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The Legend of Will Smith


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Thursday, Nov. 29, 2007



The Legend of Will Smith. How one man built a global movie-magnet machine.

Will Smith plots his strategy for world domination from the head of the kingly wooden dining table in his sweeping Calabasas, Calif., home. "We call it Global Willing," says Smith of his travel itinerary to warm up the globe for his next film, I Am Legend, in which he plays the only survivor of a man-made plague that has wiped out humanity. "We're going to Hong Kong, Tokyo, Korea ..." It's the morning after Thanksgiving, and Smith, 39, is sleepy-eyed and unshaven after hosting 30 friends and family members for dinner. His wife Jada Pinkett Smith enters with breakfast and a kiss, asking, "Want jelly with that, baby?" Even Hollywood's Genghis Khan needs some tenderness before he sacks the box office.

With his ready grin, jug ears and baritone belly laugh, Smith's image is that of the happy-go-lucky Everyguy. But you don't accrue $4.4 billion in worldwide box-office receipts and two Oscar nominations without machine-like drive. Smith's four most recent movies--The Pursuit of Happyness, Hitch, Shark Tale and I, Robot--have each grossed more than $300 million worldwide, vaulting him into a category usually reserved for white guys named Tom. Because Smith has mastered the delicate art of appearing artless, few moviegoers realize that his is one of Hollywood's most meticulously planned and executed careers.

Willard Christopher Smith Jr. hatched his scheme for global supremacy at 16, after his first girlfriend cheated on him. "In my mind, she cheated because I wasn't good enough. I remember making the decision that I will never not be good enough again," he says. Sure, he may have overcompensated, but how else are movie stars made? Smith grew up the second of four children in middle-class West Philadelphia; his parents Willard and Caroline divorced when he was 13. From his father, who worked seven days a week running a refrigerator company, Smith inherited his work ethic. From his mother, a school-board employee, he derived the notion that "education is the elixir for all problems," he says. "Every problem Jada and I have ever had, we found the answer in a book." The Smiths have a family library stocked with everything from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Hinduism to homeschooling texts for their children--Willow, 7, and Jaden, 9, and Smith's son from his first marriage, Trey, 15.

His high school teachers nicknamed Smith "Prince" for his knack for charming his way out of trouble. It was at a party in the basement of a neighborhood DJ, "Jazzy" Jeff Townes, that Smith's magnetism first paid off professionally. He won over Townes and the DJ's manager, James Lassiter, who has steered Smith's career for the past 22 years and who runs Overbrook Entertainment, the production company named for the high school they attended. Before Smith finished his senior year, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince released their first album, and Smith decided to forgo college for show business. The duo's parent-friendly, PG-rated rap would earn the first Grammy for a hip-hop act. While touring Asia with Run-D.M.C., Smith witnessed "10,000 Japanese b-boys [hip-hop fans] at the airport," he says. When DJ Run took off his Adidas sneaker and held it up, "10,000 kids took their shoes off. It was such a bizarre, exciting, intimidating experience." Smith, who once saw acclaim in his Philly neighborhood as his life's goal, began to dream about conquering London and Tokyo. "Now it's an addiction for me to see where my artistry can touch people."

In 1990, at 21, the rapper got his first acting gig, essentially playing himself--a likable city kid--living the lush life on the class-conscious sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Lassiter told him, "'Listen, if we're going out to L.A., we probably should have a goal,'" Smith says. "I said, 'I want to be the biggest movie star in the world.'" Lassiter, seeing promise that few others in Hollywood would, took his friend seriously and found a list of the 10 top-grossing movies of all time. "We looked at them and said, O.K., what are the patterns?" Smith recalls. "We realized that 10 out of 10 had special effects. Nine out of 10 had special effects with creatures. Eight out of 10 had special effects with creatures and a love story." Meanwhile, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was becoming a hit, and Smith was soaking up an acting education on the show's set. Waiting backstage, he would mouth the lines of guest stars like Don Cheadle as the more experienced actor delivered them. "Will was so intent," says the show's creator, Andy Borowitz. "He was like a kid waiting for his bar mitzvah." In 1992, when Borowitz accepted an NAACP Image award for the series and thanked "the next President of the United States, Will Smith," his leading man relished the moment. "I got the feeling he loved it not totally ironically," Borowitz says.

