and her thing was education. My folks sent me to a Catholic school because it was the best school in the neighborhood, but I felt some of the priests and nuns were racist."

As a teen, Smith attended Overbrook High, a public school in Philadelphia. His teachers there nicknamed him "the Prince" because they found him so charming. His best subject was mathematics, and he earned good enough grades to be accepted at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineering program. By that time, though, fate had decreed a different path for the Prince.

Entered the Music Business as a Teen

When he was just twelve years old, Smith met Jeffrey Townes at a friend's party. Townes was better known as DJ Jazzy Jeff, and although he was only a few years older than Smith, he had been spinning records at parties for quite some time. Smith was just beginning to rap—calling himself the Fresh Prince—and he and Jazzy Jeff became friends. For some years they performed in different rap groups and only occasionally paired up. Then, in 1986, their partnership became more serious. "I worked with 2,000 crews before I found this maniac," Jazzy Jeff told People. "There was a click when I worked with him that was missing before." The two friends performed as DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.

Jazzy Jeff had already released an album, so the new duo had little trouble finding a record label. In 1986 they cut their first LP together, Rock the House. Their first single, "Girls Ain't Nothin' But Trouble," did well on the charts. Already famous throughout the Philadelphia region, they found themselves in demand in the rest of the country as well. As the money began to roll in, Smith was able to convince his parents that college could wait. In fact, he earned a million dollars before he turned 20.

Rock the House was released in 1987 and sold some 600,000 copies. Major stardom came to Smith the following year with the double LP He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper, one of the first rap albums to reach platinum status with over a million copies sold. Both albums, but especially the second, offered raps about what the musicians understood best-the day-to-day troubles of modern teens. The hit single "Parents Just Don't Understand," for instance, detailed the nightmares of shopping for school clothes with a mother who is hopelessly out of touch with current styles; the Fresh Prince pleads with his mom to "put back the bellbottom [1970s TV show] Brady Bunch trousers." This universal young adult complaint helped find a crossover audience for DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. "Parents Just Don't Understand" won the very first Grammy Award given in the category of rap music.

Found Success with Clean Rap

Because their subject matter was not particularly controversial, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince were afforded greater opportunities to perform their work. Promoters saw less chance for violence at their shows, so they were booked into major concert venues. Even network television executives felt comfortable putting them on the air. The "clean rap" image proved a mixed blessing, because some other rap artists criticized them for ignoring legitimate problems of black youths.

Smith's reply to detractors was that he was just responding to his own personal environment—one that did not include the stresses of a dysfunctional family, drug abuse, or violent crime. "In the beginning, following the fashion of the day, my raps had a small amount of profanity," he told Essence. "I'll never forget what my grandmother said when she read them: 'He who is truly articulate shuns profanity.' Man, I didn't even know what articulate meant, but I knew I wanted my grandmother's approval, just as I wanted my parents' approval."

At a Glance …

Born on September 25, 1968, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Willard (a refrigeration engineer) and Caroline (a school board employee) Smith; married Sheree Zampino, 1992 (divorced 1995); married Jada Pinkett, 1997; children: (first marriage) Will III; (second marriage) Jaden Christopher Syre, Willow Camille Reign.

Career: Rap musician with duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, 1986-; solo performer, 1997-; actor 1990-.

Awards: Grammy Award, for Best Rap Performance, "Parents Just Don't Understand," 1989; Grammy Award, for Best Rap Performance, for "Summertime,"1992; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Image Award for Best Situation Comedy, for The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, 1992; Grammy Award, for Best Rap Performance, for "Men In Black," 1998; Grammy Award, for Best Rap Performance, for "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It," 1998; ASCAP Awards, 1998, 2000; Blockbuster Entertainment Awards favorite actor (sci-fi), 1996 and 1998, and favorite actor (action/adventure), 1999; Image Award, for Entertainer of the Year, Outstanding Music Video, and Outstanding Rap Artist, 1999; BET Award, for Best Actor, for Ali, 2002.

Addresses: Agent—Overbook Entertainment, Beverly Hills, CA 90210; Web-www.willsmith.net.

By 1990 the Fresh Prince had released three topselling rap albums and was one of the best-known rappers in the nation. He was also broke. "I bought everything," Smith told TV Guide. He had a mansion near Philadelphia, closets full of designer clothing, a fleet of expensive cars, and a jet-set lifestyle complete with fair weather friends. When the money ran out and his friends deserted him, Smith realized how foolish he had been. Already his popularity as a rapper was diminishing. Instead of panicking, however, he just cast about for a new opportunity.

Started Acting

Some Hollywood executives had already noticed Smith's stage presence and his ability to charm an audience. Beginning in 1990 he was invited to audition for small roles on The Cosby Show and A Different World, but he described himself in Jet as being "too scared" to keep the appointments. Finally he met Benny Medina, the head of Warner Brothers Records' black music division. Medina had moved from Watts as a teen to a wealthy Los Angeles neighborhood, and he thought that his experiences would make a funny situation comedy. Medina and Smith talked the idea over and then approached producer Quincy Jones about a pilot episode. Jones immediately sensed that a show of that nature starring Will Smith would be a hit.

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air made its debut on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in the fall of 1990. Smith appeared in the starring role as Will, a Philadelphia teen sent to live with his wealthy, refined, and decidedly Republican aunt and uncle in the upscale Bel Air section of Los Angeles. The show found an audience quickly, "almost singlehandedly keeping the network competitive on Monday nights," according to Gordon Dillow in TV Guide. For Smith, who had never done any acting before, the show was quite a challenge. "I was a nervous wreck," he recalled in TV Guide. "I was trying so hard. I would memorize the entire script, then I'd be lipping everybody's lines while they were talking. When I watch those [early] episodes it's disgusting. My performances were horrible."

Smith might not have been satisfied with his work, but almost everyone else was. In a TV Guide poll, young adults voted the Fresh Prince "hippest teen on TV." In addition, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air quickly became the most popular black situation comedy among white viewers, consistently placing in the Nielsen Top Twenty through its first two seasons. "Smith is such a naturally engaging comic talent that he and the show's capable supporting cast usually sidestep the treacle trap," noted Mike Duffy in the Detroit Free Press. "Smith never allows excess cutes to sabotage the chuckles."

Sought Film Work

An astute businessman who also seeks creative challenges, Smith began trying to broaden his horizons in Hollywood. He sought film work and has since then appeared in several movies. His most notable dramatic performance came in 1993 with the release of Six Degrees of Separation, a serious drama in which Smith played a gay con artist trying to fool a couple of white social climbers. "I wanted to work with [filmmakers] Spike Lee and John Singleton," Smith told Premiere, "and I needed to do a film like Six Degrees in order for those people to consider me. Spike Lee would never consider me for a role, because "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" is all he's ever seen. How would he know that I could do what he demands of an actor?" Smith added that an intelligent choice of future movie roles could assure him a long career in show business. "Film, I think, I can do forever," he said. "As long as you're good, you can always do film," he added.

After Smith expanded his wings with Six Degrees of Separation, he was offered more roles in films such as Where The Day Takes You, and Made In America. But his first role as an action hero made Hollywood sit up and take notice. Smith co-starred with Martin Lawrence in the comedy-thriller, Bad Boys. The film was a box-office success and it set the stage for his next film, Independence Day.

Wanting to focus on his budding film career, in 1996 Smith decided to leave The Fresh Prince of Bel Air after six seasons, even though the show remained successful. The show was translated into more than a dozen languages, and Smith remembered it to Teen People in 2004 as "the biggest thing I ever did."

His move proved fruitful with his next film, Independence Day. Independence Day was an action-packed science fiction film with an all-star ensemble cast. Smith was one of three leads who included actors Bill Pullman and Jeff Goldblum. ID4, as it was nicknamed, earned more than $100 million its opening week. Smith became a bona fide action movie star. He had the sex appeal, the cockiness, and the buffed body. The downside to his success was men wanted to see if he could actually fight. He told Jet that as the Fresh Prince, he "was nonthreatening. So nobody wanted to fight me, but then I buffed up for Independence Day, came on a little cocky, and suddenly people want to knock me down."

Smith's next film was Men In Black. Though it was another sci-fi film, when he was asked by executive producer Steven Spielberg to take the part of Agent J, he told Ebony, "You just can't tell Steven Spielberg no." He teamed up with Academy Award-winning actor Tommy Lee Jones and made box office history. Men In Black was the number one best selling movie of 1997. It grossed over $200 million.

