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Profiles of Denzel Washington, Will Smith

Aired December 21, 2002 - 11:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: Next on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS, he's one of Hollywood's heavyweight actors with roles like Hurricane Carter and Malcolm X.

ANNE-MARIE O'NEILL, SENIOR EDITOR, "PEOPLE" MAGAZINE: Denzel Washington is black or white, a fantastic leading man.


ANNOUNCER: But the Best Actor Oscar nearly eluded him.


O.L. DUKE, FRIEND: He should have won for "Malcolm X." He should have won for "The Hurricane." He should have won for Steven Biko.


ANNOUNCER: Words he heard as a teenager would follow him throughout his career.


DENZEL WASHINGTON, ACTOR: She said, "Come here young man." And I walked over there. And she said that she was having a prophecy.


ANNOUNCER: Now, the Oscar-winning actor is taking on a new role, director of the new film, "Antwone Fisher." Behind-the-scenes with Denzel Washington.

Then, he's gone from making hit records to breaking box office records.


LEAH ROZEN, MOVIE CRITIC, "PEOPLE MAGAZINE": "Men in Black" just was a massive hit. A lot of had to do with Will Smith's appeal.


ANNOUNCER: The Philly native was spinning hits before he got out of high school. But with his early success came adult size problems. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PETER CASTO, ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR, "PEOPLE" MAGAZINE: After they got their first windfall, they just starting spending money like fools.


ANNOUNCER: After getting jiggy with it in Bel-Air, he would go on to become one of the silver screen's sizzling stars. Hollywood conquered, Will Smith's future is so bright, he's got to wear shades.


WILL SMITH, ACTOR/MUSICIAIN: I'm going to be the first black president of the United States.


ANNOUNCER: Their stories and more now on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.

PAULA ZAHN, HOST: Welcome to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS, I'm Paula Zahn. Denzel Washington is one of the most respected actors in Hollywood. He is gifted and intense whether he's starring in an action film or a drama. His accomplishments onscreen have been recognized nominations and awards, including an Oscar just last March. But in his latest film, "Antwone Fisher," Denzel Washington is looking for success behind the camera as a first time director. Here's Gail O'Neill.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don't move! You never know, that's the point.

GAIL O'NEILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With 30 films under his belt, like "Training Day..."

WASHINGTON: If I was a dealer, you'd be dead by now.

O'NEILL: ... "Glory" and "Philadelphia..."

WASHINGTON: What happened to your face?


O'NEILL: ... and star power that commends $20 million per film, Denzel Washington is at the top of his game. His career has been built on dead on portrayals of larger than life characters, "Malcolm X..."

WASHINGTON: We didn't land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us.

He put me in prison.

O'NEILL: ... and Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. WASHINGTON: I've been locked in here for 30 years.

O'NEILL: And now, his trademark intensity so familiar in front of the camera is on display behind the camera. This time around, Denzel Washington is calling the shots, as a first time director with the film, "Antwone Fisher." It is the true story of a young man who survives a brutal foster care home...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Nobody wants you.




O'NEILL: ...and spends his early adult life in the Navy trying to come to grips with his past. The two-time Oscar winner says he was immediately drawn to the project, but with the intention of being at the helm.

WASHINGTON: I actually met Todd Black, the producer of this film, because he wanted me to play the role of the psychiatrist.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I never had therapists.

WASHINGTON: That would make you a medical miracle Senior Fisher.

When I read the material, I was interested in doing more than that. And I had a lot of ideas about what I'd like to do and see in the film. And I just thought it sounded like the director. And he's like, "You interested?" And this time, I just said, "Yes."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You feeling sick? You need a healing? You need a healing?

O'NEILL: The movie is just another leap of faith in the life of a man, who as a teenager once dismissed some prophetic words that proved to be uncannily accurate. Denzel was born on December 28, 1954 in Mount Vernon, New York, a multiracial, working class area just north of the Bronx. Denzel's parents, a Pentecostal minister and a beautician, ran a tight ship at their home on Monday Lane, with an emphasis on religion and discipline.

WASHINGTON: My father was a minister and I couldn't go to the movies.

O'NEILL: Hollywood was off limits, but athletics were not. So Denzel's mom brought him here to a place where he could indulge in sports and learn a few life lessons as well.

BILLY THOMAS, BOY'S CLUB MENTOR: Denzel was involved in everything. Junior (UNINTELLIGIBLE) at six years old and that's a house league basketball. He also had a wiffle league -- wiffle ball league, which he was involved in and gymnastics. O'NEILL: The budding athlete became a standout in the club's football league, but he also enjoyed opportunities off the playing field.

WASHINGTON: They used to have kind of a competition, if you will, where they would allow Boy's Club members to run for each office. You could do -- I became police commissioner for a day. And you would meet the police commissioner and go into a jail and realize that you didn't want to be in there. But somebody was mayor for a day and this and that.

