A Television Star
A Television Star
Many famous singers, comedians, and even professional athletes without any acting experience have tried to use their celebrity to make a successful move to television. Although some of them, such as comedian Jerry Seinfeld and football player Mark Harmon, have succeeded, many have failed to make the transition because they could not act or did not appeal to viewers. But in 1990, Will Smith helped make The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air a hit show in his professional acting debut. The young rapper charmed viewers because he seemed nice and acted pretty well, even though he had never done it professionally. Smith once explained why he was able to move so easily from singing to acting:
I guess the rap records that I made always were almost like theater. The records that I made always had a story. They had a beginning, a middle, an end. I've always had a story sense and I think that the music videos that I made really lent themselves to acting. There's always some level of acting in the music videos. So from the little bit of acting I was doing in the music videos, it opened up the world of live action acting [only a few] years after I had begun performing professionally.31
Although Smith's experience in portraying different characters in his songs helped the rookie actor succeed, he was also able to make the transition because he worked hard to learn his new craft. It also
helped that the character he portrayed was a near carbon-copy image of himself—a young black rapper from West Philadelphia who moves to Los Angeles, California, and suddenly begins leading a rich lifestyle far beyond anything he had ever known.
Smith got perhaps the biggest break in his entertainment career in December 1989 when he met Benny Medina at a taping of The Arsenio Hall Show. Smith had moved to Los Angeles several months
Black Television Shows
The October 2007 issue of Ebony magazine listed the twenty-five best black television shows. Author Bryan Monroe chose them from a list of one hundred that had featured blacks in more than six decades of television. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was ranked sixth, an indication not only of its popularity but also of the effect it had on promoting positive black images. When Smith's series debuted in 1990, the show Monroe picked number one had already been on television for six years. The Cosby Show starred Bill Cosby as Cliff Huxtable, the father of an upper-class family whose members are educated, intelligent, and extremely nice, even if they are occasionally a little wacky. The Huxtables were far different from blacks on The Amos ‘N Andy Show in the early 1950s, who generally conformed to racist stereotypes that blacks were dumb, lazy, or crooked. There had been other positive black shows before Cosby's, but the clever comedian became the most well-liked and respected black who ever appeared on television. Smith's portrayal of a young rapper was nowhere near as powerful as Cosby's Cliff Huxtable, but it helped some white people feel more comfortable with young blacks, even if they hated rap.
before that fateful encounter in hopes of breaking into television. Medina was a Warner Brothers executive who wanted to make a television comedy based on his own life. Medina was born in Watts, a tough inner-city area in Los Angeles. After his mother died and his father abandoned him, the black youth was placed in a series of foster homes. When Medina was finally adopted by a rich white family, he was suddenly thrown into a world of luxury and privilege he had never known.
Medina wanted to update the struggle he had adapting to such a new lifestyle by making the central character a black rapper. When Medina met Smith, he knew he had found the right actor for the lead role in the new show. Quincy Jones, a famed black composer who would help produce the series, also liked Smith when he met him. Medina and Jones quickly arranged an audition for Smith with executives from the NBC television network. It took only a few minutes for Smith to charm NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield with his easygoing, natural portrayal of the character he would play in the series. “There were no beads of sweat,” Littlefield says of Smith's excellent audition. “Will read from a script and nailed it. I just sat there thinking, ‘Whoa! Just bottle this guy.’”32
Smith's audition was so brilliant that the show's producers patterned the character after him. He would play Will Smith, a hip young black man and would-be rapper from West Philadelphia. After Will gets into a fight with other youths, his mother sends him to live with a rich uncle in posh Bel-Air so he could escape the dangers of inner-city life. The humor in the half-hour comedy flowed from the adjustments a poor inner-city black had to make living with relatives who were wealthy enough to have a mansion and a butler.
Every show opened with Smith singing a rap song that explained why he had moved to Bel-Air and the big changes that it would create in his life: “Now this is the story all about how/My life got flipped, turned upside down/And I'd like to take a minute, just sit right there/I'll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel-Air.”33 Smith penned the lyrics and Jones wrote the music for the song, a bouncy tune that added to the series' popularity.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air debuted on September 10, 1990. The comedy series would run for six seasons and make Smith a television star. Smith began to realize how important his big break in television was when a famous African American civil rights leader showed up for a taping of the show the first month it was on the air. When Smith saw Jesse Jackson in the audience, he pretended to have a heart attack because he was so excited and jokingly said “Uh-oh, oh, oh, hold on. I know I'm large now—Jesse Jackson is sitting in the house tonight.”34
Jackson was at the taping because he considered a television show about a young black rapper another breakthrough for African Americans. Jackson had helped blacks win civil rights battles in the south in the 1960s and had continued working to increase respect for blacks in everyday society. Although there were already several popular television shows about African Americans, including The Cosby Show, starring famed comedian Bill Cosby, NBC officials had been leery about doing a series featuring a rapper. The television executives had feared white viewers would not watch the show. It was thought that because some rappers had been involved in high-profile incidents involving drugs and violence, whites would not accept a rapper as a television star.