Despite his growing fan base, in Smith's first five years in Los Angeles, he couldn't get a meeting with a director or studio. "Nobody cared," says Lassiter. "'You're a rapper. You got lucky, and you got this television show, but that's all you can do.'" At this point, many would-be movie stars would have been weighing Plan B. Not Smith. "I don't want to get too metaphysical, but by even contemplating a Plan B, you almost create the necessity for a Plan B," he says.

Smith's role as a slick young con man claiming to be Sidney Poitier's son in the 1993 drama Six Degrees of Separation turned some heads. But it was the cheerful, over-the-top 1995 action film Bad Boys that established the erstwhile Prince as a box-office royal in the making. Since then, he has consistently delivered hits, most often as a good-natured guy saving the rest of us from the trauma of aliens, robots, crooks or poor dating habits. Commercial disappointments, like the golfing flop The Legend of Bagger Vance, are rare. "I look at movies in their essence," Smith says. "Will that idea sell? The last man on Earth is the essence of I Am Legend. It's a concept that's primal and connects to all those ideas of loneliness and abandonment." Occasionally Smith chooses art over commerce, on a character drama like Ali or Pursuit of Happyness, his two Oscar-nominated roles, but even then his pragmatism outweighs his passion. "Pursuit of Happyness is essentially a movie about a black homeless guy who gets a job," he says. "There's nowhere near my fee for that movie. This thing has to be under $50 million." The downbeat Happyness surprised everyone, not least of all Smith, by earning $305 million worldwide.

The math of moviemaking enthralls Smith, who calls himself a "student of universal patterns." To hear him talk about analyzing the weekend box office with Lassiter is to see flashes of the aspiring engineer who almost attended MIT. "Every Monday morning, we sit down--'O.K., what happened this weekend, and what are the things that resemble things that have happened the last 10, 20, 30 weekends?' It is so much fun to look at something everyone's looking at to see if a different pattern comes out for you." With Legend, Smith hopes to break one of Hollywood's rigid rules. "Summer movies are about things that happen, and fall movies are about how people respond to things that happen," he says. "The drill was to try to blend those two things, to make a movie that is 100% about following the character [scientist Robert Neville] and how the character reacts to what happened [the destruction of humanity]." Smith traditionally owns July 4 weekend, with things-that-happen movies like Independence Day. "There is a youthful energy that I have that fits during that time of release and rejuvenation," he says, expressing a level of self-knowledge rare for people who make their living playing make-believe. For a December release like Legend, "I have to focus more 'cause it's not my natural lane."

A career axiom that Smith figured out early on still stymies plenty of big-name American actors. "Movie stars are made with worldwide box office," Smith says. "You put a movie out in the U.S., and let's say it breaks even. Then the studio needs you to go around the world and get profit. Being able to get $30 mil in England, 37 in Japan, 15 in Germany is what makes the studio support your movies differently than they support other actors' movies." He has built his global audience systematically: with each film, Smith introduces himself to a new people, often piggybacking on a local event that will attract worldwide attention. For Men in Black II, he toured in South Korea during the World Cup; for Hitch, he hit Brazil during carnival; for next year's fallen-superhero tale Hancock, he's trying to get into Beijing during the Olympics.

Smith applies the same kind of arithmetic and discipline to his personal life, and as a result, he enjoys a Hollywood rarity: a stable 10-year marriage. "Our first official date was with a relationship counselor," he says. "The math of it is simple. Start while it's good. Do it three times a week while you're laughing and still having fun. You get so much more work done. You head off problems. Do it during the ether time, and do it aggressively. There's nothing you've ever been successful at that you didn't work on every day." Who knew one man could learn so much from being cheated on at 16?


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