Given his formidable success in numerous arenas of the entertainment industry, the multi-talented Will Smith qualifies as an original "Renaissance man." Although Smith initially gained fame as the rap star Fresh Prince prior to the age of 20, (with constant MTV airplay and blockbuster record sales), he cut his chops as an A-list Hollywood actor on the small and big screens in successive years, unequivocally demonstrating his own commercial viability and sturdy appeal to a broad cross section of viewers.
A Philadelphia native, Smith entered the world on September 25, 1968. The son of middle-class parents (his father owned a refrigeration company and his mother worked for the school board) and the second of four children, Smith started rapping from the age of 12, and earned the nickname "Prince" thanks to his ability to slickly talk his way out of trouble. Smith engendered this moniker as a household phrase when he officially formed the duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, with fellow performer Jeff Townes in 1986. That team netted two Grammys (one for the seminal 1988 youth anthem "Parents Just Don't Understand" and one for the 1991 single "Summertime") and scored commercially with a series of albums up through their disbandment in 1993 that did much to dramatically broaden the age range of rap listeners (unlike artists in the gangsta rap subgenre, Smith and Townes never ventured into R- or X-rated subject matter or language). However, by the time he was 21, Smith had frittered away much of his fortune and had fallen into debt with the IRS. Help arrived in the form of Warner Bros. executive Benny Medina, who wanted to create a family-friendly sitcom based on his own experiences as a poor kid living with a rich Beverly Hills family, starring the genial Smith. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air debuted on NBC on September 10, 1990, and became a runaway hit, lasting six seasons. The program imparted to Smith -- who had turned down an MIT scholarship to pursue his career -- even wider audience exposure as the show's protagonist, introducing him to legions of viewers who fell outside of the rap market.
During Prince's lengthy run, Smith began to branch out into film work. Following roles in Where the Day Takes You (1992) and Made in America (1993), he drew substantial critical praise on the arthouse circuit, as a young gay con man feigning an identity as Sidney Poitier's son, in Six Degrees of Separation (1993), directed by Fred Schepisi and adapted by John Guare from his own play. Smith also elicited minor controversy around this time for remarks he made in an interview that some perceived as homophobic. In 1994, Smith and Martin Lawrence signed on with powerhouse producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer to co-star in the action-comedy Bad Boys, in which the two play a hotshot pair of Miami cops; it eventually raked in over 141 million dollars worldwide. The following year, Smith topped his Bad Boys success (and then some) with a turn in the sci-fi smash Independence Day, the effects-laden tale of an alien invasion. Co-written, executive-produced, and directed by Roland Emmerich for 20th Century Fox, this picture eventually pulled in over 816 million dollars globally, making it not only the top grosser of 1996, but one of the most lucrative motion pictures in history. Smith then tackled the same thematic ground (albeit in a completely different genre), as a government-appointed alien hunter partnered up with Tommy Lee Jones in Barry Sonnenfeld's zany comedy Men in Black (1997), another smash success.
Not long after this, Smith achieved success on a personal front as well, as he married actress Jada Pinkett on New Year's Eve 1998. The following autumn, Smith returned to cinemas with Enemy of the State, a conspiracy thriller with Gene Hackman that had him on the run from government agents. That film scored a commercial bull's-eye, but its triumph preceded a minor disappointment. The following summer, Smith starred opposite Kevin Kline in Wild Wild West, Sonnenfeld's lackluster follow-up to Men in Black, an overwrought and ham-handed cinematic rendering of the late-'60s TV hit.
The late fall of 2000 found Smith back in cinemas, playing a mysterious golf caddy who tutors down-on-his-luck putter Matt Damon in the syrupy The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000). Smith then trained rigorously for his most demanding role up to that point: that of legendary boxer Muhammad Ali in director Michael Mann's biopic Ali (2001). The film struggled to find an audience, and critics were mixed, even if Smith's well-studied performance earned praise as well as his first Oscar nomination. While Smith executive produced the Robert De Niro/Eddie Murphy comedy Showtime (2002), he doubled it up with work in front of the camera, on the sci-fi comedy sequel Men in Black II, also helmed by Barry Sonnenfeld. As expected, the film made an unholy amount of money; he followed it up with yet another sequel, the Bruckheimer-produced Bad Boys II. It topped the box office, as expected. The next year saw Smith pull the one-two punch of I, Robot -- a futuristic, effects-laden fantasy -- and the CG-animated Shark Tale, in which he voiced Oscar, a little fish with a big attitude who scrubs whales for a living. While Smith had proven himself as an action star time and again and had received high marks for his dramatic work, it remained to be seen if he could carry a romantic comedy. All speculation ceased in early 2005 with the release of Hitch: Starring Smith as a fabled "date doctor," the film had the biggest opening weekend for a rom-com to date, leading many to wonder if there was anything Smith couldn't do.
The following year, Smith starred in the period drama The Pursuit of Happyness. Set in early-'80s San Francisco, and directed by Gabriele Muccino (a director specifically summoned for the task by Smith), the film recounted the true story of Charles Gardner (Smith), a single dad struggling in an unpaid position as an intern at Dean Witter, all in an effort to be able provide for his son. The film tapped new reserves of compassion and desparation in Smith's persona, as he managed to fully embody another real-life character while maintaining all of the qualities that endeared him to audiences in the first place: His humor, his hustle and his ingenuity. Upon its release, Happyness provided Smith with perhaps his first cinematic hat trick: critical praise, a second Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and staggering box-office success (the film would become one of his largest hits). Meanwhile, he began work as the lead in I Am Legend (2007), the third screen incarnation of sci-fi giant Richard Matheson's seminal novel of the same title (following a 1964's The Last Man on Earth, and 1971's The Omega Man). ~ Nathan Southern, Rovi