Smith admitted years later that even he had been worried about how whites would respond to a show about a young rapper: “I was one of the first of the hip-hop generation on television, so there was a sense of wonder if it was going to translate, about how America would accept this hip-hoppin’, be-boppin’, fast-talking kind of black guy.”35 The concerns Smith and NBC officials had about The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air were groundless. The comedy was an instant success because of Smith's appealing portrayal of a character that was based on himself. However, it was a success despite the fact that Smith struggled at first as an actor.
Smith's easy confidence and natural charm helped him give a convincing portrayal of a naive, nice young man from the inner city
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
T he Fresh Prince of Bel-Air featured teenage rapper William “Will” Smith and his California relatives—his uncle, Philip Banks; his aunt, Vivian Smith Banks, his mother's sister; and cousins Carlton, Hilary, Nicholas, and Ashley. During the show's six seasons, Will graduates from fictional Bel-Air Prep and attends the University of Los Angeles. The TV Acres Internet site describes his character:
Will does his best to fit into an upper-crust family, but he still held on to his street style like greeting friends with his special high five. Besides joking around and playing b-ball (basketball) Will enjoys the companionship of a beautiful female. And being a smooth operator, Will generally has all the right moves to get [dates]. Here are some of the “lines” he laid on his feminine acquaintances:
Will: Girl, you look so good, I would plant you and create a WHOLE FIELD of y'all.
Will: Girl, you look so good, I would marry your brother just to get in your family.
Will: Hey baby, I noticed you noticing me and I just wanted to put you on notice that I noticed you, too.
TV Acres, “TV Character Bios: Smith, Will.”www.tvacres.com/char_smith_will.htm.
who is suddenly transported to posh Bel-Air. But Smith admits that he was not a very good actor when the show began: “I sucked,” he has said, “badly.”36 He also confesses that he was nervous about performing with professional actors. Smith says he was able to do the job by conquering his fears: “On the first day on the set of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, I was scared stiff. But when I feel like that, I want to attack the fear. That's why I have been successful in things that I've done. I always attack the fear.”37
The fledgling television star was also able to succeed by working hard to learn how to act. At first, Smith actually worked too hard.
He memorized the lines of every actor in every scene so he would know when to speak his own lines. The problem with the memorization was that he unconsciously but silently said the other actors' lines to himself during tapings of the show. Smith says:
You can look at the first six episodes of The Fresh Prince and I was so just hell bent on not failing that I memorized the entire script. And you can see in certain shots [that] I am mouthing the other actor's lines. It took six episodes for someone to tell me to stop doin’ it. So then the next six episodes look like, “Ah, come on, Uncle Phil.” So I got it together, though. From midway through the first season I got it together.38
Smith worked hard to learn to act. He had to know where to stand for scenes so he would be at the proper angle for the camera, how to interact with other members of the cast, and how to use his face and slim, limber 6-foot-2 (1.8m, 6cm) frame—he reached his adult height at age thirteen—to express various emotions. Gradually Smith's performances smoothed out, and he was able to act naturally in scenes with his new family: an uncle who is a rich lawyer, an aunt who is a university professor, and four cousins who are spoiled snobs. His character also has to tangle with the butler, a sarcastic black from England who looks down on the inner-city youth. But in contrast to his often vain and spoiled relatives, Will is a nice young man. He teaches them lessons about humility and how to accept people from different backgrounds. And from them, Will learns how to take responsibility for his life and to get along with people who are richer or more educated than he is.
The show had some critics, including a few African Americans. They claimed the series, whose humor was broad and often juvenile, failed to highlight the harsh life many African Americans faced due to racism. But Smith defended the show, saying it used humor to deal with many of the problems that many blacks faced, such as substance abuse, gun violence, and teenage pregnancy. He also noted that the show brought up a subject that was usually taboo on television and in other media—the fact that rich, educated blacks sometimes look down on poor blacks who are still struggling to attain a decent life. As Smith explains:
There's always going to be some friction on this show, because it's going to look at something that no other show has—black-on-black prejudice. Everybody knows about prejudice between whites and blacks, but no one ever looked at different types of black people and how they feel about each other.39
Smith's character faces such discrimination from his cousins, who have trouble understanding him when he first joins their family because he is so different. The transplanted rapper faces similar treatment from other blacks he encounters when he begins going to a local high school whose students are from rich backgrounds. But Will is usually able to make friends with everybody he meets, and that includes the many viewers the show attracted for six solid seasons.
