Introduction: A “Prince” of Many Realms

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Introduction: A “Prince” of Many Realms

In 2006 Will Smith starred in the hit movie The Pursuit of Happyness, which tells the heartwarming, real-life story of Christopher Gardner. In the 1980s Gardner went from being a destitute African American father living on the streets with his son to a millionaire stockbroker. In one of the film's key scenes, Gardner's ability to manipulate a Rubik's Cube impresses a rich businessman so much that he gives Gardner the opportunity he needs to become successful. Getting all the colors of one of the confounding cubes to align correctly by continually shifting their sliding pieces is extremely difficult. Many people never try to solve the puzzle because they fear they cannot do it. Fear of failure, however, has never held Smith back from attempting anything he wanted to do. No matter how hard or challenging the task that Smith sets for himself, he has always believed “I can do it.”1

That strong self-confidence has helped Smith become one of the world's best-known, most highly acclaimed, and wealthiest entertainers. Although most people are lucky to become a rapper, television actor, or movie star, Smith has succeeded in all three types of entertainment. Smith first found fame and fortune as a rapper while still in high school. Although he knew he could continue making money by writing and singing songs, Smith challenged himself by trying to prove he could act, first in television and then in movies. Smith was so talented and hardworking that he was able to succeed as an actor as well as a singer. He has even made the rare transition from performing to producing. Smith started his own company to create record albums, television shows, and films that feature himself and other entertainers.

From Rapper to Movie Star

Smith's climb to fame and fortune began in his hometown of West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when he teamed up with Jeffrey Townes to perform rap songs as DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Smith was “Fresh Prince,” the nickname he got at Overbrook High School due to his fun-loving nature, which made him one of the school's most popular students.

Success came quickly to the young rapper. Before Smith graduated from high school in 1986, the rap duo's song “Girls Ain't Nothing but Trouble” was released nationally and become a hit single. And just three years later, in 1989, Smith and Townes won a Grammy for Best Rap Performance for their song “Parents Just Don't Understand.” The award made history as the first Grammy ever given in the new musical category of rap.

Smith, however, wanted to do more than sing songs. In 1990 he took the first step toward branching out into another entertainment field when he landed the lead role in the television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Smith was chosen for the part even though he had no acting experience. He got the job partly because he was already famous as a rapper. But his boyish good looks and humorous manner were perfect for the part of a poor young African American who moves from the mean streets of Philadelphia to upscale Bel-Air, California. The show was a hit for six years. Even though Smith's many blockbuster movies since then have dwarfed that show, the series will always mean a lot to him. Smith said in a 2008 interview, “It doesn't matter how many movies I've made, they'll always remember me best for the show. When you're on TV, people are allowing you into their homes. I knew when that show took off that I could accomplish whatever I wanted in this business.”2

After Smith showed that he could act in the television series, he was able to win roles in movies. Six Degrees of Separation in 1993 marked his first appearance in a major movie. He quickly grew more popular, and in 1997 he starred in Men in Black and Independence Day, two of the biggest hits ever made.

It had only taken Smith a decade after graduating from high school to become one of the world's most well-known entertainers. His rise to stardom was meteoric, and in 1997 Smith claimed that success had come easily: “It kind of developed for me naturally. I started out rapping as a hobby and everything developed from that hobby. I never made a conscious decision that I wanted to be in show business. I was there, I was prepared, and it presented itself.”3

Smith kept on taking advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves, and in the next decade he starred in hit movies like Men in Black II; I, Robot; and I Am Legend. Those movies all made hundreds of millions of dollars and created fans for Smith throughout the world. In 2007 Newsweek magazine claimed that Smith's ability to draw huge audiences to any film he appeared in had made him the most powerful actor in Hollywood, the global center for moviemaking. This ultimate compliment for a movie actor showed that the Fresh Prince of high school, rap, and television had also become a leading member of Hollywood royalty.

Breaking Racial Barriers

The box-office success Smith enjoys has come despite the color of his skin. Many people are amazed that Smith has become one of the world's most popular actors—maybe the most popular—despite the racism against black people that continues to exist in many countries, including the United States. Smith does not deny that racism exists, and he admits that he has suffered from it. Like many entertainers, athletes, and other rich black men, Smith has been arrested by white policemen who were suspicious that he was driving an expensive car.

But the supreme self-confidence that has always given Smith the courage to tackle new areas of entertainment has allowed him to ignore such prejudice. And enough people have also ignored his race to flock to his movies and make him one of the world's most popular stars. Sony Pictures has released some of Smith's biggest hits, including Hitch, Men in Black, and Bad Boys. Sony executive Amy Pascal claims that when Smith stars in a movie, “it doesn't matter what the genre, and it doesn't matter what date the movie opens—people just want to see him.”4 They simply want to be entertained, and they do not care that their favorite actor is black.

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Introduction: A “Prince” of Many Realms