Although he initially became famous as a rapper, Will Smith went on to prove his acting talents in both television and films, eventually winning a reputation as an entertainer who could easily cross back and forth between musician and actor. In the process, he became one of the most successful entertainers -- African-American or otherwise -- in the American popular consciousness of the 1990s.
A native of Philadelphia, Smith was born on September 25, 1968. The son of middle-class parents (his father owned a refrigeration company and his mother worked for the school board) and the second of four children, he earned the nickname "Prince" thanks to his ability to talk himself out of trouble. The nickname became part of his popular persona when, with fellow rapper Jeff Townes, Smith (who had been rapping since the age of 12) formed the duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Smith found fame as a rapper, producing two platinum albums and winning a Grammy for He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper.
However, by the time he was 18, Smith had squandered much of his fortune and was in debt to the IRS. Help came in the form of Warner Bros. executive Benny Medina, who wanted to create a TV show based on his own experiences as a poor kid living with a rich Beverly Hills family. The result was The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, a popular sitcom that gave Smith -- who had turned down an M.I.T. scholarship to pursue his career -- even greater fame as the show's protagonist. During the show's six-year run, Smith began to branch out toward film work. Following roles in Where the Day Takes You (1992) and Made in America (1993), he scored critical approval as a young, gay con man pretending to be Sidney Poitier's son in Six Degrees of Separation (1993). He also scored a decent helping of controversy, thanks to remarks he made in an interview that were perceived as homophobic. Two years later, Smith found his first major commercial success alongside Martin Lawrence in the action flick Bad Boys. The following year, he topped that with a turn in the sci-fi smash Independence Day, which was one of the year's biggest moneymakers.
Extraterrestrial life forms proved to be a profitable subject for Smith, as he went on to make a similarly gargantuan amount of money playing a secret agent tracking down aliens with Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black (1997). The film turned out to be a lucrative enterprise for him off the screen as well, as his theme-song single also became a hit. Its success inspired him to begin rapping again, and that same year he released Big Willie Style. Smith also found success on a more personal front, as he married actress Jada Pinkett on New Year's Eve. In 1998, the actor starred in Enemy of the State, a conspiracy thriller, also starring Gene Hackman, that had him on the run from government agents. The film was a commercial success and the next year Smith starred in Wild Wild West. As the film's titular 19th century lawman hero, Smith was part of a project that was widely dismissed by critics and failed to make back its high costs. However, his theme-song single provided another hit for the actor/musician.
Following a moderate success with his role as a mysterious golf caddy who tutors down-on-his-luck putter Matt Damon in The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), Smith next pumped up for his most demanding role to date. With his Oscar-nominated turn as legendary boxer Muhammad Ali in director Michael Mann's Ali, Smith faced heretofore unprecedented scrutiny that his previous, notably lighter roles had not faced. Though some critics pointed out that Smith's acting abilities shined through Mann's sometimes lamentably restrained style, Ali opened strongly with much praise going to Smith's well-studied performance. Next serving as Executive Producer for the Robert DeNiro/Eddie Murphy comedy Showtime (2002), Smith came back in black later that same year for the sci-fi comedy sequel Men in Black II. ~ Rebecca Flint, All Movie Guide… Expand