The increased fame Smith won from the popular television show he was starring in spilled over into rap. In 1991 DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince released Homebase, which became a hit thanks to the powerful single “Summertime.” The two young rappers worked on the album while Smith was filming the first season of his show. It was easy to do that because Smith had used his influence with producers to get Townes a recurring role on the series as Jazz, his character's best friend.
A Rejuvenated Rap Career
Singers often have short-lived careers because the public gets bored with them. Will Smith's success in television helped keep DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince popular. In 1993, when Smith and Townes came out with Code Red, their fifth album, Smith told journalist Jonathan Takiff they were still popular despite criticism of some of their songs:
We've found that no matter how great you are, or how bad you are, the same amount of criticism will be there for you. It's like Michael Jordan had and probably still has one of the best images in professional basketball. But he takes the same amount of abuse that Charles Barkley does. You know what they say, hindsight is 20–20. That's what we'll wait for, for 15 or 20 years from now, when you look back on the history of rap … to get an accurate view of our position. Right now, Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince are on uncharted ground. There were a couple rappers who had fifth albums, but never going into a fifth album with the kind of momentum we're going in with.
Quoted in Jonathan Takiff, “Fresh Ink Talks to Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince,” Philadelphia Daily News, October 21, 1993. www.jazzyjefffreshprince.com/interviews/fresh-prince/rapping-with-jazzy-jeff-and-fresh-prince.html.
The album was so well received that it sold more than 1 million copies to go platinum. And “Summertime” won Smith and Townes a second Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. Even though Smith had to work almost night and day from the fall of 1990 until the spring of 1991 while acting, writing songs, and creating the album, he did not mind the hard work. He told Jet magazine about his rigorous schedule that year: “I'm doing the show from nine to five. And from six until midnight I'm in the studio working on the album. As long as I get my eight hours of sleep, I'm fine. I don't need a social life. You see, I've got to work now and I'll have a social life when I'm thirty.”40
Although Smith's free time was limited, he was not exactly a hermit. His increasing fame and improving financial situation made it easy for him to date and even mingle with celebrities more famous than himself.
The success of Smith's television show made some people compare him to Eddie Murphy, the wisecracking African American comedian who had made it big in movies. Murphy also saw something in Smith, and he called him because he wanted to get to know him. Murphy was one of many famous actors and celebrities who became new friends and acquaintances of the young rapper. However, Smith refused to get too deeply involved in the Hollywood lifestyle, which included constant partying, excessive spending, and a need to follow the latest trends in clothes, food, and other lifestyle concerns. This is how Smith explained his resistance to that lifestyle to one interviewer: “Avocado pizza? You'll never catch the Fresh Prince eating an avocado pizza! I'd rather go to McDonald's. My theory is, just don't try to adjust. When you try to do that, that's when you have problems. Let L.A. adjust to me.”41
Smith's desire for a simpler, saner lifestyle extended to dating. Unlike some celebrities, who have dozens of romantic relationships, Smith has always liked having a steady girlfriend. When Smith first moved to Los Angeles, he dated Tanya Moore, whom he had met in 1989 while performing a rap concert at San Diego State University. She lived with Smith for a while in his apartment in Burbank, which was near the studio where he taped his television show. When they broke up at the end of the television show's first season, Smith began seeing Sheree Zampino, a fashion designer. He first met her in 1991 while both were visiting a mutual friend on the set of A Different World, another comedy featuring young blacks, but they did not begin dating until months later because he was still involved with Moore.
Zampino at first wanted nothing to do with Smith despite his rising fame. But Smith said he fell in love with her very quickly and finally persuaded her to go on a date. Their relationship blossomed after that, and Smith married Zampino on May 9, 1992.
On November 11 of that same year their son, Willard Christopher Smith III, was born. They nicknamed him Trey.
Smith took the birth of his son very seriously. He knew his parents had loved him and that they had sacrificed to give him a good education so he could have a good life. He was determined to shower that same love and dedication on his own children. Smith says that the birth of his son marked the start of a new phase in his life: “When the doctor handed him to me, I realized things were different now.” He says he felt the new responsibility for his son the day he took him home from the hospital. “That was the worst drive,” Smith recalls. “You're obeying every [traffic] law. You can't be a reckless young man anymore.”42