Black prince of Hollywood: Profile: Will Smith

Andrew Gumbel
Saturday 14 August 1999 00:02 BST

Will Smith really has no business being a megastar. For a start, he's black, and according to Hollywood's unwritten rule book black actors simply don't get to be that big. Sidney Poitier big, perhaps. Denzel Washington big, if they are exceptionally lucky. But not quite this monstrously huge. Then there's his background as a rap artist. Who ever heard of a rap artist becoming a household name in white-bread Middle America? Rap artists get to win Grammys, occasionally. Rap artists may, if they are lucky like The Fugees, break out into the mainstream music market. But one thing they don't do is become movie stars.

And yet here we have him, this affable, hip, funny, immensely likeable man, a giant of the world celebrity stage at the tender age of 30, and it all seems so perfectly natural. Nobody would appear to have a single bad word to say about him. He can act. He can sing. He can dance. He can tell jokes. He looks great in shades. Everybody wants a piece of him and, for the most part, he obliges with impeccable manners and unflagging good humour. When he opens a movie, the movie does well by definition. Even when the movie is pure pulp, as was the case with Independence Day, his first megahit, the one thing that invariably lingers in the audience's mind is the winning performance of Will Smith.

He's back in cinemas again this week with another big-budget, gadget- filled techno-fantasy, this time based on the old Saturday television series Wild Wild West. Smith plays the eponymous Jim West, a crime fighter in post-Civil-War America who, along with his sidekick and visionary amateur inventor Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline), are charged with protecting President Ulysses Grant on a perilous mission to the Utah desert.

The film, it must be said, is horrible; a plotless, witless mishmash that even the combined talents of Smith, Kline and Kenneth Branagh, as an evil, wheelchair-bound genius with no legs, cannot hope to salvage. Where the original Sixties television series was light, tongue-in-cheek, playful in its use of anachronistic special effects and dotted with suspenseful climactic moments, the film collapses under the weight of its own excessive budget.

When Wild Wild West came out in the United States on the 4 July weekend that Will Smith has come to claim as his own, the critics savaged it from top to bottom. Trial audiences hated it so much that parts were reshot right up to the last minute, and paying customers, polled by frantic studio executives in the opening few days, were equally damning.

And yet the picture did not bomb. It took a staggering $50m at the box office in its opening three days, and has now more than doubled that. Warner Bros, the studio behind the film, will still probably lose a sizeable chunk of its initial investment, estimated at anywhere up to $180m, but that the picture is not an unmitigated commercial disaster is largely down to Will Smith's audience-pulling power .

What's his secret? The buzz-word much circulated in Hollywood is "crossover" - that is, the ability to break out of a particular niche as defined by the marketing honchos, and appeal to a mass audience. It sounds like a tame concept, but given the inevitable overtones of racial politics where a black performer is concerned, its implications are in fact rather creepy. In the mindset of the entertainment bosses, Smith is a black performer who, in the ordinary run of things, would appeal only to his natural constituency (that is, other African Americans). What has happened is that he has held on to his "constituency" remarkably well, despite occasional accusations that he has sold himself out, while at the same time defusing the whole issue of his skin colour for white audiences.

Smith himself explains the phenomenon slightly differently. When he was in high school in west Philadelphia, where he grew up, he came to realise that white people and black people react to different brands of humour - white humour being more absurdist and fantastic and black humour rawer and more down-to-earth. What Smith - an irrepressible performer even as a teenager - decided to do was to search for the middle ground: the joke that would make both groups laugh. He called this elusive comic middle ground the Number One Answer, and the concept has informed his entire career, from comedies to movies to CDs and music videos.

"It's not softening the edges," he explained in an interview with Vanity Fair magazine last month. "It's sharpening the point - the Number One Answer is better than the raw joke, and it's better than the soft joke. It doesn't compromise either strength - it's the home run." The Number One Answer applies just as well to his rap music. Too hard and raw, and it stays in the ghetto. Too soft, and everyone laughs. Right down the middle and, to borrow the words of one of his best-known songs, "everyone is gettin' jiggy wit' it".

Armed with this secret weapon that endears him to the maximum number of people, Smith has succeeded in being not only a black superstar - a remarkable achievement in the entertainment community's persisting climate of racial segregation - but a black superstar who clinches film roles appropriate for actors of any skin colour or ethnic background. Before he was cast as Tommy Lee Jones's sidekick in Men in Black, the producer's first choice for the part was Chris O'Donnell, the very definition of cinematic milquetoast, who played Robin in the Batman movies. In Wild Wild West, he is stepping into shoes occupied during the television series by the square-jawed, whiter-than-white Robert Conrad.

Such colour-blindness in casting Smith, while commendable most of the time, is not without its problems. In a scene from Wild Wild West, his character stands next to a hangman's noose and, fearing a lynching from the crowd of reactionary confederate Southerners, jokes that slavery wasn't such a big deal after all. The sequence doesn't work - first because it isn't funny, but also because it only draws attention to its own tastelessness and raises the question of how on earth a black man managed to land the job of US marshal in 1869, four years after the end of the Civil War.

Equally unfunny are the race-baiting lines that Smith's character endures from Kenneth Branagh's baddie, Dr Arliss Loveless, who observes at one point that he hasn't seen his old acquaintance Jim West "in a coon's age". The blame for such cinematic lapses lies less with Smith, of course, than with the film itself.