O'NEILL: But then, when he was 14, an event that shattered Denzel -- his parents announced they were getting a divorce. The teen stopped listening to both his mentor and his mother.

WASHINGTON: So I started making friends with and hanging out with the guys in the projects. And then, I also had a little money in my pocket not that the projects themselves were what was bad. But we were just at that age in a time where you began to; you know, head down the wrong path and make some of the wrong choices. So she made a decision to send me away to school, to get me out of there.

THOMAS: She had the courage to see that, that there's a possibility that he can get caught up in that.

O'NEILL: Denzel was sent to a private boarding school in upstate New York where he excelled in sports, but not in the classroom. After graduating in 1972, he returned home to attend Fordham University. Denzel davelled in pre-Med courses and journalism, but bad grades forced him to leave school.

WASHINGTON: I was taking a semester off from school involuntarily. And I was sitting in my mother's beauty shop, so I was looking in the mirror here and I could see this woman looking at me. She said that she was having a prophecy, which I probably didn't even know what that meant at that time. But she just said to me that, you know, I was going to preach to millions of people, that I was going to travel the world and I'm going to have something very important to say to millions of people. Well, at the time, I was flunking out of college, so I was more interested in like, do you think I'll be in -- back at the school in the fall semester? Do you see anything there?

O'NEILL: A few months later, Denzel did go back to school and that prophecy began to unfold in the form of theater. Denzel took the lead role in a student production of "Othello" and it was clear that he had found his calling. Other plays followed and by the time Denzel graduated in 1977, he knew he would dedicate his life to acting. That year, Denzel also got his first television gig as the boyfriend of Olympian Wilma Rudolph in a TV movie about her life.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Once you know it in your heart, you can win it on (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

O'NEILL: And on the set, he met an actress and singer from North Carolina who would eventually become his wife. Denzel says he was not only taken with Pauletta Pearson, but with her family as well. (on camera): I read a very touching by you about Pauletta and her family years ago in an "Essence" article. And you said that her family not only is a type to come and say goodbye at the airport, but they wave at the plane until it's out of sight.

WASHINGTON: And cry the whole time.

O'NEILL: Yes, you know, I think that's beautiful.

WASHINGTON: I came from a broken home, but we didn't have that kind of a closeness. In fact, you know, when I went down there to visit her that really nailed it for me. I was like, oh, I got to get in this family. This is good for me. You know I knew it was good for me.

O'NEILL (voice-over): On the acting front, things were good for him as well. But there as once performance in particular that really turned heads.

ROZEN: I saw him in "A Soldier's Story," which was his breakout role at the Negro Ensemble Company and you said, "Hey, who's that really" -- first you said, "Who's that really good-looking guy at stage?" and then you said, "Who's that really good-looking guy who can really act?"

O'NEILL: Denzel won an Obi (ph), off Broadway's highest honor for his portrayal of Private First Class Melvin Peterson in "A Soldier's Play." His acting career was starting to take off.

DUKE: Denzel was cool. He was always, like, very focused and very determined to, you know, get ahead. I mean he was like -- he was like at total vision. He was really in his -- it showed in his work.

O'NEILL: When PEOPLE IN THE NEWS continues, Denzel Washington nearly passes up his big break on the TV series "St. Elsewhere."

WASHINGTON: I was really looking to not be too well known, just to try to keep a low key.


ANNOUNCER: Also ahead...


SMITH: I do it all.


ANNOUNCER: He's been entertaining us for almost two decades, but he almost chose a different career path.


CASTO: His heart wasn't in it. He just wanted to be a rapper.


ANNOUNCER: How Will Smith was almost the fresh prince of MIT, later on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.




ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, here is Denzel Washington.

O'NEILL (voice-over): By 1998, Denzel Washington was a bona fide star with more than 20 movies under his belt and the ultimate Hollywood sign that one has arrived, his hand and footprints immortalized at Mann's Chinese Theater.

Box office goals like "Malcolm X" and "Crimson Tide" cemented his place in film history, but it was television that actually gave Denzel his biggest break.

WASHINGTON: By the way, my name's Phil.

O'NEILL: In 1982, he was cast as Dr. Phillip Chandler on the acclaimed NBC drama, "St. Elsewhere." Being a part of the ensemble was a major step for the actor who nearly majored in pre-med, but he still had reservations.

WASHINGTON: Well, I don't think this is quite ready for the "New England Journal of Medicine," but...

Actually, I didn't even want to do the show. Ruth Aaronson (ph) was my agent and she always instilled in me to -- she kept me out of a lot of TV series that I was offered. And she says, "No, I'd rather give you the money not to do myself than" -- because you know, she really wanted me to have a movie career.