Nurtured Strong Family Ties

Smith, who described himself as a "one-woman man," married Sheree Zampino in 1992. Their first child, Willard Smith III, was born the following year. "She's wonderful," Smith said of his wife in Essence. "She allowed me to finally put down the bags of emotional stress I'd been lugging around like a fool…. I realized that physically, emotionally and intellectually she was on a higher plane than me."

Smith's life seemed to be perfect. He was a rapper, TV star, husband, father, and a blossoming movie star, but his marriage was on a rocky road. His wife soon asked for a divorce. It was finalized in 1995, and they both share custody of their son. Though devastated, Smith continued with his television, rap, and film careers.

Though Smith met Jada Pinkett when she auditioned for a role on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, it was not until years later that they connected romantically. Both considered the other their soulmate. Smith told Ebony, "Jada is the first person I've been with willing to accept that it's not always going to be great, but that's okay." The two married on December 31, 1997; they have two children: a son, Jaden Christopher Syre, and a daughter, Willow Camille Reign.

Continued Recording Music

Though quoted as having no desire to make another record, Smith performed the title track to the Men In Black soundtrack. For rap fans who missed his style, it was a much-needed return. Fans who only knew Smith from TV and film were surprised; so was the music industry. His last album had bombed. The song won an NAACP Image award and garnered him his third Grammy.

In 1997, Smith released a solo album under his own name, titled Big Willie Style. His first single, "Gettin' Jiggy With It" was a top ten hit. He spoke with Essence concerning why he released another rap album, "I loved Biggie [slain rapper Notorious B.I.G.], but my son doesn't have any alternatives." Big Willie Style was a multi-platinum success. In 1999 he released another rap album, Willennium, at about the same time as his film Wild Wild West opened in theaters. Willennium was another multi-platinum success. The single "Will 2K" from the album broke into the Top 10 list and the video for the song was nominated for a Grammy Award. Continuing his outpouring of clean rap, Smith released Born to Reign in 2002. The album featured vocals from his wife and son, and a song about his young daughter. In 2005 he released yet another album titled Lost and Found.

Showed Diverse Acting Talents

Smith added two movies to his resume in 2000: Men in Black Alien Attack, and The Legend of Bagger Vance, directed by Robert Redford. In 2001 Smith stayed busy as the star of the feature film Ali, the story of heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. His performance earned him his first Grammy nomination as an actor.

Sequels to Men in Black in 2002 and Bad Boys in 2003 proved box-office hits. Smith followed these blockbusters with a starring role in Isaac Asimov's classic sci-fi adventure I, Robot. In the 2004 film, Smith plays a skeptical police officer who "is basically Shaft, a black cop who wears lots of leather, earrings, a Mike Tyson gait, an ancient grudge and a face that says: 'I can't stand people's unquestioning faith in robots,' as James Christopher of the London Times put it in his review of I, Robot.

Smith switched gears in 2005 to star in the romantic comedy Hitch. In the film, Smith played a dating consultant who helped men woo the women of their dreams. Film Journal International found Smith the "perfect fit" for the role. And Smith told People that "I am Hitch in my real life." The film became an international success.

Smith told TV Guide that his high confidence in himself helped him to leap from local notoriety to national celebrity while still a teenager. "Confidence is what makes me different from guys at home…. I'm the one who always takes the risks." In Seventeen, he said: "You have to believe in something greater than yourself. You have to have faith in the power and believe it has your best interest at heart. That's how I was raised by my parents, and that's my bottom line." One thing Will Smith has proven: he has the business sense, the charm, and the talent to utilize every opportunity that comes his way.

Selected works

Albums

(With DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince) Rock the House (includes "Girls Ain't Nothin' But Trouble"), Jive, 1987, reissued, 1989.

(With DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince) He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper (includes "Parents Just Don't Understand"), Jive, 1988.

(With DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince) And in This Corner, Jive, 1989.

(With DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince) Homebase, 1991.

Code Red, 1993.

Men In Black soundtrack, title cut, 1997.

Big Willie Style, 1997.

Willennium, 1999.

Born to Reign, 2002.

Lost and Found, 2005.

Television

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, 1990-96.

(Co-creator) All of Us, 2003-.

Films

Where The Day Takes You, 1992.

Made In America, 1993.

Six Degrees of Separation, 1993.

Bad Boys, 1995.

Independence Day, 1996.

Men In Black, 1997.

Enemy of the State, 1998.

Wild Wild West, 1999.

The Legend of Bagger Vance, 2000.

Ali, 2001.

Men in Black 2, 2002.

Bad Boys II, 2003.

I, Robot, 2004.

Hitch, 2005.

Sources

Books

Nickson, Chris, Will Smith, St. Martin's, 1999.

Periodicals

Cosmopolitan, October 1993, p. 102.

Detroit Free Press, May 10, 1993, p. E-1.

Ebony, February 1994, p. 30; August 1996, p. 34.

Emerge, September 1993, p. 11.

Essence, February 1993, p. 60-62, 118-21; July 1997, p. 60; February 2005, p. 134.

Film Journal International, April 2005, p. 118.

Hollywood Reporter, September 15, 2003, p. 19.

Jet, December 3, 1990, p. 58-61; January 10, 1994, p. 64; Jan 27, 1997.

People, September 24, 1990, p. 83-84; July 22, 1996, p. 64; February 21, 2005, p. 91.

Premiere, January 1994, p. 76-77.

Seventeen, July 1992, p. 86-87.

Teen People, August 1, 2004, p. 102.

TV Guide, September 29-October 5, 1990, p. 5; October 13-19, 1990, p. 6-9; January 23-29, 1993, p. 10-12.

Upscale, February 1994, p. 116.

On-line

"All of Us," UPN, www.upn.com/shows/all_of_us/index.shtml (August 15, 2005).

"I, Robot," Times Online, www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,7943-1202108,00.html (August 15, 2005).

"Will Smith," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (August 18, 2005).

Will Smith, www.willsmith.net (August 15, 2005).

—Anne Janette Johnson, Ashyia N. Henderson, and Sara Pendergast

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Smith, Will 1968–

Will Smith 1968

Actor

Hes Really From Philly

The DJ and the Rapper

The Fresh Prince Moved to Bel Air

Goodbye TV, Hello Action Star

Married, Divorced, Remarried

Returned to Rap

Selected discography

Sources

On television he was the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, a streetwise Philadelphian sent to live with wealthy relatives in California. In real life he is Will Smith, a streetwise Philadelphian who hasby virtue of hard work and infectious charmfound stardom and wealth in Los Angeles. Smith has enjoyed vast success in two different fields of popular entertainment. While still too young to drink legally he released several platinum rap albums and won the first-ever Grammy Award given in the rap category.

With his accomplishment in the music industry behind him, Smith moved to television situation comedy and scored a hit with The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. In the mid-1990s, while still a young man by any standards, Smith is in demand for television and film roles, some of which seriously test his acting talent. Premiere magazine contributor Veronica Chambers cited Smith for his white-bread appeal that very few black men possess, noting that the engaging star is Ben Franklin with a backward baseball cap.

Acting, for Smith, has often meant being his own quirky self in front of a camera. He has worked hard over the years to invest some realism into the character he played on The Fresh Prince of Bel Aireven if that meant flying in the face of stereotype. Look what the Fresh Prince represents, Smith told Essence magazine. He operates on several different levelsa symbol of urban youth, a symbol of Black youth and, most specifically, of Black male youth.

Hes Really From Philly

Willard Smith, Jr., was born and raised in Wynnefield, Pennsylvania, a middle-class suburb of West Philadelphia. He was the oldest son and one of four children of a refrigeration engineer and a school board employee. His parents were loving but demanding, the kind who took their children to Mount Rushmore on vacation to prove that education does not end with the classroom.

Dad was tough but not tyrannical, Smith told Essence He kept me in line. Hed get this look that said, One more step, Will, and itll get ugly. He was an independent businessmanhe set up refrigeration in supermarketsand he always provided for us. Hes a steady and positive figure in my life. Mom worked as a school secretaryshes a supervisor nowand her thing was

At a Glance

Born September 25, 1968, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Willard (a refrigeration engineer) and Caroline (a school board employee) Smith; married Sheree Zampino, 1992, divorced 1995; children: Will III; married jada Pinkett, December 31, 1997; children: expecting child in June of 1998. Education; Graduated from Overbrook High School, 1986.

