First came the bleak and melodramatic Where The Day Takes You, about young runaways in Hollywood, with Will way down a cast including Dermot Mulroney, Lara Flynn Boyle and Kyle MacLachlan. Then came a bigger role in Made In America, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Danson, where Will performed a superb comic turn as Teacake, best friend to Goldberg’s onscreen daughter Nia Long (also Will’s girlfriend in Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air). Critics were mightily impressed by his first dramatic lead, as a manipulative imposter in John Guare’s Oscar-nominated Six Degrees Of Separation, then the public came on board with Bad Boys. One of the first modern, high-budget action thrillers to feature two black leads, this paired Will with fellow comic Martin Lawrence and took the box-office by storm. Will was now big business.
In Independence Day, he made the very best of limited dialogue, and stole the show by punching out a grotesque, murderous alien then delivering a deadpan “Welcome to Earth”. For a while, he could do no wrong. With Tommy Lee Jones as his straight-man, he scored an spectacular cross-generational hit with Men In Black, then starred in the superior conspiracy thriller Enemy Of The State.
mystical caddie helping Matt Damon re-find his golf game in Robert Redford’s The Legend Of Bagger Vance. Then came Will’s greatest challenge yet – Michael Mann’s bio-pic Ali. He actually turned the role down eight times,
Once in, he was really in. He trained like a demon, gaining the approval of both Sugar Ray Leonard, and his own wife. “I’m human viagra,” Smith said of his newfound vitality, “I’m Willagra. I’m a sex machine now. I’m raring to go every second of the day. My wife’s loving it”. Now, to the great joy of Martin Lawrence, came Bad Boys 2
Will moved on to I, Robot, an adaptation of Isaac Asimov sci-fi stories, directed by Alex Proyas. This saw him in 2035 as a technophobic Chicago cop who’s called in to investigate when a robot kills a human at the giant US Robotics corporation.
Next he would lend his voice to the animated Shark Tale, playing a young fish who’s found beside the body of the son of shark mob boss. Robert De Niro. Heralded as a hard-man killer, he boasts and brags and finds himself pursued by vampish Angelina Jolie and a vengeful De Niro. It was another huge hit, as was Hitch (originally known as The Last First Kiss), a rom-com released in time for Valentine’s Day, 2005. Here Will played a professional dating consultant who counsels lonely guys seeking dates in New York City. Hitch was a huge box office success. Taking $177 million in the US alone, it further cemented Smith’s position as one of the biggest draws of the era. His next outing would go further, both raking in the cash and delivering Smith his second Oscar nomination. This was The Pursuit Of Happyness, the true story of one Chris Gardner.
Very different would be Smith’s next production, the long-anticipated I Am Legend. For an age this remake of Charlton Heston’s The Omega Man had been set to star Arnold Schwarzenegger, only for the big man’s political career to force him to drop out. Smith would take over as Neville, apparently the last man on Earth, warding off a legion of vampires who seek his blood when night falls.
Will Smith has been twice married: first to Sheree Zampino (1992-95), who he met in 1991 at a taping of A Different World, and with whom he had one child, Willard Smith III. Then there was actress Jada Pinkett (1997-now) Come 2003, he and Jada would create and write a TV show, All Of Us, based on their own lives. Both would make occasional guest appearances. Having received $5 million for Men In Black, $14 million for Enemy Of The State, and an amazing 20 million (plus a percentage of gross profits) for Ali, MIB2 and Bad Boys 2, Smith is one of Hollywood’s prime earners. Deservedly so when you consider his movies’ box office takings ($144 million for I, Robot, $160 million for Shark Tale, $177 million for Hitch, $162 million for The Pursuit Of Happyness).