Monday, December 11, 2006

Will Smith

A charismatic African-American rap star and actor of film and TV, Will Smith began as half of the Grammy-winning duo D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and later rose to fame making his acting debut starring as "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" (NBC, 1991-96), a nice, jug-eared, streetwise kid from the Philadelphia 'hood adjusting to culture shock in moneyed Bel Air. The role allowed him to offer a squeaky clean image of hip-hop culture which proved non-threatening to primetime values. With his enhanced image as a role model, Smith became a regular face on TV in youth-oriented specials and public affairs programs and, in the show's final (1995-96) season, became its executive producer. He then parlayed his status as a TV star into a feature acting career, debuting in a drama about teenage runaways entitled "Where the Day Takes You" (1992) and following up with a supporting role in "Made in America" (1993) with Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Danson.

Smith's first lead in features was a dramatic stretch for the young performer. In the film version of John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation" (1993), he played a young gay hustler and con man who ingratiates himself with an affluent white couple (Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland) by posing as the son of Sidney Poitier and a friend of their children who are away at college. The demanding role required Smith to work with an acting coach and a dialect coach three times a week for three months prior to rehearsals. The part also called for a homosexual kiss that, even after being paid, he refused to film. Despite some critical carping, Smith garnered largely impressive notices for his portrayal amidst a cast of seasoned acting pros.

After this acclaim, Smith joined fellow sitcom star Martin Lawrence in "Bad Boys" (1995), turning their lot over to the hands of veteran action-comedy producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. In the film, Smith was Mike Lowery, a wild bachelor cop, and Lawrence was his partner, a family man. The comedy of the piece arose from the fact the duo have to switch places to nab a heroin ring. Made for a modest budget, "Bad Boys" grossed $65 million domestically and twice that with foreign distribution included. Smith's quote for work in feature films skyrocketed past $5 million. Although by the time he was 20 he had made and spent more than $1 million and was deeply in debt to the IRS, he had settled down by age 27 and was focused on career goals. After "Bad Boys", his feature film dance card became full. He made a cameo appearance in Lawrence's "A Thin Line Between Love and Hate" and proved modestly revelatory as a military pilot trying to save the USA from an alien invasion in the sci-fi blockbuster "Independence Day" (1996). Smith again tangled with space aliens to box-office success teamed with Tommy Lee Jones as the "Men in Black" (1997), roles they eventually repeated in the inevitable sequel "Men in Black II" (2002).

Based on his back-to-back hits, Smith moved firmly to the A-list and began to be offered a variety of roles. In the 1998 thriller "Enemy of the State", he offered a likable performance as a labor lawyer targeted by the National Security Agency after he accidentally acquires evidence pivotal to a politically-motivated killing. Cast as Civil War-era government agent James West in "Wild Wild West" (1999), loosely based on the popular 1960s TV series, Smith's laid-back charm and charisma were overshadowed by overblown special effects. Similarly, Smith seemed at sea as a mysterious caddy who dispenses inspirational support to a washed-up golf pro (Matt Damon) in the fable "The Legend of Bagger Vance" (2000). Most reviewers agreed, though, that Smith managed to keep the character from devolving completely into cliche -- although the script and direction moved him close to it.

In 2001, Smith realized a long-held dream to portray renowned boxer Muhammad Ali in a biopic. Director Michael Mann decided to concentrate on the tumultuous period in the fighter's life, from his surprise win over Sonny Liston through his difficulties with the draft to his regaining the crown of heavyweight champion defeating George Foreman in the now famous Rumble in the Jungle in "Ali" (2001). Smith bulked up gaining over thirty pounds and followed the same training regimen as Ali as part of his pre-shooting preparation. The onscreen results impressed many critics while others felt that Smith came close but didn't quite capture the boxing champion. The Academy, however, acknowledged Smith's efforts and included him as one of the 2001 nominees for Best Actor.

In 2002, Smith followed up his acclaimed performance with a couple of would-be blockbuster sequels generating solid ticket sales but offering little creative innovation, with the actor reuniting with Tommy Lee Jones in "Men in Black II" (2002) and reteaming with Martin Lawrence and director Michael Bay for the sequel "Bad Boys 2" (2003). His next role, as a futuristic police detective in the big screen adaptation of Isaac Asimov's sci-fi classic "I, Robot" (2004), cast him in a familiar blockbuster hero vein which was crowd-pleasing if not horizon-expanding, and he lent his distinctive persona to DreamWorks' CGI-animated underwater underworld "Shark Tale" (2004) as Oscar, the mouthy young fish who ends up in hot water after the death of a shark mob boss. Then the actor tried a more straighforward comedy with "Hitch" (2005), playing a smooth professional date doctor whose technique goes awry when he meets his own potential lady love (Eva Mendes)--the film offered a refreshing, non-action role for Smith that fully capitalized on his considerable charisma and romantic appeal.

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