Also Credited As:Willard Smith, Willard Christopher Smith, Fresh Prince
|Actor, Producer, Writer, Music|
|Willard Christopher Smith on September 25, 1968 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA|
LATEST NEWS AND BLOGS
Willard C. Smith Jr. was born on Sept. 25, 1968 in Philadelphia, PA. His father, Willard Sr., was an Air Force veteran who owned a commercial refrigeration company, while his mother, Caroline, worked for the local school board. Smith himself was not a model student, however. Despite his naturally inquisitive mind and the quick-on-his feet negotiating skills that earned him the childhood nickname "the Prince," Smith's hyperactive energy hampered his academic efforts. But his outgoing charm and sense of humor already suggested that a different kind of success might be in store for the youngster, who cleverly learned to tailor jokes to predominantly white schoolmates, predominantly black friends and the locals in his Jewish and Muslim neighborhood. At the age of 12, he found a new outlet for his verbal creativity and began experimenting with Grandmaster Flash-inspired rap. When he met turn-table ace Jeff Townes, or DJ Jazzy Jeff, on a playground four years later, the two joined forces and began performing on the local party circuit. They added human beat-box Ready Rock C to the act and released the single "Girls Ain't Nothin' but Trouble" on local label Pop Art records in 1985.
Rising rapper Smith immediately made a mark with lyrical content revolving around the trials and tribulations of teenhood, coupled with a rap style that was uniquely funny and refreshingly free of profanity. He had ditched earlier efforts to conform to a more R-rated mold after his grandmother read some of his lyrics and informed him, " truly intelligent people do not have to use these types of words." The brass at Arista imprint Jive records agreed, smelling the potential of the group's youthful, poppy style, and signed them to a record deal. Two weeks before his high school graduation, Smith saw the release of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's first album, Rock the House (1987) and his career was set in motion. The duo landed a huge profile boost with an opening slot on tour with Run D.M.C. and Public Enemy later that year, with Smith recalling in interviews that a sold out stadium show of diehard rap fans in Japan truly ignited his fire for superstardom. The year 1988 saw the LP He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper and the breakout single and music video for "Parents Just Don't Understand," which transformed them into platinum recording artists and first ever recipients of a Grammy Award in the new Rap category. The follow-up release And in This Corner (1989) was certified gold, though the group's mainstream sound was beginning to lose some audiences, in light of the rise of hardcore rap.
By the time Smith was 21 years old, the jug-eared kid from Philly had earned - and lost - a million dollars. Luckily his theatrical charisma had attracted the attention of Hollywood. NBC was interested in building a sitcom around Smith. The result was "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" (NBC, 1990-96), in which Smith opened the show by rapping its back story about a streetwise kid from the Philly 'hood who moves in with wealthy relatives in Bel Air, CA. The show, like Smith's music, was popular with a large cross-section of both black and white audiences, bringing a non-threatening portrayal of hip-hop culture to primetime TV. Taking advantage of his heightened profile, he and Jazzy Jeff released the platinum-selling, Quincy Jones-produced Homebase in 1991. The single "Summertime" earned the duo a second Grammy, hitting the tops of both the R&B and Rap charts and proving to be one of the most memorable hits of their music career. The self-proclaimed "psychotically driven" Smith followed up his second round of success by marrying girlfriend Sheree Zampino, earning his first Golden Globe nomination for "The Fresh Prince," and setting his sights on feature films. He debuted in theaters in a small role in a gritty profile of runaway teens called "Where the Day Takes You" (1992), before landing a supporting role in the failed Whoopi Goldberg/Ted Danson vehicle, "Made in America" (1993).
Smith, now living in Los Angeles, was determined to become a Hollywood star. Convincing a director that he could play something other than a wise-assed urban kid was going to be a challenge. Director Fred Schepisi took that chance, casting Smith in the lead as a charming con-man who ingratiates himself with an affluent white New York couple (Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland) by posing as the son of Sidney Poitier in "Six Degrees of Separation" (1993). The untrained actor spent months working with drama and dialogue coaches for his turn in the adaptation of the Tony-nominated play and the work paid off, with Smith delivering an impressive performance amidst a cast of seasoned acting pros. The same year, he earned a second Golden Globe nomination for "The Fresh Prince" and he and Jazzy Jeff released the album Code Red (1993) which hit gold status and produced the number one single "Boom! Shake the Room." In 1994, Smith assumed executive producer duties on the "Fresh Prince," and the following summer, enjoyed his true cinematic breakout opposite Martin Lawrence in "Bad Boys" (1995). From the minds of veteran action-comedy producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, the buddy cop feature, in which Smith played the wild bachelor to Lawrence's family man, was a blockbuster hit and proved Smith had the talent to carry a mainstream film.