Career : Rap musician with duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, beginning 1986; solo performer, 1997; actor appearing on television in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air NBC, 1990-96; and in films, including Where the Day Takes You, 1992, Made in America, 1993, Six Degrees of Separation, 1993, Bad Boys, 1995, Independence Day, 1996, Men In Black, 1997, Wild, Wild West, and Enemy of the State, 1999.

Selected awards: Grammy Award in rap category, 1989, for singles Parents Just Dont Understand 1989, Summertime 1992, Men In Black 1998; Image Award for best situation comedy, NAACP, for The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, 1992, Best Rap Artist, 1998.

Addresses : Publicist-PMK Public Relations, 955 S. Carrillo Dr., #200, Los Angeles, CA 90048.

education. My folks sent me to a Catholic school because it was the best school in the neighborhood, but I felt some of the priests and nuns were racist.

As a teen, Smith attended Overbrook High, a public school in Philadelphia. His teachers there nicknamed him the Prince because they found him so charming. His best subject was mathematics, and he earned good enough grades to be accepted at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineering program. By that time, though, fate had decreed a different path for the Prince.

When he was just twelve years old, Smith met Jeffrey Townes at a friends party. Townes was better known as DJ Jazzy Jeff, and although he was only a few years older than Smith, he had been spinning records at parties for quite some time. Smith was just beginning to rap calling himself the Fresh Princeand he and Jazzy Jeff became friends. For some years they performed in different rap groups and only occasionally paired up. Then, in 1986, their partnership became more serious. I worked with 2,000 crews before I found this maniac, Jazzy Jeff told People There was a click when I worked with him that was missing before. The two friends performed as DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.

Jazzy Jeff had already released an album, so the new duo had little trouble finding a record label. In 1986 they cut their first LP together, Rock the House Their first single, Girls Aint Nothin But Trouble, did well on the charts. Already famous throughout the Philadelphia region, they found themselves in demand in the rest of the country as well. As the money began to roll in, Smith was able to convince his parents that college could wait. In fact, he earned a million dollars before he turned 20.

The DJ and the Rapper

Rock the House was released in 1987 and sold some 600,000 copies. Major stardom came to Smith the following year with the double LP Hes the DJ, Im the Rapper, one of the first rap albums to reach platinum status with over a million copies sold. Both albums, but especially the second, offered raps about what the musicians understood bestthe day-to-day troubles of modern teens. The hit single Parents Just Dont Understand, for instance, detailed the nightmares of shopping for school clothes with a mother who is hopelessly out of touch with current styles; the Fresh Prince pleads with his mom to put back the bell-bottom [1970s TV show] Brady Bunch trousers. This universal young adult complaint helped find a crossover audience for DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Parents Just Dont Understand won the very first Grammy Award given in the category of rap music.

Because their subject matter was not particularly controversial, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince were afforded greater opportunities to perform their work. Promoters saw less chance for violence at their shows, so they were booked into major concert venues. Even network television executives felt comfortable putting them on the air. The clean rap image proved a mixed blessing, because some other rap artists criticized them for ignoring legitimate problems of black youths.

Smiths reply to detractors was that he was just responding to his own personal environmentone that did not include the stresses of a dysfunctional family, drug abuse, or violent crime. In the beginning, following the fashion of the day, my raps had a small amount of profanity, he told Essence Ill never forget what my grandmother said when she read them: He who is truly articulate shuns profanityMan, I didnt even know what articulate meant, but I knew I wanted my grandmothers approval, just as I wanted my parents approval.

By 1990 the Fresh Prince had released three top-selling rap albums and was one of the best-known rappers in the nation. He was also broke. I bought everything, Smith told TV Guide. He had a mansion near Philadelphia, closets full of designer clothing, a fleet of expensive cars, and a jet-set lifestyle complete with fair weather friends. When the money ran out and his friends deserted him, Smith realized how foolish he had been. Already his popularity as a rapper was diminishing. Instead of panicking, however, he just cast about for a new opportunity.

The Fresh Prince Moved to Bel Air

Some Hollywood executives had already noticed Smiths stage presence and his ability to charm an audience. Beginning in 1990 he was invited to audition for small roles on The Cosby Show and A Different World, but he described himself in Jet as being too scared to keep the appointments. Finally he met Benny Medina, the head of Warner Brothers Records black music division. Medina had moved from Watts as a teen to a wealthy Los Angeles neighborhood, and he thought that his experiences would make a funny situation comedy. Medina and Smith talked the idea over and then approached producer Quincy Jones about a pilot episode. Jones immediately sensed that a show of that nature starring Will Smith would be a hit.

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air made its debut on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in the fall of 1990. Smith appeared in the starring role as Will, a Philadelphia teen sent to live with his wealthy, refined, and decidedly Republican aunt and uncle in the upscale Bel Air section of Los Angeles. The show found an audience quickly, almost singlehandedly keeping the network competitive on Monday nights, according to Gordon Dillow in TV Guide For Smith, who had never done any acting before, the show was quite a challenge. I was a nervous wreck, he recalled in TV Guide I was trying so hard. I would memorize the entire script, then Id be lipping everybodys lines while they were talking. When I watch those [early] episodes its disgusting. My performances were horrible.

Smith might not have been satisfied with his work, but almost everyone else was. In a TV Guide poll, young adults voted the Fresh Prince hippest teen on TV. In addition, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air quickly became the most popular black situation comedy among white viewers, consistently placing in the Nielsen Top Twenty through its first two seasons. Smith is such a naturally engaging comic talent that he and the shows capable supporting cast usually sidestep the treacle trap, noted Mike Duffy in the Detroit Free Press. Smith never allows excess cutes to sabotage the chuckles.

An astute businessman who also seeks creative challenges, Smith began trying to broaden his horizons in Hollywood. He sought film work and has since then appeared in several movies. His most notable dramatic performance came in 1993 with the release of Six Degrees of Separation, a serious drama in which Smith played a gay con artist trying to fool a couple of white social climbers. I wanted to work with [filmmakers] Spike Lee and John Singleton, Smith told Premiere, and I needed to do a film like Six Degrees in order for those people to consider me. Spike Lee would never consider me for a role, because The Fresh Prince of Bel Air is all hes ever seen. How would he know that I could do what he demands of an actor? Smith added that an intelligent choice of future movie roles could assure him a long career in show business. Film, I think, I can do forever, he said. As long as youre good, you can always do film, he added.

After Smith expanded his wings with Six Degrees of Separation, he was offered more roles in films such as Where The Day Takes You, and Made In America. But his first role as an action hero made Hollywood sit up and take notice. Smith co-starred with Martin Lawrence in the comedy-thriller, Bad Boys. The film was a box-office success and it set the stage for his next films, Independence Day and Men in Black

Goodbye TV, Hello Action Star

For the past summers, Smith shot a film, and then would return to his role on The Fresh Prince. Despite losing one actress in a key roleJanet Hubert-Whitten left the show due to creative differencesand gaining anotherDaphne Maxwell Reidthe show was still successful. After six seasons, Smith decided to call it quits. He wanted to focus on his budding film career.

Independence Day was an action packed science fiction film with an all-star ensemble cast. Smith was part of three leads which included actors Bill Pullman and Jeff Goldblum. ID4, as it was nicknamed, earned more than $100 million its opening week. Smith became a bona fide action movie star. He had the sex appeal, the cockiness, and the buffed body. The downside to his success was men wanted to see if he could actually fight. He told Jet that as the Fresh Prince, he was nonthreatening. So nobody wanted to fight me, but then I buffed up for Independence Day, came on a little cocky, and suddenly people want to knock me down.

Smiths next film was Men In Black Though another scifi film, when asked by executive producer Steven Spielberg to take the part of Agent J, he told Ebony, You just cant tell Steven Spielberg no. He teamed up with Academy Award-winning actor Tommy Lee Jones and made box office history. Men In Black was the number one best selling movie of 1997. It grossed over $200 million.

Married, Divorced, Remarried

Smith, who described himself as a one-woman man, married Sheree Zampino in 1992. Their first child, Willard Smith III, was born the following year. Shes wonderful, Smith said of his wife in Essence She allowed me to finally put down the bags of emotional stress Id been lugging around like a fool. I realized that physically, emotionally and intellectually she was on a higher plane than me.

Smiths life seemed to be perfect. He was a rapper, TV star, husband, father, and a blossoming movie star, but his marriage was on a rocky road. His wife soon asked for a divorce. It was finalized in 1995, and they both share custody of their son. Though devastated, Smith continued with his television, rap, and film careers.

