The Evolution of Will Smith

The Evolution of Will Smith

In this new series, we take a look at a celebrity's path to superstardom. First up: Will Smith, from his Fresh beginnings to his latest performance.

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Photo: Tinseltown (Shutterstock)

As he heads to the Academy Awards with his third acting Oscar nomination, Will Smith has had a career that we never could have seen coming. We always knew he was charming and talented, but a quick walk through his life shows someone who never took the predictable path to success, becoming an even bigger legend in the process. The Evolution of Will Smith is a journey through how a Prince became a King.

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1988 - Parents Just Don’t Understand

1988 - Parents Just Don’t Understand

Though “Parents Just Don’t Understand” wasn’t DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s first hit, it was the duo’s breakout song. It was the world’s mainstream introduction to the charming star we’d come to know and love. The music video set the tone for the hilarious vibe Smith would bring to all his movies and series. It’s not like you can look at it and say “that kid’s going to be an Oscar-nominated megastar,” but you can see plenty of star potential.

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1990 - The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

1990 - The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Now we can look back on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and see it as a groundbreaking classic. But at the time, it was just this fun sitcom starring a popular rapper and the Black friend from Silver Spoons. Watching the six seasons of Fresh Prince is the real evolution of Will Smith. Over the course of the comedy’s run he goes from noticeably reciting other characters’ lines in the pilot to breaking our hearts in the memorable Season 4 episode “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse.” Will has made it clear over and over that this is where he learned how to act.

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1991 - Summertime

1991 - Summertime

DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince made their musical return with this timeless number one hit. You can’t tell me you start your summer without this song. It distills everything great about summer into one catchy hook, and it’s impossible not to smile while listening to it. There are hints here of where Will would go musically, moving to more of a dance style, than straight up hip hop. It’s one of those songs that instantly takes you back when those first few beats kick in.

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1995-97 - Bad Boys, Independence Day, Men in Black

1995-97 - Bad Boys, Independence Day, Men in Black

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who made a better transition from TV to movies than Will Smith. As The Fresh Prince was winding down, he went back to back to back with massive hits Bad Boys, Independence Day and Men In Black. By the time this July 4 trifecta wrapped up in 1997, he had 100 percent cemented himself as Hollywood’s biggest star.

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1998 - Big Willie Style

1998 - Big Willie Style

A fun by-product of his movie star status was the success of the Men In Black theme, which saw him return to the top of charts, but this time as Will Smith. Of course, Will stressed that he and Jeff were still making music the same, they were just releasing it under a different name. Big Willie Style has sold 6 million copies to date, and gave us “Gettin’ Jiggy wit It,” “Just the Two of Us” and “Miami,” which you’ll hear anytime a Miami sports team is playing.

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2001 - Ali

2001 - Ali

Though we had seen glimpses of Will’s dramatic talents, Ali is where he showed that he was more than a charismatic action star. Playing a real person is always a tricky balancing act between honoring them and impersonation. In Ali, Smith’s portrayal of The Greatest walks that artistic tightrope beautifully, and officially closes the book on the “rapper turned actor” narrative.

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2007 - I Am Legend

2007 - I Am Legend

The phrase “they carried the movie” is used a lot to describe standout performances, but in I Am Legend, Will literally carries the movie, as he’s the only human we see for most of the film. He’s the last man in New York after a virus has wiped out humanity and turned the survivors into vampire mutants. It’s a very short list of performers who could keep us captivated for two hours with their only companion, a dog. Will made us care about Neville’s solo journeys through the city, and his nightly fear was a living thing. I Am Legend is one of his most underrated acting performances.

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2016 - Suicide Squad

2016 - Suicide Squad

After a few misses, Will returned to big action flicks by playing Deadshot in the DC comic book movie. As the infamous hitman, his blend of comedy and character development made him one of the heavily-criticized movie’s standout performances. In fact, there were a lot of disappointed nerds when he didn’t appear in the sequel. However, Deadshot is still alive somewhere in the DC Universe, so he can always come back for another film or series.

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2020 - Bad Boys For Life

2020 - Bad Boys For Life

Image for article titled The Evolution of Will Smith
Photo: Silvia Elizabeth Pangaro (Shutterstock)

We heard rumors of a Bad Boys 3 for years, but with Martin Lawrence stepping back from the business for a little while, it seemed like a long shot. But then, it actually happened, and it was the rare satisfying ending for a trilogy. Will and Martin’s banter didn’t skip a beat, the action was still over-the-top entertaining and it even left a few breadcrumbs for a fourth film. It basically felt like Will was reminding us he still has it.

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2021 - King Richard

2021 - King Richard

I’ll admit when I heard they were making a movie about Venus and Serena’s entry into the tennis world, I wasn’t immediately on board with Will as Richard Williams. However, like he’s done his entire career, Will proved me wrong and delivered a tour de force performance as a father determined to see his daughters achieve greatness. He’s swept through awards season, receiving accolades from every possible critics and film association. His performance feels completely locked into the story and character in a way he’s never done before, leading us to really appreciate just how far our Fresh Prince has come.

2022 - The Slap

This combination of pictures created on March 28, 2022 shows US actor Will Smith (R) approaches US actor Chris Rock onstage,and US actor Will Smith (R) slaps US actor Chris Rock onstage, during the 94th Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on March 27, 2022. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
This combination of pictures created on March 28, 2022 shows US actor Will Smith (R) approaches US actor Chris Rock onstage,and US actor Will Smith (R) slaps US actor Chris Rock onstage, during the 94th Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on March 27, 2022. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
Photo: Robyn Beck (Getty Images)

So, about that slap. Will Smith was five minutes away from achieving a dream he spent his entire career working toward when he ruined his reputation with one poorly timed decision. Chris Rock was presenting Best Documentary Feature and went into his bit where he makes fun of the celebrities in the audience, except when he got to Jada Pinkett Smith, joking about her baldness “Jada, I love you – I can’t wait for GI Jane 2,” it didn’t go over well.

The joke prompted Will to approach the stage, slap Rock in the face, then return to his seat yelling “Keep my wife’s name out your fucking mouth.” A stunned Rock presented the award as the tone of the show changed for the rest of the night. Since then, there’s been no end to the hot takes on Will, the Academy, toxic masculinity and alopecia. Ultimately, Will resigned from the Academy, with the organization banning him from all events, including The Oscars, for 10 years.

2022 - Oscar-Winner

Will Smith accepts the award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for “King Richard” onstage during the 94th Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on March 27, 2022. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
Will Smith accepts the award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for “King Richard” onstage during the 94th Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on March 27, 2022. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
Photo: Robyn Beck (Getty Images)

After all hell broke loose, Will did win the award for Best Actor, apologizing to the Academy, thanking his co-stars and the Williams family in the process. Here’s the thing: Will is absolutely going to make a comeback. He’ll go on an apology tour, make Men in Black 4 or join the MCU, and everyone will forgive him, because at his core Will Smith is still the endlessly charming Fresh Prince.

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