"The Fresh Prince" aired its series finale in 1995. Off-screen, Smith also bid farewell to his three-year marriage, which had produced son Willard III, nicknamed Trey. Perfectionist Smith was saddled with feelings of failure and sadness over the break-up and found a shoulder to cry on in actress Jada Pinkett, whom he had been friendly with for years in the relatively small circle of successful black Hollywood actors. Within a year, their friendship blossomed into love, and the spiritually renewed Smith triumphantly returned to theaters as a cigar-chomping military pilot trying to save the U.S. from an alien invasion in the sci-fi thriller, "Independence Day" (1996). One of the most anticipated films of the summer blockbuster season, "Independence Day" went on to earn over $800 million dollars worldwide and bumped Smith up to Hollywood's A-list. The following summer he continued his hot streak in yet another space alien success, starring as comically deadpan Agent J opposite Tommy Lee Jones' humorless Agent K in "Men in Black" (1997). In addition to the critical kudos Smith earned for his role in the year's highest grossing film, his performance of the theme song earned a Grammy Award for Best Solo Rap performance. The song also appeared on Smith's debut solo album released on Columbia Records that year, Big Willie Style, which spawned chart-topping hits "Getting' Jiggy Wit It" and "Just the Two of Us," an homage to father/son relationships and dedicated to his son, Trey.
Smith and Pinkett capped 1997 with a New Year's Eve wedding outside Pinkett's hometown of Baltimore, MA. Nearby, Smith had been shooting the dramatic thriller "Enemy of the State" (1998), in which he offered a sturdy dramatic performance as a labor lawyer targeted by the National Security Agency after acquiring evidence pivotal to a politically-motivated killing. His next outing was one of the lesser efforts in the blockbusters Smith cannon - "Wild Wild West" (1999), in which he was cast as a Civil War-era government agent in a loose interpretation of the popular 1960s TV series. His laid-back charm and charisma may have been overshadowed by overblown special effects, but Smith still managed to attract over $100 million in domestic box office (on a $200 million budget) and banked another number one hit with the film's theme song. The song also appeared on Smith's multi-platinum selling Willennium alongside singles "Freakin' It" and "Will 2K." But when Smith returned to the big screen in the highly-touted millennium, he was ready to put his action-comedy star status aside in favor of tackling serious drama. His first, decidedly non-summer extravaganza, was the period fable "The Legend of Bagger Vance" (2000), in which he played a mysterious caddy who dispenses inspirational support to a washed-up golf pro (Matt Damon). While Smith seemed a bit at sea in this drastic departure from his usual fare, reviewers agreed that he managed to keep the character from devolving completely into cliché, despite challenges with the script and direction.
Smith's follow-up erased any doubt that he had the dramatic potential of one of his acting her s, Denzel Washington - to say nothing of bumping his salary up to the $20 million mark. Preparing to play the lead in director Michael Mann's biopic "Ali" (2001), Smith followed the same training regimen as the heavyweight champion once did, challenging himself to dig spiritually and emotionally deeper than he had ever done before as an actor. The film concentrated on the tumultuous period in Ali's life, spanning his surprise win over Sonny Liston through his draft difficulties, to his defeat of George Foreman in the infamous "Rumble in the Jungle." Smith's powerhouse performance earned him the highest critical accolades of his career, including nominations from the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, the Black Reel Awards, and the Image Awards.
