Willard Carroll Smith Jr. is an American actor, rapper, and film producer. Smith has been nominated for five Golden Globe Awards (winning one), and two Academy Awards, and has won four Grammy Awards.
During the late 1980s, he achieved modest fame as a rapper under the name the Fresh Prince. In 1990, his popularity increased dramatically when he began starring in the NBC television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which ran for six seasons until 1996. After the series ended, Smith transitioned from television to film and went on to star in numerous blockbuster films, including Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997). He is the only actor to have starred in eight consecutive films which grossed over $100 million in the United States box office, eleven consecutive films which grossed over $150 million internationally, and eight consecutive films which opened at the number one spot in the US box office tally.
In 2013, Forbes named Smith the most bankable star in the world. In April 2007, Newsweek called him "the most powerful actor in Hollywood". As of 2014, 17 of the 21 films in which he had leading roles have accumulated worldwide gross earnings of over $100 million each, with five taking in over $500 million each in global box office receipts. As of 2016, his films have grossed $7.5 billion at the global box office. For his roles as boxer Muhammad Ali in Ali (2001) and stockbroker Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), Smith received Academy Award nominations for Best Actor.
Smith was born on September 25, 1968, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Caroline (née Bright), a Philadelphia school board administrator, and Willard Carroll Smith Sr., a U.S. Air Force veteran and refrigeration engineer. His mother graduated from Carnegie Mellon University.
He grew up in West Philadelphia's Wynnefield neighborhood, and was raised Baptist. He has an older sister named Pamela and two younger siblings, twins Harry and Ellen. Smith attended Our Lady of Lourdes, a private Catholic elementary school in Philadelphia. His parents separated when he was 13, but did not actually divorce until around 2000.
Smith attended Overbrook High School. While it has been widely reported that Smith turned down a scholarship to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he never applied to college, because he "wanted to rap". Smith says he was admitted to a "pre-engineering program" at MIT for high school students, but he did not attend.
1985–1992: The Fresh Prince
Smith started as the MC of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, with his childhood friend Jeffrey "DJ Jazzy Jeff" Townes as turntablist and producer. Townes and Smith were introduced to each other by chance in 1985, as Townes was performing at a house party only a few doors down from Smith's residence, and he was missing his hype man. Smith decided to fill in. They both felt strong chemistry, and Townes was upset when his hype man finally made it to the party.
Soon after, the two decided to join forces. Smith enlisted a friend to join as the beatboxer of the group, Clarence Holmes (Ready Rock C), making them a trio. Philadelphia-based Word Records released their first single in 1986 when A&R man Paul Oakenfold introduced them to Champion Records with their single "Girls Ain't Nothing but Trouble," a tale of funny misadventures that landed Smith and his former DJ and rap partner Mark Forrest (Lord Supreme) in trouble. The song sampled the theme song of "I Dream of Jeannie." Smith became known for light-hearted story-telling raps and capable, though profanity-free, "battle" rhymes. The single became a hit a month before Smith graduated from high school.
Based on this success, the duo were brought to the attention of Jive Records and Russell Simmons. The duo's first album, Rock the House, which was first released on Word Up in 1986 debuted on Jive in March 1987. The group received the first Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance in 1989 for "Parents Just Don't Understand" (1988), though their most successful single was "Summertime" (1991), which earned the group their second Grammy and peaked at number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. Smith and Townes are still friends and claim that they never split up, having made songs under Smith's solo performer credit.
Smith spent money freely around 1988 and 1989 and underpaid his income taxes. The Internal Revenue Service eventually assessed a $2.8 million tax debt against Smith, took many of his possessions, and garnished his income. Smith was struggling financially in 1990 when the NBC television network signed him to a contract and built a sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, around him. The show was successful and began his acting career. Smith set for himself the goal of becoming "the biggest movie star in the world", studying box office successes' common characteristics. In 1989, Smith was arrested in relation to an alleged assault on his record promoter, William Hendricks; all charges were dismissed.
1993–1997: Solo music and film breakthrough
Smith's first major roles were in the drama Six Degrees of Separation (1993) and the action film Bad Boys (1995) in which he starred opposite Martin Lawrence. The latter film was commercially successful, grossing $141.4 million worldwide. However, critical reception was generally mixed. In 1996, Smith starred as part of an ensemble cast in Roland Emmerich's Independence Day. The film was a massive blockbuster, becoming the second highest-grossing film in history at the time and establishing Smith as a prime box office draw.
