A Movie Star
A Movie Star
The year 1992 was a banner one for Will Smith. He was personally happy after getting married and becoming a father, and professionally he was successful as both an actor and a rapper. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) named Smith and Jeffrey Townes as the year's Outstanding Rap Artists and also chose The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as television's best comedy. Smith says he was able to succeed in two forms of entertainment at the same time by following some advice his dad had given him: “What my father always made very clear to me is just do one thing well, just make sure you can focus. If you do one thing well, everything else will come from that.”43 Smith was able to become a star in two different entertainment areas because he was able to focus on a single task and work hard to accomplish it, whether it was writing and singing a song one day or acting on another.
But even while Smith was becoming a star in rap and television, he was drawn to yet a third form of entertainment. Like almost everyone, Smith had grown up loving the movies. There is something magical about sitting in a darkened theater and watching a film that is so exciting, funny, or scary that it can make a person sit on the edge of his or her seat in anticipation of the next scene. Smith's desire to act in movies came from being awed by how powerfully films affect the people who watch them. He explained once how a film he saw in 1977, when he was nine years old, totally captivated him:
Sitting in the movie theater watching Star Wars, I've never had an experience with any form of entertainment that was like that. It was almost spiritual. I couldn't believe that someone's mind created that. [It] felt like [director] George Lucas had a piano that was playing my emotions, and he could go ahead and do whatever he wanted.44
Smith wanted to act in movies so he could have that same effect on other people. His growing celebrity enabled him to begin landing roles in movies even though he had no experience in that entertainment medium, which was more powerful and glamorous than the two in which he was already a star.
His first film was Where the Day Takes You, a movie about homeless teenagers in Los Angeles. Smith's first role was a far cry from the heroic characters he would later portray. He played Manny, a wheelchair-bound youth who is beaten up and thrown out of his wheelchair. Smith was able to make the film during the summer of 1991, after the first season of his television show ended.
The next summer Smith got a part in Made in America, a movie about race relations that starred Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Danson. Smith played Tea Cake Walters, the hip boyfriend of actress Nia Long, who played Goldberg's daughter. The film was more prominent than his first one because of its two stars and its controversial topic—the relationship between a white man (Danson) and a black woman (Goldberg) who have a mixed-race daughter. Although the film received mixed reviews, Smith was critically praised for the easy charm and humor he displayed onscreen. It was also the first movie that Smith appeared in that earned more than $100 million.
Smith had worked hard to learn how to become a rapper and a television actor, and he applied that same work ethic to becoming a movie actor. He realized right away that he had to act a new way in films than he did on television. “Everything in movies,” Smith says, “is just a touch smaller, a touch slower, because the camera does more of the work.”45 That is because the movie screen is so big and there are so many close-up shots that actors do not have to use the broad movements and facial expressions they do on television. His quick intelligence and willingness to learn helped him master this new type of acting.
Made in America was released in 1993. Smith also appeared in a second film that came out that year, and it was one of the most important movies he would ever make.
Six Degrees of Separation is based on a play by John Guare. The movie stars Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland, and Smith in his most demanding role yet. Smith plays Paul, a con man who tries to convince people he is the son of actor Sidney Poitier in an attempt to get money from them. The part required Smith to express a wide variety of emotions and play two distinct personalities in one character—Paul the criminal trying to get money, and Paul the frightened young black man who is just trying to survive.
A Prophetic Movie Review
Will Smith was highly praised for his acting in the movie Six Degrees of Separation. One of his most glowing reviews came from critic Michael D. Johnson, who claimed at the time that the film marked the emergence of a star:
Will Smith. Some know him as the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” others know him as the rapper, the “Fresh Prince,” but for many moviegoers, he's “Paul”, the [pretend] son of Sidney Poitier, and he is delivering a memorable and extraordinary performance in the movie “Six Degrees of Separation.” Paul [is] played exquisitely by Will Smith. [What] makes Smith's performance extraordinary and memorable is the fact that not only are his acting skills challenged beyond anything the public has seen in his television series “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” he at times upstages veteran actors Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing. This is no easy feat for any actor to pull off. When historians review Smith's work in years to come, “Six Degrees of Separation” is going to be one of those memorable achievements that is discussed and held up as a monumental achievement and break-through in this man's career.
Michael D. Johnson, “Fresh Prince Delivers Memorable Performance,” Washington Informer, February 2, 1994, p. 22.
