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.