Smith conquered entirely new creative territory with "Ali" but it was not his only landmark project of 2001. He also released his first book, the illustrated children's story Just the Two of Us, inspired by his 1998 hit song and dedicated to fathers everywhere. In 2002, he released the album Born to Reign before attempting to revisit his successful action film track record with a couple of would-be summer blockbuster sequels that generated solid ticket sales, but offered little creative innovation, including reuniting with Tommy Lee Jones in "Men in Black II" (2002) and Martin Lawrence in "Bad Boys 2" (2003). In 2003, he returned to the primetime fold as co-creator and executive producer - along with Pinkett-Smith - of the UPN sitcom, "All of Us" (UPN, 2003-07), which was based on their own experiences as a blended family. By now, the Smith-Pinkett household had grown to include not only Trey, but son Jaden Christopher and daughter Willow, all of whom would begin to express an interest in the family business.
Along with business partner James Lassiter, Smith formed Overbrook Entertainment, debuting as a feature film producer with an adaptation of Isaac Asimov's sci-fi classic "I, Robot" (2004), in which he also starred as a futuristic police detective. The familiar turn as blockbuster hero was crowd-pleasing if not horizon-expanding, but Smith followed up with a surprisingly belated visit to straight-ahead comedy. He lent his distinctive persona to DreamWorks' CGI-animated "Shark Tale" (2004) as Oscar, the mouthy young fish who ends up in hot water after the death of a shark mob boss. Overbrook's next release, "Hitch" (2005), fully capitalized on Smith's considerable charisma and romantic appeal, with his starring role as a smooth professional date doctor whose technique g s awry when he meets his own potential lady love (Eva Mendes).
Now signed to Interscope records, following the lackluster sales of his final album with Columbia, Smith released Lost and Found and enjoyed another rise in the pop and R&B charts with the single "Switch." The actor shook things up again, returning to drama by giving a strong performance in the fact-based "The Pursuit of Happyness" (2006), starring as a single dad struggling to raise a son - played by Smith's own eight-year-old son, Jaden Christopher - while doggedly pursuing a career at a prestigious stock brokerage firm, despite being homeless. Reviews for the film were mixed, but critics were unanimous in their praise of Smith's touching, inspirational portrayal which earned the actor Oscar, Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, Black Reel, and Image Award nominations.
In 2007, Smith found himself listed as the top actor on the annual Entertainment Weekly list of "50 Smartest People in Hollywood," where he was touted for "achieving a level of global popularity unprecedented for an African-American actor." Further evidence of that claim came with the holiday release of "I Am Legend" (2007), in which Smith wowed again in a film departure that was darker in tone and more intellectually impacting than anything he had done in his career. The third adaptation of Richard Matheson's novel of the same name starred Smith as the potential sole survivor of a post-apocalyptic viral plague. The actor challenged himself by occupying nearly two-thirds of the screen time by himself. The film set box-office records and Smith felt it represented a career high mark for him, in that it successfully married audience accessibility and artistic merit within a mainstream feature. Smith celebrated the July 4th holiday of 2008 with "Hancock," a comedy about a fallen superhero rehabilitated by a publicist. Naturally, the film was a massive box office success - over $600 million worldwide - though critics were far less enthusiastic than audiences.
Slipping into producer mode, Smith oversaw Neil LaBute's thriller "Lakeview Terrace" (2008), which starred Samuel L. Jackson as a veteran LAPD office who terrorizes his new neighbors (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington), and "The Secret Life of Bees" (2008), which featured an acclaimed performance by Queen Latifah as a South Carolinian woman who shows a young girl (Dakota Fanning) the secrets of her mother's past. Also that year, he starred in "Seven Pounds" (2008), where he played a mysterious IRS agent determined to change the lives of seven people in order to achieve his own redemption. Once again, critics were rather unhappy with Smith's effort, but that did nothing to stop yet another $100 million take at the box office. Back to producing, he steered his son in the remake of "The Karate Kid" (2010), in which Jaden played a 12-year-old kid who moves from Detroit to Beijing and learns martial arts from the aging Mr. Han (Jackie Chan). After the financially successful, but critically dismissed romantic comedy "This Means War" (2012), Smith was back in the saddle with "Men in Black 3" (2012), which saw Agent J travel back in time to the 1960s in order to save both the future and Agent K's (Tommy Lee Jones) younger self (Josh Brolin). This time critics were on the same page as audiences, expressing their collective thumbs up for the action comedy as it broke the $600 million mark worldwide.