Six Degrees of Separation (1993)
When director Fred Schepisi cast Will Smith in this adaptation of John Guare’s celebrated play, insiders’ eyes almost popped out of their heads. Smith was a one-time rapper and sitcom star; how could he possibly handle the challenging role of the street-smart con man who convinces an upper-middle-class family that he is Sidney Poitier’s son? Somehow, he did, standing up to such stalwarts as Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing (who received an Oscar nom for her role) and proving he had something of Poitier’s gift himself. The film won Smith his best reviews so far — and drew a smidgen of controversy when the MPAA banned its trailer for showing a brief flash of Adam’s genitalia on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Alas, with paltry boxoffice, it left Hollywood unconvinced that Smith was a genuine leading man.
Bad Boys (1995)
Smith firmly established his credentials as a major movie star in this film, the first from director Michael Bay — even though Sony didn’t really want him for it. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer (who helped propel actors like Nicolas Cage to stardom) had to convince the powers that be that Smith was better for the movie’s blend of comedy and action than their first choice, Arsenio Hall. (He also was way better than the two initial choices for the leads, Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz.) But the studio continued to regard this film as just another routine release until it saw the reaction that preview audiences had to the chemistry between Smith and co-star Martin Lawrence — and the reaction female fans had to Smith’s semi-clad figure as he bolted through a now-famous chase sequence. “Bad Boys” proved that Smith wasn’t just a TV name; he was a movie star.
Independence Day (1996)
Smith was one of a number of well-known actors whose stories intertwined in Roland Emmerich’s futuristic sci-fi actioner. (Ironically, just as Sony had expressed doubts about “Bad Boys,” it had doubts about “ID4,” letting it go to Fox.) But Smith had some of the most memorable and comedic moments in the film — not least when he slugs an alien in the face, drawing a chorus of cheers from audiences. Helped by moments like that, as well as a newly buff body for his fighter-pilot role, Smith led the movie to become a worldwide phenomenon, earning $306 million at the domestic boxoffice alone.
Men in Black (1997)
Pairing the easygoing, street-smart Smith with Tommy Lee Jones — the intense actor’s actor whose star was at its peak following his spectacular performance in the 1993 blockbuster “The Fugitive” — might have seemed like an odd prospect at first. But the duo proved magical; because of that, “Men in Black” not only spawned a sequel but briefly put both stars close to the $20 million superstar category — where Smith has since remained.
Smith spent 10 months mastering his role as Muhammad Ali in this labor of love — a dream project he had developed for years with business partner James Lassiter through their Overbrook Entertainment, before Michael Mann came onboard to direct. Smith’s preparation included immersing himself in the culture of Ali’s era as well as spending six days a week learning how to box. During that time, he fractured his thumb — and still had to fight. But the most memorable moments in the film come when Ali isn’t fighting; they’re when he’s talking to his coach, Drew “Bundini” Brown, a role taken by Jamie Foxx, who was making his own transition from TV comedy to serious acting. With all this, and some of Smith’s own money in the film, it was a letdown when the picture earned a mere $58 million domestically.
Shark Tale (2004)
Smith followed in the footsteps of other celebrities who have lent their voices to DreamWorks’ animated features — most notably Mike Myers and his colleagues in 2001’s “Shrek” and its 2004 sequel — when he accepted the lead role of Oscar, the fast-talking fish whose one big lie lands him in a boatload of trouble. But “Shark Tale” never quite broke into the lofty boxoffice sphere of “Shrek,” and even though it earned $161 million, it was perceived as something of a disappointment.
The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Smith’s latest movie showcases him in a decidedly offbeat role as a struggling husband and father who gets a shot at becoming a stockbroker — and then has to make it work even when his wife abandons him with his son. What makes the film especially notable is that it teams Smith with his real-life young son, Jaden, in a remarkably naturalistic portrayal that still never quite steals the limelight from his dad.