Though Smith met Jada Pinkett when she auditioned for a role on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, it was not until years later did they connect romantically. Both considered the other their soulmate. Smith told Ebony, Jada is the first person Ive been with willing to accept that its not always going to be great, but thats okay. The two married December 31, 1997 and are expecting a child in the summer of of 1998.

Returned to Rap

Though quoted as having no desire to make another record, Smith performed the title track to the Men In Black soundtrack. For rap fans who missed his style, it was a much-needed return. For those fans who only knew Smith from TV and film, they were surprised, so was the music industry. His last album bombed. The song won an NAACP Image award and garnered him his third Grammy.

In 1997, Smith released a solo album under his own name, titled Big Willie Style. His first single, Gettin Jiggy With It was a top ten hit. He spoke with Essence concerning why he released another rap album, I loved Biggie [slain rapper Notorious B.I.G.], but my son doesnt have any alternatives. Big Willie Style was a multiplatinum success. Smith made an album based on his life. In it he discussed his divorce, his career, his son, and his significant other, Jada.

Smith told TV Guide that his high confidence in himself helped him to leap from local notoriety to national celebrity while still a teenager. Confidence is what makes me different from guys at home. Im the one who always takes the risks. In Seventeen, he said: You have to believe in something greater than yourself. You have to have faith in the power and believe it has your best interest at heart. Thats how I was raised by my parents, and thats my bottom line. If there are any doubts that Smith will continue being successful, those should be laid to rest. One thing Will Smith has proven: he has the business sense, the charm, and the talent to utilize every opportunity that comes his way.

Selected discography

With DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince

Rock the House (includes Girls Aint Nothin But Trouble), Jive, 1987, reissued, 1989.

Hes the DJ, Im the Rapper (includes Parents Just Dont Understand), Jive, 1988.

And in This Corner, Jive, 1989.

Homebase, 1991.

Code Red, 1994.

As a Solo Performer

Men In Black soundtrack, title cut, 1997.

Big Willie Style, 1997.

Selected Works

Television

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, 1990-96.

Film

Where The Day Takes You, 1992.

Six Degrees of Separation, 1993

Made In America, 1993.

Bad Boys, 1995.

Independence Day, 1996.

Men In Black, 1997.

Sources

Books

Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television, Gale, 1995, p.378.

Current Biography Yearbook, Gale, 1996, p. 520-523.

Periodicals

Cosmopolitan, October 1993, p. 102.

Detroit Free Press, May 10, 1993, p. E-l.

Ebony, February 1994, p. 30; August 1996, p. 34.

Emerge, September 1993, p. 11.

Essence, February 1993, p. 60-62, 118-21; July 1997, p. 60.

Jet, December 3, 1990, p. 58-61; January 10, 1994, p. 64; Jan 27, 1997.

People, September 24, 1990, p. 83-84; July 22, 1996, p. 64.

Premiere, January 1994, p. 76-77.

Seventeen, July 1992, p. 86-87.

TV Guide, September 29-October 5, 1990, p. 5; October 13-19, 1990, p. 6-9; January 23-29, 1993, p. 10-12.

Upscale, February 1994, p. 116.

Other

Information obtained online at www.billboardonline.com and www.rollingstone.com.

Anne Janette Johnson and Ashyia N. Henderson

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Smith, Will

Will Smith

Rap singer, actor

As the rapping half of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Will Smith achieved almost overnight stardom after the duo's debut album was released by Jive Records in 1987. Platinum-level record sales proved to be only the beginning of the Philadelphia-born artist's phenomenally rewarding multi-media career. Smith managed to parlay his G-rated rap appeal into a starring role in the long-running Fresh Prince of Bel-Air television series and into box-office success with such films as Independence Day, Men In Black, and I, Robot, a 2004 sci-fi blockbuster. Even as his screen career was reaching new heights, Smith returned to recording as a solo rap artist with the multi-platinum 1997 release Big Willie Style, followed by several other albums, including 2002's Born to Reign and 2005's Lost and Found.

Though critics often dismissed his recordings as "cute" and "lightweight," Smith had little trouble connecting with a multi-racial audience, from his first hit single "Parents Just Don't Understand" onwards. He made no apologies for avoiding profanity and violent themes in his recordings, preferring to concentrate on romance and ordinary teenage troubles. In reviewing their first three albums, critic Paul Evans wrote in The Rolling Stone Album Guide that Smith and his partner Jeffrey Townes were "clean-cut and ingratiating … turning out credible grooves for the pre-teen set." In contrast to the angry, often politically controversial records by NWA, Public Enemy, and similar artists, Smith and Townes offered a family-friendly version of hip-hop that appealed to millions in the United States and abroad.

Born on September 25, 1968, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Smith grew up in a middle-class household and learned the value of education and discipline in his early years. While still in elementary school, he showed an interest in music and took piano lessons. By age 12 he was listening to early rap recordings and beginning to try out his own rhyming skills. While performing at a house party in 1981, he met Townes and the two soon formed a performing partnership. Smith adopted the performing name "Fresh Prince" after his grade school teachers began calling him "Prince" because of his charming personality and "regal attitude."

Recording in Townes's basement, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince began experimenting with soundtrack samples and drums loops, crafting a fast-paced, distinctive sound. Their debut single, "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble," was released in 1986 on the small Word-up label, reaching number 81 on the R&B charts. After a dispute with Word-up over royalties, the duo signed with Jive Records, who released their Rock This House album in 1987. A year later they scored their first big pop radio breakthrough with "Parents Just Don't Understand," a number 12 hit that eventually became a certified gold single.

Putting aside plans to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a scholarship, Smith plunged into his rap career full-time, continuing his hit-making streak with such singles as "A Nightmare On My Street" and a re-recorded version of "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble." The year 1988 saw the release of He's The D.J., I'm The Rapper, which went on to reach the triple-platinum sales level. "Parents Just Don't Understand" went on to earn DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince a 1988 Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance, the first ever given in this category. Their next album, 1989's …And In This Corner, surpassed the platinum sales level and yielded the single "I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson."

Television Star

A new opportunity presented itself to Smith when he met Warner Brothers Records executive Benny Medina in December of 1989. Seeking a star for a TV situation comedy concept, Medina interested Smith in the lead role in a series that would eventually be aired by NBC-TV as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Aire. Broadcast from 1990 through 1996, the series enjoyed high ratings and made Smith into a multi-media celebrity. He received a Golden Globe nomination for best performance by an actor in a television series in 1992, with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Aire winning an award for best comedy series at the NAACP Image Awards that same year. Smith decided to leave the show at the end of its sixth season in favor of new challenges.

Smith continued his partnership with Townes during his days with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, releasing the albums Homebase and Code Red in 1991 and 1993, respectively. The duo scored a particularly big success in 1991 with "Summertime," a number one R&B and number four pop hit that went on to be awarded a Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. Further high-charting singles continued, including "Ring My Bell" in 1991 and "Boom! Shake The Room" in 1993, the latter a number one hit in Britain. Nevertheless, he decided to put aside his rap career in favor of acting, after he began to win motion picture roles. His most notable early film was 1993's Six Degrees Of Separation, which cast him as a gay street hustler opposite Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland and earned him largely favorable reviews.

For the Record …

Born Willard C. Smith II on September 25, 1968, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Willard C. Smith Sr. (a refrigeration engineer) and Caroline (a school board employee); married Sheree Zampino, 1992 (divorced, 1995); married Jada Pinkett, 1997; children: Willard C. Smith III (from first marriage), born 1992; Jaden Christopher Syre Smith (from second marriage), born 1998; Willow Camille Reign (from second marriage), born 2000.

Formed duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince with Jeffrey Townes, 1981; released debut single "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble" on Word-up label, 1986; signed with Jive and released Rock The House, 1987; released title song from Men In Black (soundtrack), 1997; released solo debut album on Columbia, Big Willie Style, 1998; released album Willennium, 1999; released album Maximum Will Smith, 2000; released album Born to Reign, 2002; released album Lost and Found, 2005.

