Big Birthday Style: Will Smith Turns 50

Will Smith applauding during a panel at San Diego ComicCon

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How a Philly kid became a rapper, movie star, and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

We’ll spare you more since you almost certainly have the theme song trapped in your head, but it’s for a good reason. Will Smith, start of music, television, and film, turns 50 today. That’s right; Big Willy is the Big 5-0.

Willard Carroll Smith, Jr. was born in Philadelphia in 1968. Smith grew up in a family of four kids. His mother was a school board administrator and his father was an Air Force veteran who worked as a refrigeration engineer. Like many kids of his age group, he was drawn to the sound of hip-hop that emerged on the East Coast in the early ’70s.

Smith didn’t know his life would change when he met Jeffrey Townes in 1985. Townes, who used the stage name “DJ Jazzy Jeff,” was DJing at a house party, but his hype man hadn’t showed. Smith stepped up to the microphone and their partnership fell into place. By 1986, the duo, now named DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, was putting out work on local label Word Up; Smith defied the convention of the time by deciding to “work clean” and avoid swearing in his lyrics. Jive Records caught wind of the pair and snatched them up, re-releasing their debut album Rock the House in 1987.

The music video for “Parents Just Don’t Understand” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince

The following year, lightning struck. Their second album, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper, yielded the smash hit “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” The tune went to #12 on the Hot 100 and won the first Grammy for Best Rap Performance. The album went as high as #4 and sold over 3 million copies. With their conversational style and colorful videos featuring Smith’s comedic persona, the duo quickly became stars. Unfortunately, Smith would run afoul of the IRS for underpayment of income tax; he was in dire financial straits when he was offered the chance to audition for the show that would become The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

The opening sequence and theme song to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Debuting in 1990, the show quickly became a hit. Buoyed by an infectious theme song The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air followed Smith’s eponymous, but fictionalized, character as he moved to the West Coast to live with his rich aunt, uncle, and cousins. The classic fish-out-of-water premise allowed Smith to use elements of his stage persona in the show, as well as his natural charm, setting up culture clashes best realized in his interactions with his Uncle Phil (James Avery) and his cousin, Carlson (Alfonso Ribeiro). The show ran for six seasons and continues to be a solid performer in syndication.

During the run of the series, Smith continued to make music and branch into films. His first hit film, Bad Boys in 1995, set the table for a huge action-hero run. The following year, he headlined Independence Day, a major worldwide hit that become, for a time, the second-highest grossing film of all time. It helped set what would be Smith’s rep as “Mr. Fourth of July;” that is, for a few years in a row, Smith’s big-budget action films would debut on the Fourth of July weekend to big box office. That trend continued with Men in Black in 1998 and Wild, Wild West in 1999 (while it tanked long term, it had a strong opening).

Smith managed to create tremendous synergy between his acting and music. His solo debut album, Big Willie Style, delivered five hit singles beginning in 1997. One of those, Men in Black, was recorded to go along with the pending film; it won Smith a 1998 Grammy for Best Solo Rap Performance. He also recorded a title track for Wild, Wild West that he released on his next album, Willennium.

The trailer for the film Ali, directed by Michael Mann.

On film, Smith reached for more serious work and was rewarded for his efforts when he played Muhammad Ali in Ali in 2001; he was nominated for both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Actor. In the years since, Smith has worked steadily with a larger focus on film and production than music. His last album was released in 2005, but he’s acted in 17 films since Ali and has three scheduled for release in 2019. Smith’s biggest hit of late was 2016’s Suicide Squad, based on the DC Comics series about super-villains forced to take missions for the government; Smith played Floyd Lawton, aka Deadshot, a morally complex hitman. A sequel is pending.

During a 2012 appearance on The Graham Norton Show, Smith proved he still remembers that famous theme song.

Today, Smith continues to enjoy a high profile in entertainment. His wife, actress and producer Jada Pinkett-Smith, is a frequent production partner, and the couple are shareholders in the Philadelphia 76ers NBA franchise. Smith’s son, Trey, from an earlier marriage, is a DJ and rapper. Smith and Pinkett-Smith’s children Jaden and Willow have also become performers and social media celebrities.

Not one to forget his friends, Smith has produced projects that have furthered the careers of others in his orbit. He has produced films like Eddie Murphy’s Showtime and the 2014 remake of Annie. Smith also served as Executive Producer for fellow rapper Queen Latifah’s talk show. He helped launch the musical career of his Fresh Prince co-star Tatyana Ali, appearing on her 1998 track “Boy You Knock Me Out” and having her guest on his own “Who I Am.” Smith and his family support a number of charitable causes; they founded the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation to serve inner-city communities with educational and business-incubation opportunities..

Smith’s story contains many elements of the classic American success fable. He stuck to his vision of his music and how he should present himself. He sought bigger challenges and found bigger success. Despite making sequels, he wasn’t content to repeat himself in his work. He’s used his success to create opportunities and elevate others in both film and music. That’s how he became the Prince of Bel-Air (and Hollywood, and the Grammys, and whatever he chooses to do).

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