In the summer of 1997, he starred alongside Tommy Lee Jones in the hit Men in Black, playing Agent J. The film was released on July 2 by Columbia Pictures and grossed over $589.3 million worldwide against a $90 million budget, becoming the year's third highest-grossing film, with an estimated 54,616,700 tickets sold in the US. It received positive reviews, with critics praising its humor, as well as Jones and Smith's performances.
During the summer of 1997, Smith also began his solo music career with the release of "Men in Black", the theme song for the film, which topped singles charts in several regions across the world, including the UK. "Men in Black" (and second single "Just Cruisin'") was later included on Smith's debut solo album Big Willie Style, which reached the top ten of the US Billboard 200 and was certified nine times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The third single from the album, "Gettin' Jiggy wit It", became Smith's first Billboard Hot 100 number one when it was released in 1998.
1998–2013: Leading man status
In 1998, Smith starred with Gene Hackman in Enemy of the State. The following year he turned down the role of Neo in The Matrix in favor of Wild Wild West (1999). Despite the disappointment of Wild Wild West, Smith said that he has no regrets about his decision, asserting that Keanu Reeves' performance as Neo was superior to what Smith himself would have achieved, although in interviews subsequent to the release of Wild Wild West he stated that he "made a mistake on Wild Wild West. That could have been better."
Smith's second album was again supported by the release of a film theme song as the lead single: "Wild Wild West", featuring Dru Hill and Kool Moe Dee, topped the Billboard Hot 100 and was certified gold by the RIAA. The album in question, Willennium, reached number five on the Billboard 200 and was certified double platinum by the RIAA. "Will 2K", the second single from the album, reached number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100. Before the end of 1999, a video album was released featuring Smith's seven music videos released to date, which reached number 25 on the UK Music Video Chart. The same year, he was also featured on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air co-star Tatyana Ali's single "Boy You Knock Me Out", which reached number three on the UK Singles Chart and topped the UK R&B Singles Chart.
Smith portrayed heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali in the 2001 biopic Ali. For his performance he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama. In 2002, following a four-year musical hiatus, Smith returned with his third album Born to Reign, which reached number 13 on the Billboard 200 and was certified gold by the RIAA. The album's lead single was the theme song from Smith's film Men in Black II, called "Black Suits Comin' (Nod Ya Head)", which reached number three on the UK Singles Chart. Later in the year, Smith's first compilation album Greatest Hits was released, featuring songs from his three solo albums as well as those produced with DJ Jazzy Jeff.
2003 saw Smith return for Bad Boys II, the sequel to the 1995 film Bad Boys; the film follows detectives Burnett and Lowrey investigating the flow of ecstasy into Miami. Despite receiving generally negative reviews, the film was a box office success, grossing $270 million worldwide. In the following year, he starred in the animated film Shark Tale and the science fiction film I, Robot; both films were box office successes despite mixed reviews.
Smith's latest album Lost and Found was released in 2005, peaking at number six on the Billboard 200. Lead single "Switch" reached the top ten of both the Billboard Hot 100 and the UK Singles Chart. In 2005, Smith was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for attending three premieres in a 24-hour time span.
Smith and his son Jaden played father and son in the 2006 biographical drama The Pursuit of Happyness. In the film Smith portrays Chris Gardner. Smith first became interested in making a film about Gardner after seeing him on 20/20 and connected with him during production. The film, along with Smith's performance, received praise.
On December 10, 2007, Smith was honored at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. Smith left an imprint of his hands and feet outside the theater in front of many fans. Later that month, Smith starred in the film I Am Legend, released on December 14, 2007. Alongside marginally positive reviews, its opening was the largest ever for a film released in the United States during December. Smith himself has said that he considers the film to be "aggressively unique". A reviewer said that the film's commercial success "cemented standing as the number one box office draw in Hollywood." On December 1, 2008, TV Guide reported that Smith was selected as one of America's top ten most fascinating people of 2008 for a Barbara Walters ABC special that aired on December 4, 2008.
In 2008, Smith was reported to be developing a film entitled The Last Pharaoh, in which he would be starring as Taharqa. Smith later starred in the superhero movie Hancock, which grossed $227,946,274 in the United States and Canada and had a worldwide total of $624,386,746.
On August 19, 2011, it was announced that Smith returned to the studio with producer La Mar Edwards to work on his fifth studio album.