Awards: Grammy Award, Best Rap Performance, for "Parents Just Don't Understand," 1988; Grammy Award, Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group, for "Summertime," 1991; NAACP Image Award, Outstanding Rap Artist, for "Summertime," 1991; MTV Music Award, Best Video From a Film, for "Men In Black," 1997; NAACP Image Award, Outstanding Rap Artist, for "Men In Black," 1997; Blockbuster Entertainment Award, Favorite Actor, Science Fiction, for Independence Day, 1997; Grammy Award, Best Rap Solo Performance, for "Men In Black," 1998; MTV Video Music Award for Rap Video "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It," 1998; Blockbuster Entertainment Award, Favorite Actor, Science Fiction, for Men In Black, 1998; MTV Movie Awards, Best Fight and Best Movie Song, for Men In Black, 1998; Image Award, Entertainer of the Year, 1999; Blockbuster Entertainment Award, Favorite Actor in an Action/Adventure, for Wild, Wild West, 1999; MTV Movie Award, Best Male Performance, for Ali, 2002; People's Choice Award, Favorite Male Action Star, 2005.

Addresses: Record company—Columbia Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211. Fan mail—Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212.

Success on Big Screen

Smith's winning streak as a screen actor began with Bad Boys, a 1995 action film that received largely negative reviews but became a notable box office success. His next role was as a fighter pilot in the science fiction thriller Independence Day, a huge hit with both filmgoers and critics that became the highest-grossing film of 1996. A year later Smith co-starred with Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black, a sci-fi excursion with a comedic twist that again set box office records. Enemy of the State (1998) saw him in a more serious action role, while 1999's Wild, Wild West was a special effects-laden, tongue-in-cheek film vehicle similar in tone to Men In Black. In a more serious vein, he co-starred with Matt Damon, under the direction of Robert Redford, in The Legend of Bagger Vance in 2000.

During much of this period, Smith refrained from recording, and in interviews he expressed concern over the violence associated with the hip-hop scene. In the end, it was the popularity of Men In Black that encouraged Smith to launch himself as a solo rap recording artist. The film soundtrack's title number earned him a number one single in both the United States and Britain, and a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance in 1998. Signing with Columbia Records, he released his solo debut, Big Willie Style, in 1997. The CD was both in keeping with the broad appeal of Smith's earlier days and reflective of a greater maturity and self-reflection. Such tracks as "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" and "Miami" were infectious, playful numbers, while "Just The Two Of Us" found Smith rapping about fatherhood in highly personal terms. Big Willie Style went on to sell eight million copies, proving that Smith had lost none of his touch as a rapper. A follow-up album, Willennium, appeared in 1999.

By any measure, Smith has enjoyed exceptional success and has had a major impact on popular culture in the 1990s and into the new millennium. In interviews, his outlook on his life and career have seemed positive and confident. As he told Lynn Hirschberg in a Vanity Fair interview, "I look at my neighborhood, I know personally 15 people who could do exactly what I'm doing right now. But they're scared to take that shot. If they give me the position, I'll shoot my shot. The only thing that can go wrong is, I miss. And if I miss, I'll shoot again."

Smith continued trying new things, and in 2001 he stepped away from fictional action adventure films to play real-life heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali. Before the filming of Ali could take place, Smith spent 12 months getting in physical shape. The making of the film proved just as taxing, as it went over budget and backers threatened to cancel it. "I've been to my physical and emotional and mental and spiritual ends to create this interpretation, so my hope is that people will get from the film what I got from the experience," he told the BBC News. For Smith, the film was so rewarding that he said he felt as if he had peaked, though he was only 33. Smith relied on his rapping skills in making the film, as he mimicked Ali's famed sing-song patois. Indeed, Smith's performance was so spectacular that it propelled him from rapper to Oscar-nominated actor for the role, although in the end he did not take home the award.

In 2003 Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, became executive producers for a UPN sitcom called All of Us. Loosely based on the Smiths' real-life domestic situation, the show explored life in a family rebuilding after divorce.

Smith was back to his action-hero ways in 2004's I, Robot. In this violent video game flick, set in 2035, Smith played a futuristic homicide detective. While investigating a murder, Smith's character becomes convinced of a robot conspiracy to kill humans. While science fiction films are not usually box-office smashes, I, Robot took in $52.25 million during its first weekend of release, marking Smith's fourth film to open at over $50 million. "Science fiction can be tough to market," Fox distribution chief Bruce Snyder remarked to USA Today, "and the movies can be a little bit cold. Will takes the chill away." Due to Smith's on-screen persona and buff body, the film also captured more female viewers than typical science fiction films usually attract.

In 2005 Smith starred in Hitch, a film about a New York "date doctor" whose own love life could use some work. It was the fifth Will Smith film in a row to reach the number one slot, following Shark Tale, I, Robot, Bad Boys II, and Men in Black. The movie was produced by Sony, and that company's head of distribution, Rory Bruer, told a reporter for the BBC News, "Will Smith [is] one of those rare stars that appeals to everyone."

Released New Album

In 2005 he released a new album, Lost and Found. According to a reporter in Access Atlanta, this album lacked the "sugary-sweet goodness" of his earlier music, and had more "fire"; the reporter praised the album, noting that on it Smith sounds like "a person rather than a persona." The album peaked at number six on the Billboard 200.

Smith continued his success in 2006 with the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, which grossed $305 million worldwide. The movie was the critically acclaimed story of a down-on-his-luck salesman, Chris Gardner, who was struggling to provide for his family. Through hard work, genius and perseverance, the character becomes a hugely successful stockbroker. The film garnered Smith nominations for best actor from the MTV Awards, the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes. Playing opposite Smith's role in Happyness was his real-life son, Jaden Smith, who won three Teen Choice awards for his role in the movie.

In the December 2007 release I Am Legend, Smith played the lead role of Robert Neville in the cinematic adaptation of Richard Matheson's classic horror/sci-fi novella. Neville is a scientist who is the sole survivor of a virus outbreak in New York City. Smith joined the ranks of Hollywood legends Vincent Price and Charlton Heston, actors who have taken the lead role in other adaptations of Matheson's novel, in 1964 and 1971, respectively. Willow Smith, Smith's daughter, made her big-screen debut playing Neville's daughter. Smith is scheduled to appear in the summer 2008 release Hancock, lending his comedic talents to a story about an alcoholic superhero, opposite Justin Bateman and Charlize Theron.

Smith is among a rare breed of performers who seems to have a Midas touch when it comes to success in the entertainment industry. This success, as both a rapper and actor, is amplified by the enormous respect he has garnered in both fields from fellow entertainers and producers, who line up to assist him in both blockbuster films and bestselling records.

Selected discography

with DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince

Rock The House, Jive, 1987.

He's The D.J., I'm The Rapper, Jive, 1988.

And In This Corner…, Jive, 1989.

Homebase, Jive, 1991.

Code Red, Jive, 1993.

Solo

Big Willie Style, Columbia, 1997.

Williennium, Columbia, 1999.

Maximum Will Smith, Columbia, 2000.

Born to Reign, Columbia, 2002.

Lost and Found, Interscope, 2005.

Sources

Books

DeCurtis, Anthony and James Henke, editors, The Rolling Stone Album Guide, Random House, 1992.

Larkin, Colin, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze, 1998.

Periodicals

Ebony, July 1999.

People, July 26, 2004; December 6, 2004.

Teen People, August 1999.

Vanity Fair, October 1990.

USA Today, July 19, 2004.

Online

Access Atlanta,http://www.accessatlanta.com/music/content/music/0305/29willsmitha.html (November 22, 2005).

BBC News,http://www.news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/film/1719162.stm (January 27, 2005); http://www.news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/4263205.stm (November 22, 2005).

E!Online,http://www.eonline.com (May 21, 1999).

Wall of Sound,http://www.wallofsound.go.com (May 21, 1999).

Additional information for this profile was provided by Will Smith publicity materials, 1999.

—Barry Alfonso and Bruce Edward Walker

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Smith, Will 1968–

Will Smith 1968

Actor

At a Glance

The DJ and the Rapper

The Fresh Prince Moved to Bel Air

Selected discography

Sources

On television he is the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, a streetwise Philadelphian sent to live with wealthy relatives in California. In real life he is Will Smith, a streetwise Philadelphian who hasby virtue of hard work and infectious charmfound stardom and wealth in Los Angeles. Smith has enjoyed vast success in two different fields of popular entertainment. While still too young to drink legally, he released several platinum rap albums and won the first-ever Grammy Award given in the rap category.

With his accomplishment in the music industry behind him, Smith moved to television situation comedy and scored a hit with The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. In the mid-1990s, while still a young man by any standards, Smith is in demand for television and film roles, some of which seriously test his acting talent. Premiere magazine contributor Veronica Chambers cited Smith for his white-bread appeal that very few black men possess, noting that the engaging star is Ben Franklin with a backward baseball cap.

