In an age when the high-concept blockbuster seems to have relegated the notion of a movie star to the history books, Will Smith — with his amiable persona and keen instincts — remains one of the biggest draws in the business.
With starring roles in such diverse films as 1996’s “Independence Day” and 2001’s “Ali,” he has demonstrated remarkable range, and he also has become a successful producer, working with his longtime business partner James Lassiter through their Overbrook Entertainment. Smith developed his current film, Sony’s “The Pursuit of Happyness,” after seeing a TV profile about the movie’s real-life hero. And along with his wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, he executive produces the sitcom they created, the CW’s “All of Us.” He even manages to write and record music for some of his projects.
In short, he is one of the most versatile showmen working in the industry today.
“What’s unique about Will is his ability to be funny and serious — that contradiction of humor and straightness,” says Tony Scott, who directed him in 1998’s “Enemy of the State.” “That’s very rare in an individual, and he’s brilliant at both.”
That rare combination of star power and business savvy is perhaps one of the reasons why he was selected to receive his latest honor: The Museum of the Moving Image will honor Smith during its 22nd annual black-tie salute Sunday in New York, where he will join the ranks of previous recipients Robert De Niro, Sidney Poitier and Steven Spielberg.
“He’s a great actor, and he’s proved that,” says Eva Mendes, Smith’s co-star in 2005’s “Hitch.” “We all knew he was hysterical, but with ‘Ali’ he really proved he’s a dramatic actor as well.”
Truth be told, though, Smith never intended to become an actor. Growing up in Philadelphia, the son of a former Army officer who had opened a refrigeration business, Smith fell in love with hip-hop during its “first wave” and teamed to create music with DJ Jazzy Jeff, who “was the best DJ in Philadelphia at the time,” recalls Lassiter, who met Smith through Jeff and became his manager in 1986, when all three still were in their teens. “I remember meeting Will in Jeff’s basement. He was by far the brightest and the most talented of the rappers to come through. He was just fun, all the time — he always wanted to make everyone laugh and have a good time.”
His second album with Jeff, 1988’s “He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper,” went triple platinum. But when the duo’s next album flopped, Smith found himself in financial trouble, owing money to the IRS, and agreed to what seemed like the best option at the time: a situation comedy being developed for him at NBC.
“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” wasn’t just a hit, it was a bona fide triumph. It yanked Smith out of the relatively limited world of urban music and plunged him into mainstream Hollywood. More than that, it gave him a chance to discover from an insider’s perspective everything that was involved in the creation of an entertainment product, and he immersed himself in it.
At the same time, he and Lassiter were attempting to figure out what Smith had to do to move to the next level, not to be pigeonholed as the brash young hero of “Prince” but instead regarded as an altogether more universal persona. Together, they formed their production company, Overbrook, named after the high school they both attended.
Two movies helped broaden Smith’s image. The first was 1993’s “Six Degrees of Separation,” the feature film adaptation of John Guare’s play about a young man who insinuates his way into an upper-middle-class family by pretending to be Poitier’s son. Guare says he and director Fred Schepisi initially were skeptical about Smith and only agreed to consider him because financier-producer Arnon Milchan was adamant that he would be a star.
“Fred and I both said, ‘Oh yeah? Give me a break!'” Guare says. “Then we went separately to meet with Will on the set of ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.’ He was so great, and he told me why he wanted to do the part. He said, ‘I’m an actor. I’ve got more in me — I trust myself.’ And he was so fearless. He did a bit of a scene for me. I was stunned. I felt I was seeing the part for the first time.
“He is a man of the best kind of ambition, of not making things easy for himself but saying, ‘There is more to me than this,'” Guare adds.
Then there was 1995’s “Bad Boys,” director Michael Bay’s action comedy that elevated its two stars, Smith and Martin Lawrence, to a new level of celebrity.
Not that it was easy to convince the studio that Smith was the right man for the job. “He had real presence,” producer Jerry Bruckheimer says. “He was tall and handsome and athletic and had all the attributes. He’s got a great smile — and smiles make movie stars. But even though I liked him, (initially) I couldn’t sell him to Sony. Because he was a television star, the management didn’t believe that he could be a movie star. They wanted Arsenio Hall (for the film).”
Smith says that even now, Bay still teases him about the film. “Michael Bay tells me every time he sees me, ‘Dude! You were a TV star till I made you a movie star,'” Smith says, speaking from the New York set of his current film, Warner Bros. Pictures’ “I Am Legend.” “It was that one scene in ‘Bad Boys,’ where I’m running with my shirt open — which I didn’t want to do. I have to give (credit) to Michael: He was trying to make me run with no shirt on, and I was saying, ‘Come on, that is way too cliched.’ Our compromise was, I would run with my shirt open. That was the transforming scene from being a tele-vision star to someone that could have a viable movie career.”
If “Bad Boys” did indeed give Smith a viable movie career, two other pictures confirmed his stardom: The sci-fi actioner “Independence Day” and the action comedy “Men in Black,” the latter of which paired Smith with Tommy Lee Jones. Although they might have seemed like an unlikely duo — a street-smart Philly native with a Yale graduate and one-time roommate of former Vice President Al Gore — nothing could have been further from the truth. Together, Smith and Jones were comic dynamite, and they formed a lasting bond.
“Will is very funny, and he’s a real pleasure to work with,” Jones says. “He keeps everybody laughing on the set all the time. And if there’s somebody on the set that’s not feeling well, Will will seek them out and work on them until they keep laughing. There’s a generosity about him that’s wonderful to be around.”
While Smith repeatedly demonstrated his ability to pull in crowds at the multiplex, it wasn’t until he landed the lead in Michael Mann’s biopic “Ali” that he had the opportunity to truly showcase his range as an actor. Playing Muhammad Ali had long been a dream of Smith’s, and it was with great enthusiasm that he and Lassiter sat down with director Mann to discuss the project.
“I went to talk to him about it, and I had a take on the material that required a major revision, which Eric Roth and I did,” Mann says. “And then, more importantly was (the matter of) how to design a process by which Will would become Ali — physically, of course, with the boxing — but also (by getting familiar with) the period psychology, the history of race politics, the world in 1964 — all of that.”
Smith embraced the project with unusual gusto. “What was stunning about Will was his commitment, which was total,” Mann says, adding that Smith spent 10 months working out each day and burying himself in a wealth of material before shooting even got underway. Mann says he and Smith also dug into their own pockets to help finance the film.
“We both felt really impassioned about the project, and so we accepted to be (part) financiers of the production,” says Mann, who is now producing another film with Smith, Sony’s slated 2008 release “Tonight He Comes.” “This was just a fact of how much the movie would cost and how much the studio would put up. Will and I elected to fill the gap.”
The movie cemented Smith’s reputation, landing him an Oscar nomination and plenty of critical praise. By the time the film was released in theaters, Smith’s career again had risen to a new plateau.
Since that time, he has returned to science fiction and action with films including 2004’s “I, Robot” and dabbled in animation with that year’s “Shark Tale.” But it’s his latest role — in “Happyness,” as a struggling salesman who takes custody of his son — that is generating buzz about a potential second Oscar nomination.
A self-professed workaholic and perfectionist, he is a role model for others, both inside and outside the business. “It goes back to his goodness,” Mendes says. “You root for him because he is such a good person. He has got such an open mind, and he really wants to know about absolutely everything. He taught me, if you’re going to do something, do it all the way. And he has lived that. He is one of the world’s biggest stars for a reason: He puts 150% into everything he does.”
Adds Mann: “Here’s the bottom line: You can’t imagine having a partner as good as Will Smith, anywhere in life. As far as I’m concerned, he is the greatest.”