January 08, 2007 12:00 PM

Success, says Chris Gardner, “is not about money. It’s about looking in the mirror and saying ‘I like this guy.'” And what’s not to like? At 52, the once homeless single dad is a multimillionaire with his own Chicago-based brokerage firm, a roster of speaking engagements, a bestselling memoir—and now, his life is a hit movie starring Will Smith: The Pursuit of Happyness. (The curious spelling comes from his seeing it that way at a day care center.)

Gardner’s rags-to-riches story began in an impoverished Milwaukee neighborhood, where he stayed with relatives or in foster homes while his mother served two prison terms. He never knew his father. After a stint in the Navy, he settled in San Francisco, spent 10 days in jail for $1,200 in unpaid parking tickets and then discovered that his girlfriend had cleaned out their place and left him with their son. With no money, father and son lived at times in the restroom of a subway station. “Bam! We’d joined that invisible class of working homeless people,” Gardner recalls. “We may not have known how we were going to eat or where we were going to sleep, but we were together every day.”

Impressed by a stockbroker with a Ferrari, he talked his way into Dean Witter’s broker training program and began to get his life on track. Still, his meager stipend left him choosing between day care, food and shelter—and shelter, most often, lost out. Gardner spent a year pushing his son and their belongings around San Francisco in a stroller. “Most of the stuff my dad went through breaks people,” says his son Christopher Jr., now 25 and working for his father. “We have this thing about never settling. My dad says never play small; always play big.”

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