Actor, musician. Born Willard Christopher Smith Jr., to mother Caroline, a school board employee, and father Willard C. Smith, the owner of a refrigeration company. His middle class upbringing saw him attend the strict—and Catholic—Overbrook High School, despite his family’s observation of the Baptist faith.
His West Philadelphia neighborhood was a melting pot of cultures where Orthodox Jews co-existed with a large Muslim population. Smith was a good student whose charming personality and quick tongue were renowned for getting him out of trouble, a trait for which he soon gained the nickname “Prince.”
Smith began rapping at age 12, emulating heroes like Grandmaster Flash but tingeing his rhymes with a comedic element that would later become his trademark. At 16, Smith met a DJ at a party by the name of Jeff Townes. The pair became friends, and the duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince was born.
The pair began producing music, but steered clear of the Gangsta Rap sound that was emerging on the West Coast in groups like Public Enemy and NWA. The Fresh Prince rapped about teenage preoccupations in a clean, curse-free style that middle America found safe and entertaining. The pair’s first single, “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” was a hit in 1986. Their debut album Rock the House (1990) hit the Billboard Top 200, and made Smith a millionaire before the age of 18. His early success put any thoughts of attending college out of Smith’s mind.
Early on it was reported that Smith had turned down a scholarship to Boston’s elite Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but Smith later dispelled the rumor when he told an interviewer: “My mother, who worked for the School Board of Philadelphia, had a friend who was the admissions officer at MIT. I had pretty high SAT scores and they needed black kids, so I probably could have gotten in. But I had no intention of going to college.”
In 1988, DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince continued their success with the album He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper featuring the radio-friendly singles “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” “Brand New Funk,” and “Nightmare on My Street.” The album won the first ever Grammy Award for a Rap Performance. That album was followed by And In This Corner… which continued the pair’s rise to stardom.
Two years later, Smith began his remarkable crossover into acting. Drawing on his experiences with fledgling stardom, NBC signed Smith to star in a sitcom about a street-smart kid from Philadelphia. On the show, the character is shipped off to California to live with wealthy relatives in Bel-Air, California. Playing on his rapper persona, and at times featuring his friend Towne, The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air was a huge success that ran for six seasons.
Meanwhile, Smith and Towne kept producing music. The 1991 album Homebase produced the hits “Summertime” and “Ring My Bell.” Their final album together, 1993’s Code Red, was notable for “Boom! Shake the Room.”
While still making The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Smith began a second crossover into movies. Small roles in the drama Where The Day Takes You (1992) and the comedy Made In America (1993) were followed by a critically acclaimed lead in the drama Six Degrees of Separation (1993). Smith played a charming street-wise kid moving among the wealthy elite, who was also a psychologically complex gay hustler. The film enjoyed moderate success, but its title idea has become a household term for the closeness of human society.
Smith’s first steps into super-stardom came with his next film, Bad Boys (1995). The high-budget cop movie saw him team up with comic Martin Lawrence, breaking away from the black-cop-white-cop formula that had been so successful for Beverly Hills Cop and the Lethal Weapon series. The two black leads proved an instant success and Smith—playing the smooth, serious, cop to Lawrence’s clown—was established as leading man material.
The 1996, epic sci-fi disaster movie Independence Day was his next assignment. The role confirmed Smith as a major player in Hollywood and the go-to guy for summer blockbusters. Smith played an air force pilot leading the counter-attack against the invading alien forces, and his comedic talents effortlessly transformed into the pithy one-liners all action heroes need to be able to drop while dispatching their enemies.
Smith fought aliens again in his next blockbuster, the comic sci-fi action film, Men In Black (1997). Playing opposite Tommy Lee Jones, Smith chewed up the screen as the new recruit to Jones’s old hand. Smith sang the theme song, and its inclusion on his solo album, Big Willie Style (1997) brought the multi-talented actor another success. Another Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster followed with the slick conspiracy thriller Enemy of the State (1998), which earned Smith an NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture.
The string of hits came to an end in 1999 with Wild Wild West, a sci-fi cowboy Western co-starring Kevin Kline. Despite the film’s lackluster box-office performance, the track Smith cut for the film became a hit on his album, Willennium (1999). The golf movie The Legend of Bagger Vance was his next big film, with Smith playing the caddie to Matt Damon’s out-of-sorts swinger.
In 2001 the biopic Ali, based on boxing legend Muhammad Ali, saw Smith return to critical acclaim. His turn as the charismatic boxing great saw Smith put in the performance of his life, training and disciplining himself to extraordinary lengths to do justice to the athleticism, and ego, of the films main character. The film under-performed at the box-office despite a record-breaking opening day. Smith’s performance, however, was good enough to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar.
A number of sequels were next, with Smith reprising his roles in Men In Black and Bad Boys. Neither were flops, but they were both nowhere near as successful as their predecessors. Staying with the sci-fi action theme, Smith moved on to I, Robot in 2004. The Isaac Asimov adaptation saw Smith playing a cop in 2035 investigating a murder by a robot and then battling a robot insurgency. The film performed well, grossing more than $144 million in U.S. box offices.
Smith’s smooth-talking charmer persona was put to use in the 2005 romantic comedy, Hitch. Smith played a ladies’ man and dating consultant who helps luckless guys with their romantic moves. Smith penned the theme song, and included it on his album Lost and Found (2005). Hitch was a massive success, and was followed by another critical and financial hit, the 2006 rags-to-riches tale, The Pursuit of Happyness. Starring alongside his real-life son Jaden, Smith captivated audiences with the story of a single father who has to build a life from scratch. He received his second Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his performance.
In 2007, Smith starred in I Am Legend, a remake of the Charlton Heston film Omega Man, where he battled blood-thirsty vampires. The film became a national and international hit.
The talented actor and musician has recently entered yet another arena, working as a film producer. Smith worked both sides of the camera for the film Hancock, in which he plays an alcoholic anti-superhero, and for Seven Pounds, about a man who sets out to change the lives of seven people. He also helped produce the 2008 films Lakeview Terrace and The Secret Life of Bees. His most recent project, The Mark, is slated for release in 2009.
Smith has been married twice. His first marriage in 1992 lasted only three years but produced a son, Willard Smith III, who is also known as Trey. He has been married to actress Jada Pinkett Smith since 1997. The couple has a son, Jaden, who was born in 1998 and a daughter, Willow, born in 2000.
The Smith family has homes in Florida, Sweden and Philadelphia. Like many in Hollywood, Smith is politically liberal and has made donations to the presidential campaign of Senator Barack Obama. He is a fan of chess and video games and is known to take his mother on vacation every year, usually to the Canyon Ranch spa in Tucson, Arizona