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Will Smith

A fairy-tale life

Will Smith stars with Martin Lawrence in "Bad Boys II", which opened July 18, 2003.

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The evolution of Will Smith

(CNN) -- He has rapped up millions in record sales, charmed thousands from Philadelphia to Bel-Air, and saved the world from aliens on multiple occasions. Whether as the Fresh Prince, an Enemy of the State or the Greatest of All Time, 33-year-old Will Smith has clearly emerged as Hollywood royalty.

Commanding $20 million a movie, not to mention superstar status in the musical and TV worlds, he even jokes that, after blockbusters like "Independence Day" and "Men in Black," he owns the July 4th weekend.

"That's my weekend now," he told a reporter. "That's 'Willie week.' "

His peers aren't arguing.

Gene Hackman, who played opposite Smith in "Enemy of the State," said Smith has "all the things it takes to be a major star in this world."

"Nobody's doing it better than Will is," said Robert Redford, who directed Smith in "The Legend of Bagger Vance." "He's come on with many different levels."

As a teen-ager, the one-time math whiz spurned higher education to rap for a living -- choosing "the fairy-tale path [that] every kid dreams about," recalled "DJ Jazzy" Jeff Townes, Smith's eventual musical partner.

Soon after his music career took off, the Fresh Prince ground it to a halt by taking a role in a TV sitcom. Then, just as he was becoming a major TV star, he took a different tack and turned to films.

Today, with a growing family and a blossoming career, Smith is still living a fairy-tale life -- and on his own terms.

"He can't be stopped," said Toure, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine. "In TV, film ... or in music, he's a triple threat."

Jokes, education growing up in Philly

Willard Christopher Smith Jr. grew up in the predominantly black, middle-class suburb of West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His parents -- Willard Sr., an Air Force veteran, and Caroline, a school administrator -- stressed education to their rambunctious yet bright son, sending him to a Catholic school several miles away.

Smith's home life, with two sisters and a brother, was never short on fun and games.

"My family was very silly when I was growing up -- we had a lot of fun and played around a lot," says Smith.

Part serial jokester and part serious student, Smith had no trouble making friends in his predominantly white school. He also had little trouble getting into trouble -- or getting out of it.

"He was funny and a prankster, but he got his work done," said Townes. "When he was in high school he used to get in a lot of trouble, a lot of mischief and he would charm himself out of it. So they started calling him 'Prince Charming.' "

Will Smith, the student, buckled down upon transferring to Overbrook High in his hometown. He especially excelled in math, earning an interview from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1986.

Smith also found success in the musical arena in the mid-1980s, embracing the embryonic genre of hip-hop and winning over crowds by rapping at block parties and school functions.

Smith, at left, along with rappers Flavor Flav of Public Enemy, Salt 'N Pepa and Kid 'N Play, boycotted the 1988 Grammy Awards, because the rap awards were not televised.  

The 'Fresh Prince' rises, falls

He eventually crossed paths with Townes, a Philadelphia DJ better known as DJ Jazzy Jeff.

"He grabbed the mic and (we had) natural chemistry performing ... because both of us were silly, just getting people involved in the party and having a good time," Townes said.

Smith dropped "charming" and added "fresh" to his stage name to become The Fresh Prince. He also dropped the idea of continuing his education in favor of pursuing his dream, alongside Townes.

The duo's funny, clean-cut lyrics -- a relative rarity in a rap world dominated by gritty, hardcore artists -- in songs like "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble" put them in a category all their own.

"Will Smith ... was probably the only one at the time doing this really family-friendly, accessible kind of hip-hop, or rap," said Peter Castro of PEOPLE magazine. "He latched onto something that was really clever ... to do a rap song without any profanity."

The upbeat, G-rated format worked. In 1986, before Smith had even graduated from high school, the duo cut "Rock the House," which sold 600,000 copies.

Two of their next three albums went platinum. In 1988 "Parents Just Don't Understand" won DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince the first-ever Grammy for best rap performance.

But the success was fleeting, as Townes and Smith -- both just 20 years old -- quickly squandered their multi-million dollar windfall and found themselves in debt.

The duo returned to the studio in 1991, hoping to recoup some cash by making more gold records. The result was the warm weather anthem "Summertime" -- another commercially successful and Grammy-winning effort.

From Philly to Bel Air

By this time, Smith was ready for a change, deciding to take his gift for gab to a new medium.

"From the time we put out our first record we sat down one night and basically had a dream meeting of what we wanted to do. And I'll never forget him saying, 'I really want to make movies,' " says Jazzy Jeff.