O'NEILL: And there was another potential obstacle.

WASHINGTON: When we started the show, you know, they wanted the character to be an ex-gang leader and a basketball player. Well, not all black people are gang leaders and basketball players.

O'NEILL: Even as a young actor, Denzel was deeply conscious of how African-Americans were portrayed in the media and he didn't want to play to negative stereotypes. During "St. Elsewhere's" sixth year Emmy-award winning run, the show producers gave him an opportunity to work elsewhere on the big screen.

WASHINGTON: The executive producer, God rest his soul, Bruce Paltrow, was instrumental in allowing my film career to exist. I did three movies during that six years. One was called "Power." One was called -- with Sidney Lumet. One was "A Soldier's Story" with Norman Jewison and one was "Cry Freedom" with Richard Attenborough. And if he hadn't allowed me to leave the show to do those films, we wouldn't be talking, not about this. Bill, will you get the hell out of here with that backwater crap.

O'NEILL: "A Soldier's Story" put the actor back in the role that won an Obi (ph) while "Cry Freedom" gave audiences their first taste of Denzel's chameleon-like ability to transform to real-life characters.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who are you referring to specifically?

WASHINGTON: I specifically would refer to people like Mandela, Zubucawe (ph).

O'NEILL: As Steven Piko, a murdered anti-Apartheid activist, Denzel took the caps off of teeth, learned a South African accent and studied tapes and film recordings of the actual man. The attention to detail paid off. In 1987, Denzel Washington earned his very first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. And just two short years later, the Academy honored him again with a nod in the same category for "Glory."

WASHINGTON: He thought he was different, didn't he?

ROZEN: The director, Ed Zwick, I believe said that when he was cutting the movie, his editor just like couldn't cut away, wanted every scene to just put in the Denzel Washington tape because the editor said there was just something always going on with him, as there was always something going on when Denzel Washington is on screen.

O'NEILL: Playing Trip, a former runaway slave fighting in an all black Civil War regiment, Denzel's most powerful moment in the film was wordless. This time, he would win the Academy Award.

This marked his shift from supporting actor to leading man in films like Spike Lee's "Mo' Better Blues."

WASHINGTON: Did you ever have it mo' better?

O'NEILL: And this often case in Hollywood, leading man status led to sex symbol status. But this was one hunk who would not be showing much skin in his flicks.

ROZEN: If there's any great lack in his career, certainly, as far as women viewers are concerned, is that Denzel Washington has never done enough sexy.

O'NEILL: Married to Pauletta Pearson since 1983, the father of four says contrary to rumors, he doesn't object to love scenes, he just doesn't want to do anything gratuitous.

WASHINGTON: Well, I just think that my criterion is very simple. You know I only do the kinds of things that I would want my children to see.

ANNOUNCER: He was a man of many names. O'NEILL: In 1992, Denzel would team up with director, Spike Lee, again and this time, they would recreate history. Denzel transformed his appearance and his speech to bring a flamed civil rights icon back to life. But this was not his first experience becoming Malcolm X. He had the role a decade earlier off Broadway in the play, "When The Chickens Come Home To Roost."

WASHINGTON: We had tremendous success with this play in New York. I mean we were at a theater with 175, 200 people and we had 1,000 people standing out there at night trying to get in, you know. So the word was out, you know. So going into the movie, I wasn't going in blindly or with doubt. I knew that I could play Malcolm X because I had already played him on stage.

Please, please. Yes, as I stated earlier that...

O'NEILL: The second time around, the now seasoned actor went deep into character.

WASHINGTON: You been had! You been took! You been hood wigged, bamboozled!

DUKE: He did not talk to anybody. He was -- he would just -- he would keep his hood on when he would come to work, you know, in between takes and stuff like that. You know it was like he was Malcolm. He wasn't Denzel.

O'NEILL: At times, he was perceived as aloof or unfriendly on the set.

DUKE: He would be taken the wrong way sometimes. But I he was just focused on his work, you know. That's what it is. It's not personal, you know. He's -- you know, he's about business.

O'NEILL: In the end, Denzel nailed the highs and the lows of the complex figure and was nominated for Hollywood's top honor.

ROZEN: "Malcolm X" was an Oscar worthy performance. The problem is every year, there are far more Oscar worthy performances than there are Oscars to give. So it's either your year or it's not.

O'NEILL: Nineteen Ninety-two would not be his year.

WASHINGTON: It was better to win than to have to sit there and go -- yes, the camera's like right there and you're going, "I could kill that son of a bitch."


WASHINGTON: You're the best.

O'NEILL: When PEOPLE IN THE NEWS continues, Mr. Nice Guy takes a nasty turn and takes on the Oscar voting academy.