Smith again reprised his role as Agent J with Men in Black 3, which opened on May 25, 2012, his first major starring role in four years. After the release of the film, Smith was content with ending his work with the franchise, saying, "I think three is enough for me. Three of anything is enough for me. We'll look at it and we'll consider it, but it feels like that it might be time to let someone else do that." Men in Black 3, released ten years after Men in Black II (2002), grossed over $624 million worldwide. Unadjusted for inflation, it is the highest-grossing film in the series.
In 2013, Smith starred in After Earth with his son Jaden. The film was a disappointment at the domestic box office and was panned critically. Calling the film "the most painful failure in my career", Smith ended up taking a year and a half break as a result.
2015–present: Critical disappointments
Smith starred opposite Margot Robbie in the romance drama Focus, released on February 27, 2015. He played Nicky Spurgeon, a veteran con artist who takes a young, attractive woman under his wing. Smith was set to star in the sci-fi thriller Brilliance, an adaptation of Marcus Sakey's novel of the same name scripted by Jurassic Park writer David Koepp, but he left the project to work on the Ridley Scott-produced sports drama Concussion.
In Concussion, Smith played Dr. Bennet Omalu of the Brain Injury Research Institute, the first to discover chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Smith reported he had doubts about the film early in the production, saying, "some of my happiest memories are of watching my son catch and throw a football. I didn't want to be the guy who did a movie saying football could be dangerous." These views subsided when he met Omalu, whose words about American ideals resonated with Smith. Smith's performance was praised for being "sensitive understated".
In 2016, Smith played Deadshot in the supervillain team-up action film Suicide Squad. Smith's participation in the film meant choosing it over a role in Independence Day: Resurgence, which he said would be like "clinging and clawing backwards." Later that year, Smith starred in director David Frankel's drama Collateral Beauty, playing a New York advertising executive who succumbs to a deep depression after a personal tragedy. Weeks after signing Smith onto the film, his father was diagnosed with cancer, from which he died in 2016. As part of his role required him to read about religion and the afterlife, he was brought closer to the elder Smith, calling the experience "a beautiful way to prepare for a movie and an even more majestic way to say goodbye to my father."
His film Bright was distributed via Netflix on December 22, 2017. An urban fantasy, it was the most expensive film for Netflix to date. Smith collaborated with his director from Suicide Squad, David Ayer. That month, Smith launched his own YouTube channel, which as of July 2019 has over 6 million subscribers and 294 million total views. Also in 2017, Smith released the song "Get Lit" a collaboration between him and his former group mate Jazzy Jeff.
Smith performed the official song "Live It Up" alongside American singer Nicky Jam and Kosovar singer Era Istrefi at the closing ceremony of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Moscow, Russia. That September Smith appeared, alongside Bad Bunny, on the Marc Anthony song "Está Rico".
Smith portrayed The Genie (originally voiced by Robin Williams) in the live-action adaptation of Disney's Aladdin, directed by Guy Ritchie. He also participated in the soundtracks by recording singles: "Arabian Nights (2019)", "Friend Like Me" and "Prince Ali". The film was released on May 24, 2019. Aladdin grossed over $1 billion worldwide to become Smith's highest-grossing film, surpassing Independence Day. Smith was also featured on rapper Logic's song "Don't Be Afraid To Be Different" (2019), from his fifth studio album Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
Smith appeared as an assassin who faces off against a younger clone of himself in Ang Lee's Gemini Man, released on October 11, 2019. Later that year, Smith had his second starring role in an animated film, in Spies in Disguise, opposite Tom Holland. Smith voiced Lance Sterling, a spy who teams up with the nerdy inventor who creates his gadgets (Holland). The film was released on December 25, 2019. In 2020, he reteamed with Martin Lawrence for the third film in their franchise, Bad Boys for Life.
In 2019, Smith invested $46 million in esports organization Gen.G with Smith's Dreamers Fund, which he co-founded with Keisuke Honda.
As of June 17, 2020, it was announced that Smith will star in Emancipation, directed by Antoine Fuqua, in which he will portray Peter, a runaway slave, who outsmarts hunters and the Louisiana swamp on a journey to the Union Army.
On June 19, 2021, Smith announced the title and cover for his memoir Will, which was written with Mark Manson and published on November 9, 2021. More recently, he and his Westbrook Studios company signed a deal with National Geographic. He embarked on a tour for the promotion of his book in Autumn 2021, with stops in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Chicago, Los Angeles and London (with Idris Elba).