Smith, Will 1968–

Actor

At a Glance…

The DJ and the Rapper

The Fresh Prince Moved to Bel Air

Selected discography

Sources

On television he is the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, a streetwise Philadelphian sent to live with wealthy relatives in California. In real life he is Will Smith, a streetwise Philadelphian who has—by virtue of hard work and infectious charm—found stardom and wealth in Los Angeles. Smith has enjoyed vast success in two different fields of popular entertainment. While still too young to drink legally, he released several platinum rap albums and won the first-ever Grammy Award given in the rap category.

With his accomplishment in the music industry behind him, Smith moved to television situation comedy and scored a hit with The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. In the mid-1990s, while still a young man by any standards, Smith is in demand for television and film roles, some of which seriously test his acting talent. Premiere magazine contributor Veronica Chambers cited Smith for his “white-bread appeal that very few black men possess,” noting that the engaging star is “Ben Franklin with a backward baseball cap.”

Acting, for Smith, has often meant being his own quirky self in front of a camera. He has worked hard over the years to invest some realism into the character he plays on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air —even if that means flying in the face of stereotype.

“Look what the Fresh Prince represents,” Smith told Essence magazine. “He operates on several different levels—a symbol of urban youth, a symbol of black youth and, most specifically, of black male youth. As a rapper, some people knocked him for being too middle-class, too clean-cut. Now, as a TV character, he’s accused of being unreal. Well, my mission has been to make him more real, and I suppose that means more like me.”

Willard Smith, Jr., was born and raised in Wynnefield, Pennsylvania, a middle-class suburb of West Philadelphia. He was the oldest son and one of five children of a refrigeration engineer and a school board employee. His parents were loving but demanding, the kind who took their children to Mount Rushmore on vacation to prove that education does not end with the classroom.

“Dad was tough but not tyrannical,” Smith told Essence. “He kept me in line. He’d get this look that said, ‘One more step, Will, and it’ll get ugly.’ He was an independent businessman—he set up refrigeration in supermarkets—and he always provided for us. He’s a steady and positive figure in my life. Mom worked as a school secretary—she’s a supervisor now—and her thing was education. My folks

At a Glance…

Born September 25, 1968, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Willard (a refrigeration engineer) and Caroline (a school board employee) Smith; married Sheree Zampino, 1992; children: Will III. Education: Graduated from Overbrook High School, 1986.

Rap musician with duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, 1986—; actor appearing on television in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, National Broadcasting Company (NBC), 1990—; and in films, including Where the Day Takes You, 1992, Made in America, 1993, and Six Degrees of Separation, 1994.

Selected awards: Grammy Award in rap category, 1989, for single “Parents Just Don’t Understand“; Image Award for best situation comedy, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 1992, for The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Addresses: Publicist—PSAK Public Relations, 955 S. Carrillo Dr.,∦200, Los Angeles, CA 90048.

sent me to a Catholic school because it was the best school in the neighborhood, but I felt some of the priests and nuns were racist.”

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As a teen, Smith attended Overbrook High, a public school in Philadelphia. His teachers there nicknamed him “the Prince” because they found him so charming. His best subject was mathematics, and he earned good enough grades to be accepted at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineering program. By that time, though, fate had decreed a different path for the Prince.

When he was just twelve years old, Smith met Jeffrey Townes at a friend’s party. Townes was better known as DJ Jazzy Jeff, and although he was only a few years older than Smith, he had been spinning records at parties for quite some time. Smith was just beginning to rap—calling himself the Fresh Prince—and he and Jazzy Jeff became friends. For some years they performed in different rap groups and only occasionally paired up. Then, in 1986, their partnership became more serious. “I worked with 2,000 crews before I found this maniac,” Jazzy Jeff told People. “There was a click when I worked with him that was missing before.” The two friends performed as DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.

Jazzy Jeff had already released an album, so the new duo had little trouble finding a record label. In 1986 they cut their first LP together, Rock the House. Their first single, “Girls Ain’t Nothin’ But Trouble,” did well on the charts. Already famous throughout the Philadelphia region, they found themselves in demand in the rest of the country as well. As the money began to roll in, Smith was able to convince his parents that college could wait. In fact, he earned a million dollars before he turned 21.

The DJ and the Rapper

Rock the House was released in 1987 and sold some 600,000 copies. Major stardom came to Smith the following year with the double LP He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper, one of the first rap albums to reach platinum status with more than one million copies sold. Both albums, but especially the second, offered raps about what the musicians understood best—the day-to-day troubles of modern teens. The hit single “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” for instance, details the nightmares of shopping for school clothes with a mother who is hopelessly out of touch with current styles; the Fresh Prince pleads with his mom to “put back the bell-bottom [1970s TV show] Brady Bunch trousers.” This universal young adult complaint helped find a crossover audience for DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. “Parents Just Don’t Understand” won the very first Grammy Award given in the category of rap music.

Because their subject matter was not particularly controversial, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince were afforded greater opportunities to perform their work. Promoters saw less chance for violence at their shows, so they were booked into major concert venues. Even network television executives felt comfortable putting them on the air. The “clean rap” image proved a mixed blessing, because some other rap artists criticized them for ignoring legitimate problems of black youths.

Smith’s reply to detractors was that he was just responding to his own personal environment—one that did not include the stresses of a dysfunctional family, drug abuse, or violent crime. “In the beginning, following the fashion of the day, my raps had a small amount of profanity,” he told Essence. “I’ll never forget what my grandmother said when she read them: ‘He who is truly articulate shuns profanity.’ Man, I didn’t even know what articulate meant, but I knew I wanted my grandmother’s approval, just as I wanted my parents’ approval.”

