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; Willow Camille Reign (from second marriage), born 2000. 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.
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 also 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 a multi-platinum 1997 release, Big Willie Style, followed by a few 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 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 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." 1988 saw the release of He's The D.J., I'm The Rapper, which went on 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."
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 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.
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 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 comedic twist that again set box-office records. 1998's Enemy of the State 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. On a more poignant note, 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. In interviews, he expressed concern over the violence associated with the hip-hop scene. "That was a large part of why I didn't make a record," he said in an interview found on his official website. "It was like I don't even wanna rhyme. I made records in my crib. I thought that if this what the world is going to, then I don't think there's 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 soundtrack's 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 Smith's 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 album's sonic polish was largely the work of the Trackmasters production team. 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 had a major impact on popular culture in the 1990s and into the new millennium. 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 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 adventures to play real-life heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali. Before the filming of Ali could take place, Smith spent 12 months getting in 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. For Smith, the film was so rewarding that afterward, he said that he felt like he had peaked, though he was only 33. Smith relied on his rapping skills in making the film, too, 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. In the end, he did not win the Academy Award but was nonetheless honored at the nomination.
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, which churns on humor and sensitivity, explores life in a family rebuilding after divorce. It premiered in September 2003 and was still airing in 2005. Smith, himself, made a guest appearance on the show and helped attract other stars, like tennis great Serena Williams, who was to appear in a 2005 episode.
Smith was back to his action-hero ways in 2004's I, Robot. In this videogame-violent flick, set in 2035, Smith plays 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 typical box-office smashes, Smith has carved out a niche in the genre and has a huge fan base. I, Robot took in $52.25 million its first weekend of release, marking Smith's fourth film to open 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.
Smith spent his off-time during the filming of I, Robot, quarantined in his trailer doing some recording. A release date for a new album had not been set. Smith wanted to focus on his movie career at the moment. "I feel like I have got five or six more years of action movies," he told People in 2004. "I want to hurry up and get those, while I can still take my shirt off in a movie."
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 I a row to head to 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 certainly delivers, doesn't he? He's one of those rare stars that appeals to everyone, men, women, children. There's no doubt he's somewhat of a king of action, but he is every bit as good in company."
He also began filming for three more movies: Pursuit of Happyness, Tonight, He Comes, and Time Share. In 2005, Smith also released a new album, Lost and Found. According to a reporter in Access Atlanta, this album lacks the "sugary-sweet goodness" of his earlier music, and has more "fire"; the reporter praised the album, noting that on it, Smith sounds like "a person rather than a persona."
by Barry Alfonso
Will Smith's Career
Began performing as rap singer c. 1980; 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; 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, 1996, and Men In Black, 1997; released title song from Men In Black (soundtrack), 1997; released solo debut album on Columbia, Big Willie Style, 1998; starred in Enemy of the State, 1998; released album Willennium, 1999; appeared in Wild, Wild West, 1999; released album Maximum Will Smith, 2000; starred in Men In Black Alien Attack and The Legend of Bagger Vance, 2000, and Ali in 2001; released album Born to Reign, 2002; released Will Smith Greatest Hits, 2002; appeared in Men In Black II, 2002; Bad Boys II, 2003; I, Robot, 2004; Hitch,, 2005; released album Lost and Found,, 2005; Pursuit of Happyness, 2006; Tonight, He Comes, 2006; and Time Share,; also provided a voice for Shark Tale, 2004.
Will Smith's Awards
Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance, "Parents Just Don't 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; Blockbuster Entertainment Award for Favorite Actor, Science Fiction, for Independence Day, 1997; Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance, "Men In Black," 1998; MTV Video Music Award for Rap Video, "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It," 1998; Blockbuster Entertainment Award for Favorite Actor, Science Fiction, for Men In Black, 1998; MTV Movie Awards for Best Fight and Best Movie Song, for Men In Black, 1998; Image Award, Entertainer of the Year, 1999; Blockbuster Entertainment Award for Favorite Actor in an Action/Adventure, for Wild, Wild West, 1999; MTV Movie Award for Best Male Performance, for Ali, 2002; People's Choice Award for Favorite Male Action Star, 2005.
- 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.
- Big Willie Style , Columbia, 1997.
- Williennium Columbia, 1999.
- Maximum Will Smith Columbia, 2000.
- Born to Reign Columbia, 2002.
- Lost and Found Interscope, 2005.
- DeCurtis, Anthony and Henke, James, editors, The Rolling Stone Album Guide, Random House, 1992.
- Larkin, Colin, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze, 1998.
- Ebony, July 1999.
- People, July 26, 2004; December 6, 2004.
- Teen People, August 1999.
- Vanity Fair, October 1990.
- USA Today, July 19, 2004.
- Access Atlanta,, http://www.accessatlanta.com/music/content/music/0305/29willsmitha.html (November 22, 2005).
- BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/film/1719162.stm (January 27, 2005); http://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://wallofsound.go.com (May 21, 1999).
- Additional information was provided by Will Smith publicity materials, 1999.