Will Smith PhotoWilliam Smith III
BORN: September 25, 1968, West Philadelphia, PA

Although he initially became famous as a rapper, Will Smith went on to prove his acting talents in both television and films, eventually winning a reputation as an entertainer who could easily cross back and forth between musician and actor. In the process, he became one of the most successful entertainers--African-American or otherwise--in the American popular consciousness of the 1990s.

A native of Philadelphia, Smith was born on September 25, 1968. The son of middle-class parents (his father owned a refrigeration company and his mother worked for the school board) and the second of four children, he earned the nickname "Prince" thanks to his ability to talk himself out of trouble. The nickname became part of his popular persona when, with fellow rapper Jeff Townes, Smith (who had been rapping since the age of twelve) formed the duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Smith found fame as a rapper, producing two platinum albums and winning a Grammy for He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper.

However, by the time he was eighteen, Smith had squandered much of his fortune and was in debt to the IRS. Help came in the form of Warner Bros. executive Benny Medina, who wanted to create a TV show based on his own experiences as a poor kid living with a rich Beverly Hills family. The result was The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, a popular sitcom that gave Smith--who had turned down an MIT scholarship to pursue his career--even greater fame as the show's protagonist. During the show's six-year run, Smith began to branch out towards film work. Following roles in Where the Day Takes You (1992) and Made in America (1993), he scored critical approval as a young, gay con man pretending to be Sidney Poitier's son in Six Degrees of Separation (1993). He also scored a decent helping of controversy, thanks to remarks he made in an interview that were perceived as homophobic. Two years later, Smith found his first major commercial success alongside Martin Lawrence in the action flick Bad Boys. The following year, he topped that with a turn in the sci-fi smash Independence Day, which was one of the year's biggest moneymakers.

Extraterrestrial lifeforms proved to be a profitable subject for Smith, as he went on to make a similarly gargantuan amount of money playing a secret agent tracking down aliens with Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black (1997). The film turned out to be a lucrative enterprise for him off the screen as well, as his theme-song single also became a hit. Its success inspired him to begin rapping again, and that same year he released Big Willie Style. 1997 also brought Smith success on a more personal front, as he married actress Jada Pinkett on New Year's Eve. In 1998, the actor starred in Enemy of the State, a conspiracy thriller also starring Gene Hackman that had him on the run from government agents. The film was a commercial success, and the next year Smith starred in Wild Wild West. As the film's eponymous 19th-century lawman hero, Smith was part of a project that was widely dismissed by critics and failed to make back its high costs. However, his theme-song single provided another hit for the actor and musician; his first box-office disappointment, 1999's Wild Wild West, he returned with the album Willennium. ~ Rebecca Flint, All Movie Guide