Acting, for Smith, has often meant being his own quirky self in front of a camera. He has worked hard over the years to invest some realism into the character he plays on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air even if that means flying in the face of stereotype.

Look what the Fresh Prince represents, Smith told Essence magazine. He operates on several different levelsa symbol of urban youth, a symbol of black youth and, most specifically, of black male youth. As a rapper, some people knocked him for being too middle-class, too clean-cut. Now, as a TV character, hes accused of being unreal. Well, my mission has been to make him more real, and I suppose that means more like me.

Willard Smith, Jr., was born and raised in Wynnefield, Pennsylvania, a middle-class suburb of West Philadelphia. He was the oldest son and one of five children of a refrigeration engineer and a school board employee. His parents were loving but demanding, the kind who took their children to Mount Rushmore on vacation to prove that education does not end with the classroom.

Dad was tough but not tyrannical, Smith told Essence. He kept me in line. Hed get this look that said, One more step, Will, and itll get ugly. He was an independent businessmanhe set up refrigeration in supermarketsand he always provided for us. Hes a steady and positive figure in my life. Mom worked as a school secretaryshes a supervisor nowand her thing was education. My folks

At a Glance

Born September 25, 1968, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Willard (a refrigeration engineer) and Caroline (a school board employee) Smith; married Sheree Zampino, 1992; children: Will III. Education: Graduated from Overbrook High School, 1986.

Rap musician with duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, 1986; actor appearing on television in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, National Broadcasting Company (NBC), 1990; and in films, including Where the Day Takes You, 1992, Made in America, 1993, and Six Degrees of Separation, 1994.

Selected awards: Grammy Award in rap category, 1989, for single Parents Just Dont Understand; Image Award for best situation comedy, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 1992, for The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Addresses: PublicistPSAK Public Relations, 955 S. Carrillo Dr.,200, Los Angeles, CA 90048.

sent me to a Catholic school because it was the best school in the neighborhood, but I felt some of the priests and nuns were racist.

As a teen, Smith attended Overbrook High, a public school in Philadelphia. His teachers there nicknamed him the Prince because they found him so charming. His best subject was mathematics, and he earned good enough grades to be accepted at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineering program. By that time, though, fate had decreed a different path for the Prince.

When he was just twelve years old, Smith met Jeffrey Townes at a friends party. Townes was better known as DJ Jazzy Jeff, and although he was only a few years older than Smith, he had been spinning records at parties for quite some time. Smith was just beginning to rapcalling himself the Fresh Princeand he and Jazzy Jeff became friends. For some years they performed in different rap groups and only occasionally paired up. Then, in 1986, their partnership became more serious. I worked with 2,000 crews before I found this maniac, Jazzy Jeff told People. There was a click when I worked with him that was missing before. The two friends performed as DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.

Jazzy Jeff had already released an album, so the new duo had little trouble finding a record label. In 1986 they cut their first LP together, Rock the House. Their first single, Girls Aint Nothin But Trouble, did well on the charts. Already famous throughout the Philadelphia region, they found themselves in demand in the rest of the country as well. As the money began to roll in, Smith was able to convince his parents that college could wait. In fact, he earned a million dollars before he turned 21.

The DJ and the Rapper

Rock the House was released in 1987 and sold some 600,000 copies. Major stardom came to Smith the following year with the double LP Hes the DJ, Im the Rapper, one of the first rap albums to reach platinum status with more than one million copies sold. Both albums, but especially the second, offered raps about what the musicians understood bestthe day-to-day troubles of modern teens. The hit single Parents Just Dont Understand, for instance, details the nightmares of shopping for school clothes with a mother who is hopelessly out of touch with current styles; the Fresh Prince pleads with his mom to put back the bell-bottom [1970s TV show] Brady Bunch trousers. This universal young adult complaint helped find a crossover audience for DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Parents Just Dont Understand won the very first Grammy Award given in the category of rap music.

Because their subject matter was not particularly controversial, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince were afforded greater opportunities to perform their work. Promoters saw less chance for violence at their shows, so they were booked into major concert venues. Even network television executives felt comfortable putting them on the air. The clean rap image proved a mixed blessing, because some other rap artists criticized them for ignoring legitimate problems of black youths.

Smiths reply to detractors was that he was just responding to his own personal environmentone that did not include the stresses of a dysfunctional family, drug abuse, or violent crime. In the beginning, following the fashion of the day, my raps had a small amount of profanity, he told Essence. Ill never forget what my grandmother said when she read them: He who is truly articulate shuns profanity. Man, I didnt even know what articulate meant, but I knew I wanted my grandmothers approval, just as I wanted my parents approval.

By 1990 the Fresh Prince had released three top-selling rap albums and was one of the best-known rappers in the nation. He was also broke. I bought everything, Smith told TV Guide. He had a mansion near Philadelphia, closets full of designer clothing, a fleet of expensive cars, and a jet-set lifestyle complete with fair weather friends. When the money ran out and his friends deserted him, Smith realized how foolish he had been. Already his popularity as a rapper was diminishing. Instead of panicking, however, he just cast about for a new opportunity.

The Fresh Prince Moved to Bel Air

Some Hollywood executives had already noticed Smiths stage presence and his ability to charm an audience. Beginning in 1990 he was invited to audition for small roles on The Cosby Show and A Different World, but he described himself in Jet as being too scared to keep the appointments. Finally he met Benny Medina, the head of Warner Brothers Records black music division. Medina had moved from Watts as a teen to a wealthy Los Angeles neighborhood, and he thought that his experiences would make a funny situation comedy. Medina and Smith talked the idea over and then approached producer Quincy Jones about a pilot episode. Jones immediately sensed that a show of that nature starring Will Smith would be a hit.

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air made its debut on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in the fall of 1990. Smith appeared in the starring role as Will, a Philadelphia teen sent to live with his wealthy, refined, and decidedly Republican aunt and uncle in the upscale Bel Air section of Los Angeles. The show found an audience quickly, almost singlehandedly keeping the network competitive on Monday nights, according to Gordon Dillow in TV Guide. For Smith, who had never done any acting before, the show was quite a challenge. I was a nervous wreck, he recalled in TV Guide. I was trying so hard. I would memorize the entire script, then Id be lipping everybodys lines while they were talking. When I watch those [early] episodes its disgusting. My performances were horrible.

Smith might not have been satisfied with his work, but almost everyone else was. In a TV Guide poll, young adults voted the Fresh Prince hippest teen on TV. In addition, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air quickly became the most popular black situation comedy among white viewers, consistently placing in the Nielsen Top Twenty through its first two seasons. Smith is such a naturally engaging comic talent that he and the shows capable supporting cast usually sidestep the treacle trap, noted Mike Duffy in the Detroit Free Press. Smith never allows excess cutes to sabotage the chuckles.

Situation comedies starring high school-aged actors can be troublesome. The actors grow into adulthood and suddenly are no longer convincing in their roles. Smith has helped to allay this problem on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air by suggesting ways in which his character could mature without losing his comic edge.

Reflecting on the show in Essence, Smith said: Ive been given input. Ive placed myself in a position where I can make demands. As a result, the scripts have improved. Im happier with the show, and so is everyone else. The stories are more natural, more human. I want my character to be warm and loving, to display integrity and, of course, to be funny. But funny doesnt come first. Integrity does. In TV Guide, Smith mused about the evolution of his role. At the beginning it was easy, he said. The Fresh Prince was me, and I was just doing what I wanted to do. It was working. Now, personally, Im moving away from the characterWill on the show doesnt have a wife and a kid. I have to act now.

An astute businessman who also seeks creative challenges, Smith is trying to broaden his horizons in Hollywood. Beginning in 1992 he sought film work and has since then appeared in several movies. His most notable dramatic performance came in 1994, with the release of Six Degrees of Separation, a serious drama in which Smith played a gay con artist trying to fool a couple of white social climbers. I wanted to work with [filmmakers] Spike Lee and John Singleton, Smith told Premiere, and I needed to do a film like Six Degrees in order for those people to consider me. Spike Lee would never consider me for a role, because The Fresh Prince of Bel Air is all hes ever seen. How would he know that I could do what he demands of an actor? Smith added that an intelligent choice of future movie roles could assure him a long career in show business. Film, I think, I can do forever, he said. As long as youre good, you can always do film.

