Mister Smith Goes to Stardom
From hip-hop hitmaker to Hollywood hero
WILL SMITH LOOKS, WELL, wrong—and he knows it. Greeting a visitor at his trailer on the Culver City, Calif., set of his next film, a sci-fi action comedy called Men in Black, the rapper turned actor shifts his lanky 6’2″ frame self-consciously beneath his movie wardrobe—a tie, a white shirt and a boxy, dark wool suit that would do an undertaker proud. “Oh, man! This outfit is just not me,” says Smith, 27, who in his six years as the star of the NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air helped make backward baseball caps, sports-team jerseys and baggy jeans the national uniform of Cool. “The last time I wore a suit and tie,” he says with a laugh, “was my eighth-grade graduation from Our Lady of Lourdes!”
He scans his attire, desperate to find a vestige of hipness. Then his face brightens. “Look!” he shouts, waving his sock-clad right foot in the air. “I’m wearing only one shoe! I’ve still got an edge!” A short while later there’s a knock on the trailer door, and a woman from the wardrobe department steps in. “Here’s your other shoe!” she says cheerfully. Smith takes the gleaming footwear—freshly cleaned of paint splatter, it turns out—and sets it on a table, grinning.
The shoe fits. And even if it does pinch his sense of style, Smith will wear it gladly. Loosely laced high-tops, shiny black wing tips or the combat boots he wears as alien-battling Marine Corps Capt. Steven Hiller in the blockbuster movie Independence Day—these are all glass slippers in the Cinderella story of Smith’s life. The successful jump from hip hop to sitcoms was, for Smith, only the beginning. In 1993’s Six Degrees of Separation he surprised critics with his gift for drama, and last year Smith displayed a talent even dearer to Hollywood moguls’ hearts, or what passes for them: He more than held his own with Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys, an action-comedy that made $140 million worldwide.
Now there’s Independence Day. With its intricate, hyperkinetic special effects, ensemble cast and sheer box office power—it earned a record $96 million in its first six days in release—the film might overwhelm a lesser actor. Instead, Smith’s hooting, cigar-chomping turn as a fighter pilot, roaring off to “kick E.T.’s ass,” is for many moviegoers the film’s most engaging performance. “Audiences identify with him—I’d see it in their eyes at test screenings,” says Day director Roland Emmerich. “He’s going to be huge.”
Smith’s ascendant star is but one of many major personal changes he has recently gone through. The pressures of work, he says, contributed to the painful breakup last year of his three-year marriage to Sheree Zampino, 28. Smith has also had the joyful—albeit sobering—experience of becoming a father; he and Zampino share custody of 3-year-old Will Smith III. “Being a dad changes everything,” he says.
In his case, he says, it has made him more settled and responsible—and helped him find love again. A few months back he discovered his long-sought soulmate in actress Jada Pinkett, 24, a former star of TV’s A Different World, who currently appears opposite Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor. Smith says it was his newfound maturity that helped persuade him to quit his still successful TV series this year. “My everyday life is now drastically different from that of the Fresh Prince,” he says. “It’s become increasingly difficult to find that guy inside me.”
Maybe so, but outwardly the Smith who “cracked people up,” in costar Jeff Goldblum’s words, staging mock ninja fights on the set of Independence Day, sounds a lot like the Smith who found fun even in punishment as a kid growing up in middle-class West Philadelphia, Pa. The second of four children of Willard Smith Sr., the owner of a refrigeration firm, and Caroline, a school-board administrator, “Will was punished first because he’s older,” recalls his brother Harry, 25, an accountant who now handles Smith’s finances. “Then he’d go around a corner and make faces so we’d laugh—and we’d get punished worse.”
Even at Overbrook High School, Smith says, “I’d cut up the class but still take in what the teacher was saying.” Amused by his smooth excuses for missing assignments, some teachers called him Prince Charming. One, however, complained to Smith’s mother that, she recalls, Will “was testing at a college level but just barely passing.” Prodded by Mom, Smith buckled down and was accepted by the Milwaukee School of Engineering in 1986. But by that time he had other plans.
The then-new musical form of hip hop consumed him. In 1985, at age 16, Smith met Jeff Townes, 20 at the time, who was playing deejay at a friend’s party. The two bonded and honed a stage act at parties and church functions. Soon they were performing at clubs as DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Townes, who had recorded an earlier solo album, found a label interested in the duo. In 1986 they cut Rock the House, which sold 600,000 copies. Two of their next three CDs went platinum, and the 1988 single “Parents Just Don’t Understand” won a Grammy for Best Rap Performance, the first ever given in that category. These were heady days for Smith, who toured in London, Moscow and Japan and earned more than $1 million by age 20. Still, Smith’s sister Ellen, Harry’s twin, says her brother always called home to check in and say he was okay.
But his bank account was heading toward not okay. In interviews, Smith has recalled how he spent lavishly on jewelry, a house outside Philadelphia and six luxury cars. One day, while in Atlanta he and a group of friends convinced a Gucci store to close its doors so they could enjoy a private shopping spree. “Money disappears a lot faster than it comes in, no matter how much you make,” Smith says now. “Being able to buy anything you want makes you a. little crazy.”