In his Vanity Fair interview, Smith acknowledged that there was a problem of tone that was never resolved during shooting. Eddie Murphy once told him that cool and funny don't mix. "And it didn't dawn on me until this film," he said. "Sexy and funny is even worse - I got on to the set and started realising that I was having to make a decision between sexy, cool, and funny." In the end, Smith said he did all three, in different takes, and let the director, Barry Sonnenfeld, try to sort it out in the editing room.

Smith's refusal to be flustered by such headaches, like his ability to bridge the gulf between black and white America, is a product of his childhood. Both his father, a former Air Force pilot who installed refrigerators, and his mother, an administrator for the local school board in west Philadelphia, stressed the value of education when he was growing up and forced him to speak and write standard English rather than African American jive. He has remained a stickler for grammar, earning himself the nickname Captain Correction among his friends and family, and has encouraged his two children, Trey and Jaden, to become "bidialectal" so that they can feel comfortable in any context.

For the first nine years of his education, Smith attended an almost exclusively white school, then switched to an all- black high school, giving him exposure to both cultures. It was in high school that he and friend Jazzy Jeff Townes formed their successful rap duo, releasing the album Rock the House and a succession of others culminating in the hit "Parents Just Don't Understand" in 1992.

Smith remained committed enough academically to be offered a place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but he turned it down to pursue his music career. Then, through the music producer and impresario Quincy Jones, he landed the plum role in a television sitcom, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, in which a young black kid from Detroit (Smith) gets to live with an affluent black family in the heart of Los Angeles' most exclusive neighbourhood.

So nervous was he in this, his first acting experience, that he took to mouthing the lines of the other characters, a tic that is plainly visible on screen for viewers who choose to look out for it. None the less, his winning turn was enough for him to land his first film role, as a young hustler in the adaptation of John Guare's hit play Six Degrees of Separation.

Smith performed magnificently as a petty conman who persuades an affluent New York family that he is in fact the son of Sidney Poitier. This was hardly material that suggested a megastar in the making, however; this was an arty adaptation of an arty play, and on top of that, his character, Paul, was gay - another no-no as far as the Hollywood image-makers were concerned. Smith was himself concerned about the gay angle, and enraged his director, Fred Schepisi, when he refused to perform a passionate male-on-male kiss facing the camera. He sought advice from Denzel Washington, who told him: "Don't be kissing no man." So the kiss was shot from behind, enabling Smith to fake it, much to Schepisi's dismay. This was undoubtedly the moment when Smith crossed the line, for better or worse, into the mainstream orthodoxy of the entertainment business.

His next rung on the ladder of superstardom was the film Bad Boys, a thriller from the stable of the action adventure specialists Jerry Bruckheimer and his late partner, Don Simpson. The film was not especially successful, nor did it generate the inimitable Will Smith buzz, but it did establish one crucial thing. "[They] marketed Bad Boys like Flashdance or Top Gun - as a big, mainstream movie, just like all of their other movies," Smith later explained. "What that did is, the Hollywood perception was `Oh, OK, they're not black, they're huge'. They built that perception."

His first two big 4 July films, Independence Day and Men in Black, followed in successive years, each grossing more than $250m and establishing Smith as an all-round entertainer. The rap song from Men in Black, featured on his Big Willie Style album, was a huge hit, as were the follow-up singles "Just the Two of Us" (dedicated to his son Trey) and "Gettin' Jiggy Wit' It". Wild Wild West looks set to repeat the multimedia marketing pattern: Smith's rap song from the film shot straight to the No 1 spot, and another album beckons.

The only question left concerning Will Smith's unstoppable ascendancy is when it may stop. He has grown no less likeable as his fame has spread. On the set of Wild Wild West he was described by crew members and visitors to the set as a perfect gentleman, who always had a smile on his face and invited bystanders to play him at chess, another of his passions. The fact that he rescued the new film from the brink of financial disaster is likely only to add to his mystique.

But Smith is no dewy-eyed naif. "Hollywood is a tough town," he once said. "I look at it like you're driving on the highway and it's raining, and there's that one car broken down on the side of the road. Hundreds of thousands of cars in perfect working order in every direction, and there's that one car broken down on the side of the road. One day, that's gonna be you. One day, you're going to be that car broken down on the side of the road."

Life Story

Born: 25 September 1968, in west Philadelphia

Family: eldest of three children; father installed fridges, mother a school administrator. Married twice, most recently to the actress

Jada Pinkett. Two children: Trey, seven; Jaden, one

Career: Cut his first rap record at 15 as the latter half of DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince. A millionaire by 18. Starred in the TV comedy Fresh Prince of Bel Air, then moved into feature films with Six Degrees of Separation. The consecutive summer hits Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997) made him a superstar, along with his rap album Big Willie Style (1997)

Likes: mathematics, chess, loud music

Dislikes: incorrect grammar

Ambitions: "I want to do everything. I want to be the first black President. Give me about 10 years, I'm going to run for President. If I can squeeze in an NBA [basketball] championship before that, I'll do it"

What others say: "In Hollywood, it's now axiomatic that wherever Smith goes is the place to be" (Ned Zeman, Vanity Fair). "It would be one thing if he were selling out who he was to be a mainstream success. But if you have a quality about you that is attractive to a large audience, what's wrong with that?" (Friend and comic, Keenen Ivory Wayans)

What he says about himself: "I love being black in America and, specifically, being black in Hollywood. It's all gravy. Every single thing that I accomplish. It's gravy. It's like I already won"

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