earned the nickname "Prince" from his grade-school
teachers because this smooth-talking tyke from West
Philadelphia was more charming than any monarch's son.
Smith completed his nom de rap by tacking on
"fresh" (a popular hip-hop adjective of the mid-'80s),
and the Fresh Prince tapped his considerable charisma to
become a Grammy-winning musician, the star of a
long-running sitcom, and returning to his birth name
a big-screen action hero.
A born entertainer, Smith started rapping at the age
of 12 and shortly thereafter teamed up with Jeff Townes,
who, as Jazzy Jeff, became the Fresh Prince's musical
partner. Eight years later, the duo had produced two
platinum albums, including the Grammy-winning He's
the DJ, I'm the Rapper. It featured the crossover
hit single "Parents Just Don't Understand" and scads of
clever, gangsta-free lyrics that elicited knowing
chuckles from middle-American teenagers. With musical
success achieved, Smith expressed a desire to try acting
to several business associates, including Warner Bros.
executive Benny Medina. It turned out that Medina, who
was born poor in Los Angeles but lived as a teen with a
rich Beverly Hills family, had been unsuccessfully
pitching a sitcom based on his demographically diverse
life. Smith would be perfect, Medina figured, as the
protagonist in this fish-out-of-water-tale a modern
Beverly Hillbillies. According to Hollywood
legend, Smith read the script for NBC's suits with such
Úlan that they bought the concept on the spot. Fresh
Prince of Bel Air premiered in 1990, and with its
well-timed quips and pratfalls from Smith, the
successful show stayed on the air for six years.
Despite his homeboy swagger, Smith himself grew up
middle class (his father is an engineer; his mother
works for the school board) and did so well in school
that M.I.T. offered him a scholarship, which he refused
in order to pursue a show-business career. A millionaire
by age 18, Smith was nonetheless deeply indebted to the
I.R.S. when he landed the sitcom. Produced by Quincy
Jones, the series' success enabled Smith to not only
remedy his I.O.U.s, but also establish a well-connected
professional family, which includes much of Hollywood's
African-American royalty: Jones, Bill
Poitier , and Denzel
Washington. In fact, it was Washington who
counselled Smith on how to proceed with his first
starring movie role, as a young gay con man in Six
Degrees of Separation (1993). Although it was
scripted that his character would kiss another man,
Smith was reluctant. He sought counsel from Washington,
whose advice boiled down to, "Don't be kissing no man."
Smith informed the furious director, Fred Schepsi, that
the homosexual smooch would have to be faked. When the
movie opened, the controversy was smoothed over by
critical praise for Smith's performance.
For his follow-up flick, Smith teamed with fellow
sitcom star Martin
Lawrence in the action-heavy, gay-kiss-free Bad
Boys (1995). The buddy movie was a smash, Smith's
asking price rose to $5 million per film, and offers
poured in. He opted to play a heroic fighter pilot in
the surefire blockbuster Independence Day (1996).
Sadly, as the actor's stardom was growing, his
three-year-old marriage to Sheree Zampino was falling
apart. The couple divorced in December 1995, and Smith
relinquished primary custody of their son Willard C.
"Trey" Smith III.
Smith simultaneously returned to rapping and the
sci-fi genre with the 1997 summer blockbuster Men in
Black. The success of his "Men In Black" single
seemed to inspire him: after wrapping the film, Smith
ducked into the studio to lay down tracks for a new
record. Big Willie Style, his first album in four
years landed on record-store shelves in November 1997.
Smith and longtime love Jada
Pinkett capped off the year with a New Year's Eve
wedding ceremony. The couple welcomed their first child,
a son named Jaden Christopher Syre, the following
The actor-singer's popularity soared to new heights
when he and his wife were the subjects of a Barbara
Walters interview following the 1998 Academy Awards.
In the course of the interview, Smith revealed his own
paranoia about the government, endearing him to
conspiracy theorists around the nation. Later that same
year, he won the Best Rap Solo Performance Grammy for
the Men in Black soundtrack. His solo album fared
well on the award front, as well. He took home top
honors in two categories at the September 1998 MTV Music
Video Awards: Best Male Video for "Just the Two of Us"
(which he accepted while carrying son Trey) and Best Rap
Video for "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It." He finished out 1998
by taking on nasty, identity-besmirching government
conspirators in Enemy of the State, the project
he wisely chose over Nicolas
Cage's Snake Eyes.
January 1999's American Music Awards saw Smith scoop
up trophies for three of the four categories he was
nominated in: Favorite Male Artist, Favorite Album, and
Favorite Male Soul/R&B Artist, losing only in the
Favorite Male Pop/Rock Artist category to Eric
Clapton. In February his "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It"
snagged the Best Rap Solo Performance Grammy. Summer
witnessed the release of Wild Wild West, another
collaboration with Barry Sonnenfeld (who directed Smith
in Men in Black) that paired him in
Western-themed comedy with Kevin
Kline. The cross-platform entertainer proved his
Y2K-compliancy late in the year with the release of the
pleasing party disc Willennium, which boasted an
impressive lineup of guest artists, including wife Jada.