Smith, who describes himself as a one-woman man, married Sheree Zampino in 1992. Their first child, Willard Smith HI, was born the following year. Shes wonderful, Smith said of his wife in Essence. She allowed me to finally put down the bags of emotional stress Id been lugging around like a fool. I realized that physically, emotionally, and intellectually she was on a higher plane than me.

Smith told TV Guide that his high confidence in himself helped him to leap from local notoriety to national celebrity while still a teenager. Confidence is what makes me different from guys at home. Im the one who always takes the risks. In Seventeen, he concluded: You have to believe in something greater than yourself. You have to have faith in the power and believe it has your best interest at heart. Thats how I was raised by my parents, and thats my bottom line.

Selected discography

With DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince

Rock the House (includes Girls Aint Nothin But Trouble), Jive, 1987, reissued, 1989.

Hes the DJ, Fm the Rapper (includes Parents Just Dont Understand), Jive, 1988.

And in This Corner, Jive, 1989.

Homebase, 1991.

Code Red, 1994.

Sources

Cosmopolitan, October 1993, p. 102.

Detroit Free Press, May 10, 1993, p. E-l.

Ebony, February 1994, p. 30.

Emerge, September 1993, p. 11.

Essence, February 1993, pp. 60-2, 118-21.

Jet, December 3, 1990, pp. 58-61; January 10, 1994, p. 64.

People, September 24, 1990, pp. 83-4.

Premiere, January 1994, pp. 76-7.

Seventeen, July 1992, pp. 86-7.

TV Guide, September 29-October 5, 1990, p. 5; October 13-19, 1990, pp. 6-9; January 23-29, 1993, pp. 10-12.

Upscale, February 1994, p. 116.

Anne Janette Johnson

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Smith, Will

Will Smith

Rap singer

For the Record

Selected discography

Sources

As the rapping half of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Will Smith achieved almost overnight stardom after the duos debut album was released by Jive Records in 1987. Platinum-level record sales proved to be only the beginning of the Philadelphia-born artists phenomenally rewarding multi-media career. Smith managed to parlay his G-rated rap appeal into a starring role in the long-running Fresh Prince of Bel-Air\e\ev\s\on series and also into box-office success with such films as Independence Day and Men In Black. Even as his screen career was reaching new heights, he returned to recording as a solo rap artist with a multi-platinum 1997 release, Big Willie Style.

Though critics often dismissed his recordings as cute and lightweight, Smith had little trouble connecting with a multi-racial audience from his first hit single Parents Just Dont Understand onwards. He made no apologies for avoiding profanity and violent themes in his recordings, preferring to concentrate on romance and ordinary teenage troubles. In reviewing their first three albums, critic Paul Evans wrote in The Rolling Stone Album Guide that Smith and his partner Jeffrey Townes were clean-cut and ingratiating turning out credible grooves for the pre-teen set. In contrast to the angry, often politically controversial records by NWA, Public Enemy and similar artists, Smith and Townes offered a family-friendly version of hip-hop that appealed to millions in the United States and abroad.

Born September 25, 1968, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Smith grew up in a middle-class household and learned the value of education and discipline in his early years. While still in elementary school, he showed an interest in music and took piano lessons. By age 12, he was listening to early rap recordings and beginning to try out his own rhyming skills. While performing at a house party in 1981, he met Townes and soon formed a performing partnership with him. Smith adopted the performing name Fresh Prince after his grade school teachers began calling him Prince because of his charming personality and regal attitude.

Recording in Towness basement, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince began experimenting with soundtrack samples and drums loops, crafting a fast-paced, distinctive sound. Their debut single Girls Aint Nothing But Trouble was released in 1986 on the small Word-up label, reaching number 81 on the R&B charts. After a dispute with Word-up over royalties, the duo signed with Jive Records, who released their Rock This House album in 1987. A year later, they scored their first big pop radio breakthrough with Parents Just Dont Understand, a

For the Record

Born Willard C. Smith II, September 25, 1968, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Willard C. Smith Sr. (a refrigeration engineer) and Caroline (a school board employee); married Sheree Zampino, 1992 (divorced, 1995); married Jada Pinkett, 1997; children: Willard C. Smith III, (from first marriage), born 1992; Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, (from second marriage), born 1998.

Began performing as rap singer c. 1980; formed duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince with Jeffrey Townes, 1981; released debut single Girls Aint Nothing But Trouble on Word-up label, 1986; signed with Jive and released Rock The House, 1987; recorded further albums on Jive, 1988-1993; began first season of television series Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, 1990; left Fresh Prince, starred in films Independence Day inl996, Men In Black, 1997; released title song from Men in Black soundtrack, 1997; released solo debut album on Columbia, Big Willie Style, 1998.

Awards: Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance, Parents Just Dont Understand, 1988; Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group, Summertime, 1991; NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Rap Artist, Summertime, 1991: MTV Music Award for Best Video From a Film, Men In Black, 1997; NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Rap Artist, Men In Black, 1997; Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance, Men In Black, 1998; MTV Video Music Award for Rap Video, GettinJiggy Witlt, 1998.

Addresses: Record company Columbia Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211; Fan mailCreative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212.

number 12 hit that eventually became a certified-gold single.

Putting aside plans to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a scholarship, Smith plunged into his rap career full-time, continuing his hitmaking streak with such singles as A Nightmare On My Street and a re-recorded version of Girls Aint Nothing But Trouble. 1988 saw the release of Hes The D.J., Im The Rapper, which went on reach the triple-platinum sales level. Parents Just Dont Understand went on to earn DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince a 1988 Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance, the first ever given in this category. Their next album, 1989s And In This Comer, surpassed the platinum sales level and yielded the single I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson.

A new opportunity presented itself to Smith when he met Warner Brothers Records executive Benny Medina in December, 1989. Seeking a star for a TV situation comedy concept, Medina interested Smith in the lead role in the series that would eventually be aired by NBC-TV as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Aire. Broadcast from 1990 through 1996, the series enjoyed high ratings and made Smith into a multi-media celebrity. He received a Golden Globe nomination for best performance by an actor in a television series in 1992, with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Aire winning an award for best comedy series at the NAACP Image Awards that same year. The series increased in ratings in its later years, but Smith decided to leave the show at the end of its sixth season in favor of new challenges.

Smith continued his partnership with Townes during his days with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, releasing the albums Homebase and Code Red in 1991 and 1993, respectively. The duo scored a particularly big success in 1991 with Summertime, a number one R&B and number four pop hit that went on to be awarded a Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. Further high-charting singles continued, including Ring My Bell later on in 1991 and Boom! Shake The Room in 1993, the latter a number one hit in Britain. Nevertheless, he decided to put aside his rap career in favor of acting after he began to win motion picture roles. His most notable early film was 1993s Six Degrees Of Separation, which cast him as a gay street hustler opposite Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland and earned him largely favorable reviews.

Smiths winning streak as a screen actor began with Bad Boys, a 1995 action film that received largely negative reviews but became a notable box-office success. His next role was as a fighter pilot in the science fiction thriller Independence Day, a huge hit with both film-goers and the critics that became the highest-grossing film of 1996. A year later, Smith co-starred with Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black, a sci-fi excursion with a comedie twist that again set box-office records. 1998s Enemy of the State saw him in a more serious action role, while 1999s Wild, Wild West was a special effects-laden, tongue-in-cheek film vehicle similar in tone to Men In Black.

During this period, Smith refrained from recording. In interviews, he expressed concern over the violence associated with the hip-hop scene. That was a large part of why I didnt make a record, he said in an interview found on his official website. It was like I dont even wanna rhyme. I made records in my crib. I thought that if this what the world is going to, then I dont think theres any place for me. In the end, it was the popularity of Men In Black that helped to encourage Smith to launch himself as a solo rap recording artist. The film soundtracks title number earned him a number one single in both the United States and Britain, and earned him a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance in 1998. Signing with Columbia Records, he released his solo debut Big Willie Style in 1997. The CD was both in keeping with Smiths smooth, broad-appeal style of his earlier days and reflective of a greater maturity and self-reflection. Such tracks as Gettin Jiggy Wit It and Miami were infectious, playful numbers, while Just The Two Of Us found Smith rapping about fatherhood in highly personal terms. Though Townes produced several songs, the albums sonic polish was largely the work of the Trackmasters production team. Big Willie Style went on to sell 8,000,000 copies, proving that Smith had lost none of his touch as a rapper.

