Willard Smith Junior, a 1968 Philadelphia native, earned the moniker “Prince” from his high school English teacher due to his regal demeanor and knack for talking his way out of sticky situations. When Will and DJ Jazzy Jeff formed a rap duo in 1981, they added the word “Fresh,” which comes from street slang and means “cool.” Five years later, the two released Girls Ain’t Nothin’ But Trouble, their debut single. In 1988, they won a Grammy for their album He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which aired from 1991 to 1996, provided the ever-charming Will with a career-launching role.
The independent film Six Degrees of Separation, in which Will played a young gay hustler deceiving an affluent white couple into thinking he is Sidney Poitier’s son, was Will’s first step away from his pristine “Fresh Prince” image. A cast of seasoned talent, including Donald Sutherland, was present, and he more than held his own.
Two years later, alongside Martin Lawrence from a different sitcom, the actor demonstrated his box office appeal in the action comedy Bad Boys. The film’s modest budget resulted in a $65 million domestic box office haul, and the rapper-turned-actor saw his own earnings soar above the $5 million threshold—a rarity for a black actor in Hollywood.
Following up with the sci-fi blockbuster Independence Day in 1996 and the stylish action comedy Men In Black a year later, Will had two back-to-back hits. Unavoidably, Men In Black II, which was released in 2002, was a sequel to the first.
Will’s personal life also took a new turn as he basked in Men In Black’s instant success. He married Jada Pinkett, whom he had met while working on The Fresh Prince, in 1997. The following year, the couple welcomed a son named Jaden, and a daughter named Willow was born in 2000.
With his A-list standing solidified, Will has expanded his feature film resume, appearing in the 1998 thriller Enemy Of The State and Robert Redford’s 2000 film The Legend Of Bagger Vance as a mystical golf caddy. He played Muhammad Ali in the Michael Mann biopic Ali, for which he received his first Oscar nomination, realizing a long-held dream and playing a significant part in his career.
With three blockbusters under his belt—Bad Boys II, I, Robot, and Hitch—Will is currently one of Hollywood’s most bankable leading men. Thought-provoking roles like Chris Gardner in The Pursuit Of Happiness, for which he received his second nomination for Best Actor, are mixed with lighter fare by the actor, who still manages to combine the popcorn with the potent in his film choices.
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