Smith wanted to be in the film, but Guare and Fred Schepisi, the film's director, both refused to consider himat first because they did not think he could handle such a difficult role. Smith won them over when he finally got a chance to audition for the film. That was the easy part, however, because acting in the movie was harder than anything he had ever done before. For the first time, Smith had to play someone who was much different than himself. But as always, Smith worked hard to master the role by spending eighteen weeks with an acting coach, a dialect coach, and a physical trainer to prepare for the part. In doing so, Smith learned how to really act for the first time instead of just playing another version of himself. Smith says, “I guess, the piece of work that I performed in that shaped me most as an actor and as a person was Six Degrees of Separation. The level of the work and the difficulty of the work helped me find out a lot about acting and about myself.”46
The movie was critically acclaimed when it was released—Channing was even nominated for an Oscar for best actress—and Smith won glowing reviews for his performance. Film critic Frank Gabrenya wrote at the time, “Smith is a revelation, mostly because the rapper and star of television's Fresh Prince of Bel-Air proves himself a genuine presence.”47 Smith was no longer a celebrity from another form of entertainment trying to make it in films but a real movie actor.
Many scenes were difficult for Smith because they dealt with complex human emotions involving serious topics such as race relations. The scenes that gave Smith the most trouble, however, were those concerning his character's sexuality. Paul is a homosexual, and in the movie he has several encounters with male lovers. Smith refused to film one scene in which his character kisses a man, so a stunt double did the kiss. Smith later explained why he refused to do the scene: “I just had a new son [Trey]. I didn't feel comfortable with there being a piece of tape that some kid could bring to school 15 years from now and say, ‘Your father kissed a man.’ It was basically immaturity. I was immature as an actor.”48
Smith, however, had also been worried that kissing a man would hurt his popularity as a rapper and a television actor. His fears were groundless, though, because the movie's success added to his growing fame and popularity in those media.
In the fall of 1994, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air began its fourth season with Smith's character now attending college after having graduated from high school. The show was still popular and still funny even though it occasionally dealt with serious issues, such as drunk driving. The series also showcased an occasional rap song by Smith, something that helped him remain a star in the first entertainment medium he had conquered.
In October 1993, when Smith and Townes released Code Red, one of the biggest hit singles on their fifth album was “Boom!Shake the Room.” Smith admits that the exposure the song got on his television show was one reason it became popular because 20 to 30 million people watching would hear it. James Lassiter, who managed Smith's career for many years, believes the television show helped make Smith popular worldwide because it was shown in Europe, Australia, South America, the Caribbean, South Africa, and several African countries. “Thanks to being on the show,” Lassiter says, “Will became an international recording star—something he hadn't done prior to doing the show.”49
Finding time to record songs and perform them, however, was becoming increasingly difficult for Smith because he was acting so much. He told one newspaper reporter in late 1993, “We'd [he and Townes] like to perform, but I have to do the television show. And I want to do a film every year, like I did this summer with ‘Six Degrees.’ So time does not allow for touring.”50
One reason why Smith worked so much was because he had to pay off his $2.8 million federal tax debt; for the first three years of the television show, the government took 70 percent of the money he earned. And in 1995 Smith incurred another big expense, this one related to his personal life as he divorced his wife.
People who work extremely hard to be successful often spend so much time away from their families that their relationships with their spouses suffer. On December 1, 1995, Smith and
A Learning Experience
Biographer Chris Nickson explains an incident during the filming of Six Degrees of Separation in which actor Donald Sutherland taught Will Smith a lesson about acting in movies:
Within a television series, he could let [his buoyant personality] loose, even on the set, but with a film everything had to be absolutely professional—something he'd learned from Whoopi Goldberg while making Made in America. [But there was] one small gaffe as the filming of Six Degrees of Separation began. “Will is used to driving the set on ‘Fresh Prince’ and keeping up enthusiasm,” [director Fred] Schepisi recalled. “On the first day, just before a take, he let out some wild yells and clapped his hands. He was deafening the sound people and everyone else around him. Finally, Donald took him aside. It was a way of psyching himself, but once told, he never did it again. “I have this childish energy that manifests itself in noise,” Will admitted. “Donald just grabbed my hand [and] said, ‘Shut up.’ That was cool. I'm totally fine with someone who says, ‘I think it's time to work now.’”
Chris Nickson, Will Smith. New York: St. Martin's, 1999, pp. 74–75.
Sheree Zampino ended their three-year marriage, and Smith believes his marriage fell apart for that reason. “We had a new son [Trey], and my career was taking off,” Smith has said. “There was a lot of pressure that didn't allow the marriage to blossom.”51 Smith was generous with his former wife, giving her $900,000 in the divorce settlement as well as $24,000 a month in alimony and child support.
