Full name: Willard Christopher “Will” Smith, Jr.
Birthday: September 25, 1968
West Philadelphia, born and raised, Will Smith’s charming and sly demeanor in school resulted in the nickname “Prince” which eventually turned into the “Fresh Prince.” While still in his teens, Smith began rapping and eventually began collaborating with Jeff Townes (a.k.a. D.J. Jazzy Jeff) whom he met at a party. He attended Overbrook High School in West Philadelphia. D.J. Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince was born with Smith handling the rhymes and Townes overseeing the mastery of mixing and scratching — the combination was a pop and hip-hop hit during the ’80s and early ’90s.
While it is widely reported that Smith turned down a scholarship to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Smith denied this in a Reader’s Digest interview stating, “My mother, who worked for the School Board of Philadelphia, had a friend who was the admissions officer at MIT. I had pretty high SAT scores and they needed black kids, so I probably could have gotten in. But I had no intention of going to college.” This is corroborated in a Wired interview where he states he never applied to MIT.
Despite the above, when Smith appeared on Inside the Actors Studio, he stated that he was admitted to the “pre-engineering program” at MIT.
Smith started as the MC of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, with his childhood friend Jeffrey “DJ Jazzy Jeff” Townes as turntablist and producer as well as Ready Rock C (Clarence Holmes) as the human beat box. The trio was known for performing humorous, radio-friendly songs, most notably “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “Summertime.” They gained critical acclaim for winning the first ever Grammy in the Rap category (1988). He had a line in “Voices That Care“, a 1991 Gulf War song by a celebrity group.
Smith was nearing bankruptcy when in 1990, the NBC television network signed him to a contract and built a sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, around him. The show was successful and launched his acting career. Although he made a notable dramatic film debut in Six Degrees of Separation while still appearing in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Smith’s film career took off with his role in the buddy cop action film Bad Boys (1995) along with co-star Martin Lawrence.
After The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ended in 1996, Smith began a successful solo music career while simultaneously starring in a series of films. The first two films were hugely successful summer blockbusters: Independence Day (1996), in which he played a fearless and confident fighter pilot, and Men in Black (1997), where he played the comic and confident Agent J against Tommy Lee Jones’s deadpan Agent K. Smith’s acting in Men in Black won critical praise. He originally rejected the lead role in Men in Black, but wife Jada Pinkett Smith coaxed him into acceptance. The two films established Smith’s commercial reputation as a bankable star whose appeal across age, race, and gender lines could “open” a film at the box office. Smith turned down the role of Neo in The Matrix in favor of Wild Wild West. After the failure of Wild Wild West and watching Keanu Reeves’ performance, he suggests that he would not have been the appropriate actor for the role at the time, but still considers passing on The Matrix as a big mistake. He then gained lead roles in several box office successes including Men in Black II, Bad Boys II, Hitch, and I, Robot.
Smith is one of only two hip-hop artists to receive an Oscar nomination in an acting category (Best Actor, Ali, 2001), for his portrayal of the boxer Muhammad Ali, formerly known as Cassius Clay, in the biopic. He was also nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his role in another true-life movie, The Pursuit of Happyness where he played Chris Gardner in his rags to riches story.
Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith created the UPN (later CW) sitcom All of Us, which was loosely based on their lives. The show debuted on UPN in September 2003 and aired there for three seasons before moving to The CW in October 2006 for one more season. The CW cancelled All of Us in May 2007.
Smith appeared as himself in Jersey Girl delivering the Silent Bob speech that appears in nearly all Kevin Smith movies. The lead character’s situation is due to the claim, “Will Smith is just a rapper“.
Smith also released a string of hit singles, often associated with his most recent film, throughout the late 1990s. The most notable of these were his #1 hit theme song “Men in Black,” the #1 hit “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” (which made jiggy a catchphrase for a while in 1998), and a cover of “Just the Two of Us,” an affectionate message to his young son. His first two solo albums went platinum, but his third, on Columbia Records, was a sales disappointment compared to his past efforts, and after a quick Greatest Hits release that was almost not advertised at all, he was dropped by the label. He signed a recording contract with Interscope Records and released the successful Lost & Found in 2005. The album was propelled solely on the smash hit single, “Switch“, which appealed to the mainstream a la “Summertime“. The single stayed atop the charts for months and returned Smith to the forefront of Hip Hop.
Smith appeared at Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice awards in 2005 performing “Switch“, as well as the Black Entertainment Television awards in 2005. He appeared in the second game of the NBA Finals (San Antonio vs. Detroit) performing “Switch” in 2005. Smith also made a special appearance in the reality talent contest show “Indian Idol“, when he visited India.
Smith was considered for the role of John Smith in the movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith; Brad Pitt eventually received the role. He was also considered for the role of Willy Wonka in the remake of the film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He has planned to star in a feature film remake of the television series It Takes a Thief.
Smith can be found most recently starring in The Pursuit of Happyness with his son Jaden Smith; he received his second Academy Award nomination for the role for Best Actor but lost to Forest Whitaker.
Smith’s next film will be I Am Legend in 2007, based on the novel of the same name. In the film, Smith will play the last man on Earth.