By any measure, Smith has enjoyed exceptional success and had a major impact on popular culture in the 1990s. In interviews, his outlook on life and his career seems as positive and confident as his work as a rap artist. As he told Lynn Hirschberg in a Vanity Fair interview, I look at my neighborhoodI know personally 15 people who could do exactly what Im doing right now. But theyre scared to take that shot. If they give me the position, Ill shoot my shot. The only thing that can go wrong is, I miss. And if I miss, Ill shoot again.

Selected discography

with DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince

Rock The House, Jive, 1987.

Hes The D.J., Im The Rapper, Jive, 1988.

And In This Corner, Jive, 1989

Homebase, Jive, 1991.

Code Red, Jive, 1993.

solo

Big Willie Style, Columbia, 1997.

Sources

Books

DeCurtis, Anthony and Henke, James, editors, The Rolling Stone Album Guide, Random House, 1992.

Larkin, Colin, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze, 1998.

Periodicals

Ebony, July 1999.

Teen People, August 1999.

Vanity Fair, October 1990.

Online

E!Online, http://www.eonline.com (May 21, 1999).

Wall of Sound, http://wallofsound.go.com (May 21, 1999).

Additional information was provided by Will Smith publicity materials, 1999.

Barry Alfonso

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Smith, Will

WILL SMITH

Born: Willard Christopher Smith; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 25 September 1968

Genre: Rap, R&B

Best-selling album since 1990: Willennium (1999)

Hit songs since 1990: "Gettin' Jiggy Wit' It," "Wild Wild West"


As the "Fresh Prince" half of the popular duo D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Will Smith brought a refreshing comic sensibility to rap of the late 1980s. In contrast to tougher-sounding rap acts such as Public Enemy and N.W.A., Smith and his recording partner Jeff Townes specialized in lyrically "clean" raps that explore the humorous side of adolescence. Smith recorded his first solo album in 1997, after establishing a successful career as an actor in Hollywood films and on television. On hits such as "Gettin' Jiggy Wit' It" and "Wild Wild West," he continued to promote the wholesome image for which he had become known. While often dismissed as a lightweight by fans of hard-core "gangsta" rap, Smith creates danceable music with an unwavering sense of groove, his rapping style dexterous and assured. By the early 2000s, Smith's high-profile work in films had eclipsed his recording career, although he continued to release successful albums.


Years with D.J. Jazzy Jeff

Born and raised in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Smith met up-and-coming disc jockey Townes while rapping at a party in 1986. Soon the pair began performing together, becoming audience favorites on the local Philadelphia rap scene. After the duo was offered a recording contract with Jive Records in 1987, Smith turned down a university scholarship at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, deciding to make performing his full-time career. The next year, D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince released their breakthrough album, He's the D.J., I'm the Rapper (1988). Featuring gentle, lighthearted hits such as "Parents Just Don't Understand" and "Nightmare on My Street," the album countered critics who denounced rap music as sexist and violent. In 1991 the duo released its biggest hit, "Summertime," a breezy, nostalgic evocation of childhood summers in Philadelphia. Having begun his acting career the year before with a starring role in the hit television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Smith left the duo to focus on a burgeoning film career. After his performance as a charming con artist in the film Six Degrees of Separation (1993) received critical acclaim, Smith earned starring roles in the Hollywood hits Bad Boys (1995), Independence Day (1996), and Men in Black (1997).

Late 1990s Stardom

In 1997, having devoted the previous four years to acting, Smith released his debut solo album, Big Willie Style. Propelled by the funk-laden, rhythmic hit, "Getting' Jiggy Wit' It," the album advanced the audience-friendly style Smith had pioneered during his career with D.J. Jazzy Jeff. Bypassing the social commentary featured in the work of many of his rap and R&B contemporaries, Smith displays on Big Willie Style a simple desire to entertain. "Miami" qualifies as an infectious celebration of the Florida resort city, with lyrics repeated in English and Spanish, while "Candy" is an engaging duet with Larry Blackmon, leader of the 1980s funk band Cameo. While the album's tone is largely comic, "Just the Two of Us" is a sensitive and absorbing exploration of single fatherhood, dedicated to Smith's son with his first wife, actress Sheree Zampino: "If the world attacks, and you slide off track / Remember one fact, I got your back." Having divorced Zampino, Smith married actress Jada Pinkett in 1997.

In 1999, after starring in his first box-office failure, the western-adventure film Wild Wild West, Smith released a second solo album, Willennium. Borrowing the synthesizer riff from Stevie Wonder's 1976 song "I Wish," the hit "Wild Wild West" climbed to number one on the pop charts. Well constructed, with an intricate, danceable rhythm, the song represents Smith at his spirited best. "Will 2K" uses a sample from the Clash's 1982 hit "Rock the Casbah" to create a celebratory atmosphere, although some critics complained of the track's self-aggrandizing stance, a quality mirrored on the remainder of Willennium. Writing for noted Internet music magazine, Pop Matters, critic Cynthia Fuchs observes, "Nearly every track here extols the endless wonderfulness of being Will Smith." For all his self-important posturing, however, Smith exudes an affecting sweetness and likability, qualities that ensure his enduring appeal. As evidenced in a review of the album by influential English music magazine Q, even Smith's detractors note the easy accessibility of his music: "'Will 2K' even makes a Clash sample sound squeaky clean. Nevertheless, there's something beguiling about Smith's profanity-free style."

On the heels of his most acclaimed acting triumph, portraying boxing legend Muhammad Ali in the movie Ali (2001), Smith released Born to Reign in 2002. Although it lacks the catchy, radio-friendly hits of its predecessors, the album contains the enjoyable "1,000 Kisses," featuring vocals by Pinkett. Incorporating elements of Luther Vandross's 1981 hit, "Never Too Much," the song re-cements Smith's friendly persona. In addition to showcasing the talents of Pinkett, Smith allows his young son Jaden to babble extensively on the track. "Cool, calculating stuff," writes the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, "but annoyingly enjoyable." Other reviews were less kind, falling back on the familiar criticism of Smith's music as bland and ineffectual. Rolling Stone, for example, describes the album as "a nice try from a nice guy." By this point in Smith's career, however, recording had become secondary to his status as one of Hollywood's top leading men.

Beginning his career in the late 1980s as part of the successful rap team D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Will Smith earned critical and popular respect as a film actor before releasing his first solo album in 1997. Famed for his convivial dance songs, Smith won fans with his family-friendly style that downplayed the aggressiveness of much contemporary rap and hip-hop.

SELECTIVE DISCOGRAPHY:

Big Willie Style (Columbia, 1997); Willennium (Columbia, 1999); Born to Reign (Columbia, 2002). With D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince: He's the D.J., I'm the Rapper (Jive, 1988); Homebase (Jive, 1991).

SELECTIVE FILMOGRAPHY:

Six Degrees of Separation (1993); Bad Boys (1995); Independence Day (1996); Men in Black (1997); Ali (2001); Men in Black II (2002).

WEBSITE:

www.willsmith.com.

david freeland

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Smith, Will

SMITH, Will


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 son: Jaden Christopher Syre Smith. Career: Rap musician, early 1980s; teamed with Jeff Towns to form duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, 1986 (their second album, He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper, went triple platinum in 1988); starred in the NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, 1990–1996; first major film role in Six Degrees of Separation, 1993. Awards: National Association of Theater Owners/Sho West Award for International Box Office Achievement, 1997; Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Award for Best Male Actor, 1998; Sho West Actor of the Year Award, 1999. Agent: Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, CA 90212, U.S.A.


Films as Actor:

1992

Where the Day Takes You (Rocco) (as Manny)

1993

Made in America (Benjamin) (as Tea Cake Walters); Six Degrees of Separation (Schepisi) (as Paul Poitier)

1995

Bad Boys (Bay) (as Mike Lowrey)

1996

Independence Day (Emmerich) (as Steven Hiller)

1997

Men in Black (Sonnenfeld) (as James Darrel Edwards III)

1998

Enemy of the State (Scott) (as Robert Clayton Dean)

1999

The Wild Wild West (Sonnenfeld) (as James West); Legends of Bagger Vance (Redford) (as Bagger Vance)



Publications


By SMITH: articles—

Grant, Steve, "The Ace of Space," interview in Time Out (London), no. 1405, 23 July 1997.

On SMITH: books—

Robb, Brian J., Will Smith: King of Cool, London, 1999.

On SMITH: articles—

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.


* * *

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.

—Tina Gianoulis

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