Still, a saner part of Smith’s mind was ever planning ahead. “He’s never been the type to stay in one place,” says Townes, now a music producer in Philadelphia. Even before they had released their first album, Smith said he “wanted to be in movies.”
In late 1989, Smith met Benny Medina, then a Warner Music exec and now Smith’s manager. Born in Watts, Calif., and taken in as a teenager by a family in Beverly Hills, Medina wanted to do a TV show based on his life. Smith loved the idea, and Medina lured in Quincy Jones as executive producer. In early 1990, Jones invited NBC execs to his home to watch Smith audition. “There were no beads of sweat,” recalls Warren Littlefield, NBC’s entertainment president. “Will read from a script and nailed it. I sat there thinking, ‘Whoa! Just bottle this guy!’ ”
Smith demurs. Looking back, he says he was a long way from Chateau Latour when The Fresh Prince began. “I sucked,” he says, “badly.” He forgot his stage marks and silently mouthed other actors’ lines in fear of missing cues. But the show was a modest hit from the beginning, giving Smith time to grow in the role. “By the third season,” he says, “I came into my own.”
Smith met his future wife, then a fashion-design student, in 1991, when both were visiting a mutual friend on the set of A Different World. Smith was smitten; Zampino was not. But he began to phone her and wore her down with his charm. In May 1992 they married, and later that year their son—who is nicknamed Trey—was born on the first day of the rest of Smith’s life. “When the doctor handed him to me, I realized things were different now,” he says. It started with the car ride home. “That was the worst drive,” Smith recalls. “You’re obeying every law. You can’t be a reckless young man anymore.”
Trey is no wiseacre chip off the block. When he visited the Bel-Air set, the boy was unfailingly respectful. “If Trey wanted something,” recalls Smith’s Bel-Air costar Alfonso Ribeiro, “he’d ask, ‘Excuse me, can I play with this?’ He knew about the bell that went off when we started taping. When he heard it, Trey would put his finger to his mouth and say ‘Shhhhh!’ ”
In Independence Day, Trey’s dad also had some pantomiming to do. Because special effects are put into a film last, stars often “act blind,” Smith explains. “In a scene with an alien, you’re talking to air, or a sign that says ‘ALIEN.’ ” For cockpit scenes during the dogfights between military jets and spacecraft, Smith says Emmerich stood off-camera, saying, ‘There’s an explosion to your left! Now the plane dips to your right!’…I heard all this and was thinking, ‘Wait. I never knew this is what Han Solo had to go through.’ ”
Even that, Smith admits, was a lot easier than some aspects of real life, particularly the crash and burn of his marriage, which led to a $900,000 lumpsum divorce settlement for Zampino plus $24,000 per month in alimony and child support. She doesn’t discuss the breakup; Smith does so only in vague terms. “We had a new son, and my career was taking off. There was a lot of pressure that didn’t allow the marriage to blossom,” he says. He pauses. “You know how you’re on the freeway and you see that one car on the side of the road? Thousands of cars drive by it. Well, every once in a while it’s your turn to be broken down. And you wait for the tow truck to come. That’s how I viewed that difficult time in my life.”
Enter Jada Pinkett’s Towing Service. The two met in 1990, during Bel-Air’s first season, when Pinkett auditioned to play Smith’s girlfriend (at 5’0″, she was deemed too short) and continued with casual social meetings on the young African-American Hollywood scene. Then last spring their relationship began to change. “I helped him understand what happened in his marriage,” says Pinkett, who had recently broken up with a boyfriend, “and he helped me see what happened in my relationship. He’s become my best friend. There’s nothing I can’t say to him, nothing I can’t share.” Smith agrees. “Jada is the first person I’ve been with willing to accept that it’s not always going to be great,” he says, “but that’s okay.”
Though they have no plans to marry and Pinkett owns her own condo in L.A., she can usually be found at Smith’s 8,000-square-foot, southwestern-style home an hour’s drive northwest of town. “Everyone complains about the distance, but you feel like you’re away from L.A.,” Smith says. “The energy of L.A. can really beat you down.”
Though still widely known by his nom du groove, Smith has no plans to record more rap. Most of today’s hip hop, he says, “has taken a negative turn—glorifying ignorance, violence and misogyny. It’s about hate, and that’s one thing I don’t understand.” Yet like the Fresh Prince of old, Smith understands fun. One day on the Men in Black set, the actor swiped several huge, hairy, fake insects from the prop truck. Three or four times that day he sneaked up behind brother Harry and stuck them on his shirt, terrifying his poor sibling. “All the things the Fresh Prince stood for, all the fun he had, still exist inside me,” Smith says. “Those just aren’t the dominant aspects of my personality anymore. The Fresh Prince can still come over for dinner, but he has to go home after he eats.”
CRAIG TOMASHOFF and PAULA YOO in Los Angeles