Children are often hurt the most by a divorce because their parents split up. Smith, however, wanted to remain in his son's life, just as his father had after his own parents divorced. He continued to spend a lot of time with his son and tried to be a good father. One way Smith did that was to punish Trey when he was naughty. But Smith admitted once that disciplining a child can be hard on a parent: “I had to give Trey a spanking for the first time. He cried and I was in the other room crying. It was the worst.”52 He would later write a song called “Just the Two of Us,” which he dedicated to his son.
It did not take Smith long to find a woman to love. He first met Jada Pinkett in 1990, during the first season of his television show. Pinkett auditioned for the part of Smith's girlfriend, but television executives thought the 5-foot-tall (1.5m) actress was too short for the 6-foot-2 (1.8m, 6cm) Smith. But in real life Smith did not care about the height difference, and he began dating her in the fall of 1995 after he and his wife had separated.
Pinkett was a successful actress who had appeared in the television show A Different World and the movie The Nutty Professor. Three years younger than Smith at twenty-four, Pinkett had just split up with basketball star Grant Hill. Smith and Pinkett were friends at first, but they quickly fell in love as they got to know each other better. “For me,” says Pinkett, “it was like ‘Wow! You are a wonderful guy.’”53
Smith and Pinkett dated for two years before getting married on December 31, 1997. By that time, Smith had become one of the world's biggest movie stars.
His increasing success in rap, television, and the movies created a very nice problem for Smith—deciding which form of entertainment was the one he wanted to concentrate on. Smith once said that he enjoyed all three but that television was the most fun, music the most rewarding, and movies the most interesting. Making films was also more financially rewarding, and the success Smith had in Six Degrees of Separation helped him quadruple his salary for his next picture to $2 million. In 1995 Smith starred with fellow comic Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys, an action-packed comedy about two half-crazy policemen. The movie was a major hit, and it made Smith determined to quit television so he could act in movies full time.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air had saved Smith financially and helped ease his way into making films. But by its sixth and final season, Smith not only wanted to get out of it to make movies but also because he felt the series had run its course. “I felt like it was time to end the show,” says Smith. “I wanted to go out solid, while we were still funny.”54 The show's 148th and final episode aired on May 20, 1996.
Smith felt comfortable leaving the show because he had just made a movie that he believed would change his life. Only a few weeks later, on July 2, Independence Day opened in theaters across the nation. Smith had been paid $5 million for playing Captain Steven
Will and Jada
Will Smith once explained to Rolling Stone reporter Nancy Collins why Jada Pinkett was the perfect woman to be his wife:
There's a lot going on in my mind, things I want in life [so] being my wife is not to be entered into casually. I demand attention because I'm never complacent. With me it will never be “This is where we're going.” It's “This is where we are now, but we're going somewhere else.” Most women would say, “Can't we stay here a minute?” But I have a sense there's always something greater. Oh, yeah. And you're so much stronger when your partner is strong. I honestly believe that there is no other woman for me but Jada. Of all the women I've met—and there've been a few—no one can handle me the way Jada does. And once you feel someone locked in on you like that, somebody being down for you, there's no competition. And knowing that I'm not going anywhere gives Jada the strength to be what I need. [This] is it. I can't imagine what anybody else could offer.
Quoted in Nancy Collins, “The Rolling Stone Interview: Will Smith,” Rolling Stone, December 1, 1998, p. 42.
Hiller, a U.S. Air Force pilot who helps defeat aliens who have attacked Earth. The science-fiction thriller is filled with fantastic scenes, including an alien ray that blasts to bits the White House in Washington, D.C. The movie's most memorable line is voiced by Smith, who asks, “When we gonna kick ET's ass?”55 The reference is to the hit movie ET, which ironically had also been created by producer Steven Spielberg. Independence Day was the biggest hit of the year. The film earned more than $300 million, and it made Smith one of the world's biggest movie stars in the world.
The film's success instantly changed Smith's life. More than anything else, people in the movie industry respect an actor who can draw millions of people to films. The huge turnout for the movie's opening weekend had shown that Smith was now one of those stars. In an interview years later, Smith said he saw how it immediately changed the way people treated him:
It was one of those moments where I just realized my life was changed forever. You know, it was so bizarre. So bizarre, ‘cause the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is on, and people scream, “Will! Will! Will!” And on Monday morning, when the box office receipts for Independence Day came out, I was Mr. Smith. “Good morning, Mr. Smith. Congratulations.” Who the hell's Mr. Smith?56
Mr. Smith was Will Smith, the world's newest movie superstar.