Smith's rapping talent and dynamic personality had caught the eye of producers who needed a lead for a new TV sitcom. Saying goodbye to Philadelphia and hello to Hollywood, Smith auditioned and got the title role in "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air," a show about a jovial, streetwise black teen who finds himself in a predominately white world.

"I get to play a character that's me," Smith recalled. "It's the same thing I've been doing for the past five years with the music."

Choreographer Debbie Allen directed the series pilot.

"I remember the first time I laid eyes on him -- a gangly, lean, skinny young boy," said Allen. "He had this infectious charm and great laugh and eyes that really looked at you when he spoke to you. I mean, I knew he had something special."

His love life blossomed, too. In May 1992, 23-year old Smith married Sheree Zampino, a fashion design student he had dated for less than a year.

In December, the couple had a boy, Willard Smith III, nicknamed Trey. The boy's doting dad would later bring him to movie premieres and interviews.

"When the doctor handed me my son, I've tried a number of times to try to put it into words. You can't," Smith said.

Smith proved he could be a strong dramatic actor in "Six Degrees of Separation."  

Another gamble pays off

Not content with his musical and TV success, Smith took a gamble and tried to establish himself as a movie actor.

Smith initially landed small roles, playing a homeless man in 1992's "Where the Day Takes You" and taking on a bit part a year later in "Made in America," opposite Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Danson. His big break came later that year in "Six Degrees of Separation."

After four months studying with a dialect and acting coach, Smith took on the role as a gay con man -- a major departure from his funny, laid-back role as the "Fresh Prince."

"It was grueling," Smith recalled. "Everything about the film was totally removed from anything that I could relate to. Because my instincts are naturally comedic, I had to relearn my instincts, I had to become a different person."

But the rapper-turned-actor would only go so far, refusing to carry out a scripted mouth-to-mouth kiss between his character and another man -- a decision he said he later regretted.

All in all, the gamble paid off, as Smith's performance in "Six Degrees" captivated critics and set the stage for the rapper-turned-actor's emergence on the silver screen.

Love, aliens and action

As his acting career continued to surge upward, his marriage fell apart and ended with a 1995 divorce. But Smith returned to the role of husband in 1997, when he married actress Jada Pinkett.

The couple has two children, son Jaden and daughter Willow.

"I think fatherhood has just completely redefined his life," said Castro, echoing sentiments made by Smith himself and his friends.

Meanwhile, Smith continued to reinvent his public image and redirect his career throughout the 1990s.

Having tackled comedy and drama, Smith took another career turn by starring opposite Martin Lawrence in the 1995 action comedy, "Bad Boys." The buddy-cop movie raked in $140 million at the box office.

The 1996 action epic "Independence Day," in which Smith's character helps save the world from an alien invasion, further established the former rapper's box office cache and star status.

A year later, he teamed up with Tommy Lee Jones to again thwart extraterrestrials in "Men In Black," 1997's top-grossing film. Smith also picked up where he left off in the studio, churning out hits like "Gettin Jiggy Wit It" and the movie's theme song on a new album, "Big Willie Style."

Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett, at the 1997 MTV Music Video Awards.  

Disappointments and promise

Smith's career took a dramatic turn in 1998, when he played a lawyer trapped in a scheme that threatened to destroy him and the world in "Enemy of the State."

Yet Smith's run of blockbusters ended with 1999's "Wild Wild West," a big-screen version of a 1960s TV series, which flopped at the box office.

"The Legend of Bagger Vance," directed by Redford and featuring a cast that included Matt Damon and Charlize Theron, also fell flat at the box office in fall 2000.

His next big project, "Ali," won over critics and even earned Smith an Oscar best actor nomination for his portrayal of Muhammad Ali, but it failed to win over audiences.

Despite these disappointments, Smith remains a huge box office draw, as he proved in last summer's "Men in Black II." The film received mixed reviews but had a huge opening weekend and ended up grossing more than $190 million at the domestic box office.

Smith returns to the screen this summer with Martin Lawrence in "Bad Boys II," a sequel to the 1995 film that also was Smith's first role in a big-budget movie.

For an entertainer who has had success in music, TV and movies, Smith's next career move remains to be seen. In a recent interview, Smith hinted at a run for office, saying, "In about 10 years ... I'm going to be the first black president of the United States."

Even with this pledge, the Fresh Prince says that he's not sure what turn his fairy-tale life will take next. If the past is any indication, Smith's future will involve many more career gambles and continued personal growth.

"Even at number one, I still feel an urge to work and make it better," he says.

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