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By 1990 the Fresh Prince had released three top-selling rap albums and was one of the best-known rappers in the nation. He was also broke. “I bought everything,” Smith told TV Guide. He had a mansion near Philadelphia, closets full of designer clothing, a fleet of expensive cars, and a jet-set lifestyle complete with fair weather friends. When the money ran out and his friends deserted him, Smith realized how foolish he had been. Already his popularity as a rapper was diminishing. Instead of panicking, however, he just cast about for a new opportunity.

The Fresh Prince Moved to Bel Air

Some Hollywood executives had already noticed Smith’s stage presence and his ability to charm an audience. Beginning in 1990 he was invited to audition for small roles on The Cosby Show and A Different World, but he described himself in Jet as being “too scared” to keep the appointments. Finally he met Benny Medina, the head of Warner Brothers Records’ black music division. Medina had moved from Watts as a teen to a wealthy Los Angeles neighborhood, and he thought that his experiences would make a funny situation comedy. Medina and Smith talked the idea over and then approached producer Quincy Jones about a pilot episode. Jones immediately sensed that a show of that nature starring Will Smith would be a hit.

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air made its debut on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in the fall of 1990. Smith appeared in the starring role as Will, a Philadelphia teen sent to live with his wealthy, refined, and decidedly Republican aunt and uncle in the upscale Bel Air section of Los Angeles. The show found an audience quickly, “almost singlehandedly keeping the network competitive on Monday nights,” according to Gordon Dillow in TV Guide. For Smith, who had never done any acting before, the show was quite a challenge. “I was a nervous wreck,” he recalled in TV Guide. “I was trying so hard. I would memorize the entire script, then I’d be lipping everybody’s lines while they were talking. When I watch those [early] episodes it’s disgusting. My performances were horrible.”

Smith might not have been satisfied with his work, but almost everyone else was. In a TV Guide poll, young adults voted the Fresh Prince “hippest teen on TV.” In addition, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air quickly became the most popular black situation comedy among white viewers, consistently placing in the Nielsen Top Twenty through its first two seasons. “Smith is such a naturally engaging comic talent that he and the show’s capable supporting cast usually sidestep the treacle trap,” noted Mike Duffy in the Detroit Free Press. “Smith never allows excess cutes to sabotage the chuckles.”

Situation comedies starring high school-aged actors can be troublesome. The actors grow into adulthood and suddenly are no longer convincing in their roles. Smith has helped to allay this problem on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air by suggesting ways in which his character could mature without losing his comic edge.

Reflecting on the show in Essence, Smith said: “I’ve been given input. I’ve placed myself in a position where I can make demands. As a result, the scripts have improved. I’m happier with the show, and so is everyone else. The stories are more natural, more human. I want my character to be warm and loving, to display integrity and, of course, to be funny. But funny doesn’t come first. Integrity does.” In TV Guide, Smith mused about the evolution of his role. “At the beginning it was easy,” he said. “The Fresh Prince was me, and I was just doing what I wanted to do. It was working. Now, personally, I’m moving away from the character—Will on the show doesn’t have a wife and a kid. I have to act now.”

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An astute businessman who also seeks creative challenges, Smith is trying to broaden his horizons in Hollywood. Beginning in 1992 he sought film work and has since then appeared in several movies. His most notable dramatic performance came in 1994, with the release of Six Degrees of Separation, a serious drama in which Smith played a gay con artist trying to fool a couple of white social climbers. “I wanted to work with [filmmakers] Spike Lee and John Singleton,” Smith told Premiere, “and I needed to do a film like Six Degrees in order for those people to consider me. Spike Lee would never consider me for a role, because The Fresh Prince of Bel Air is all he’s ever seen. How would he know that I could do what he demands of an actor?” Smith added that an intelligent choice of future movie roles could assure him a long career in show business. “Film, I think, I can do forever,” he said. “As long as you’re good, you can always do film.”

Smith, who describes himself as a “one-woman man,” married Sheree Zampino in 1992. Their first child, Willard Smith HI, was born the following year. “She’s wonderful,” Smith said of his wife in Essence. “She allowed me to finally put down the bags of emotional stress I’d been lugging around like a fool…. I realized that physically, emotionally, and intellectually she was on a higher plane than me.”

Smith told TV Guide that his high confidence in himself helped him to leap from local notoriety to national celebrity while still a teenager. “Confidence is what makes me different from guys at home…. I’m the one who always takes the risks.” In Seventeen, he concluded: “You have to believe in something greater than yourself. You have to have faith in the power and believe it has your best interest at heart. That’s how I was raised by my parents, and that’s my bottom line.”

Selected discography

With DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince

Rock the House (includes “Girls Ain’t Nothin’ But Trouble”), Jive, 1987, reissued, 1989.

He’s the DJ, Fm the Rapper (includes “Parents Just Don’t Understand”), Jive, 1988.

And in This Corner, Jive, 1989.

Homebase, 1991.

Code Red, 1994.

Sources

Cosmopolitan, October 1993, p. 102.

Detroit Free Press, May 10, 1993, p. E-l.

Ebony, February 1994, p. 30.

Emerge, September 1993, p. 11.

Essence, February 1993, pp. 60-2, 118-21.

Jet, December 3, 1990, pp. 58-61; January 10, 1994, p. 64.

People, September 24, 1990, pp. 83-4.

Premiere, January 1994, pp. 76-7.

Seventeen, July 1992, pp. 86-7.

TV Guide, September 29-October 5, 1990, p. 5; October 13-19, 1990, pp. 6-9; January 23-29, 1993, pp. 10-12.

Upscale, February 1994, p. 116.

Anne Janette Johnson