WASHINGTON: It turned out to be nice day? It'll get darker. I guarantee you that. (END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: Denzel Washington wasn't the only rising star in the cast of "St. Elsewhere," which brings us to this week's "Where Are They Now?"


ANNOUNCER: In the early 80's, Howie Mandel was one of the biggest draws on the comedy circuit. But he would become a household name starring as Dr. Wayne Fiscus on NBC's "St. Elsewhere." So where is Howie Mandel now?

Mandel has stayed hot on the comedy circuit, headlining shows on the Vegas strip. Howie also shaved off his trademark curly locks for a sleek bald new look. He's had some moderate success in small screen after "Elsewhere." He had his own talk show as well as providing voices for the Saturday morning cartoon, "Bobby's World."


ANNOUNCER: Our profile of Denzel Washington will continue after this.


O'NEILL (voice-over): Denzel Washington has been building his reputation as a serious actor for years.


O'NEILL: But as a leading man, his hopes for the grand prize, a Best Actor Oscar, kept eluding him.

WASHINGTON: So you were concealing your illness?

O'NEILL: In 1993, Denzel went head-to-head with another A-list co-star, Tom Hanks, in the film, "Philadelphia."

WASHINGTON: Didn't you have an obligation to tell your employer that you had this dreaded, deadly, infectious disease?

O'NEILL: And once again, the Oscar for Best Actor was a distinct possibility.

ROZEN: And you're just completely aware of how much Denzel Washington is on par with Hanks and how important he is to the film. He plays the lawyer, who starts out initially sort of homophobic. He's the one who actually makes the change. He's the one who has the journey in the film. So in a way, Denzel Washington is the real protagonist in the film.

O'NEILL: But Denzel was shut out by the Academy. He wasn't even nominated. Then, another challenging role, wrongly convicted boxer, Rubin Carter, in "The Hurricane."

WASHINGTON: I don't have a few more years, Myron.

O'NEILL: The intense, powerful portrayal of a man, who spent 30 years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit, made the actor a front runner in the Oscar race for 1999. But this time, it would be no different.

ROZEN: When it came Oscar time, there was a very successful word-of-mouth whisper campaign to undermine the film. The film had played it a little fast and loose with some of the facts. And I think Denzel Washington lost out what was a real good shot at an Oscar because of that.

O'NEILL: The leading man so popular with audiences and critics alike became deeply disillusioned.

JAMIE FOXX, ACTOR: Some of the bodies of work that he's done, he didn't really get, you know, recognized. I mean when you look at "Hurricane," I mean what a great performance. Like when you look at "Malcolm X," what a great performance. And you know, he had felt a little -- felt a little slided by that.

WASHINGTON: All right, listen up. I'm Coach Boone.

O'NEILL: He was already in production for the film, "Remember The Titans," but he decided to take a risk with his next role.

A. O'NEILL: He is such a marvelous leading man that he was finding himself in, you know, being typecast as a certain kind of standup guy.

O'NEILL: As Detective Alonzo Harris, the rogue cop in "Training Day," Denzel went against type with a vengeance.

WASHINGTON: You did what you had to do.

ROZEN: Washington made evil so seductive.

DUKE: He had a lot of fun playing Alonzo. He talked about that character more than another other character. When we would come in, he was doing Alonzo, he'd be telling you, you know, scene-by-scene almost, you know, what he was doing. He was really excited about it.

ETHAN HAWKE, ACTOR: Just the enemy let themselves out.

WASHINGTON: God willing.

O'NEILL: Once again, Oscar came knocking, but he was up against the odds on favorite, Russell Crowe, in "A Beautiful Mind." Finally, after three nominations for Best Actor, "Training Day" made March 24, 2002 Denzel's day as he took home the top honor. This would make him only the second African-American to win as Best Actor in the 74-year history of the Academy.

WASHINGTON: This time, it's a little -- I just had a piece about me all week and all day. And I told my kids, "Win or lose, I'm going to home and hang out with them." And that's what I'm going to do after a couple of stops.

ANNOUNCER: Here is Denzel Washington.

O'NEILL: Denzel Washington has played 30 different characters on film. But role he relishes most is that of real-life husband and father.

A. O'NEILL: He's not someone who goes to a lot parties and premiers just to get out and be seen. He lives a life as a regular guy and then comes out as a movie star when he has to.

O'NEILL: The proud papa even took his role in the futuristic, action film, "Virtuosity" because of his son.

WASHINGTON: He wanted me to compete with Schwarzenegger. And he was getting a lot of pressure at school that Schwarzenegger could beat me up and I was a wimp because I was doing these (UNINTELIGIBLE) movies.

Oh, I'm back in business and I can walk in my door, through a convoy now. I'm all right. My son's friends were like oh, yeah. Mr. Washington, right! Right, man! Virtuosity, man! You know, I was like, I've arrived now. It's like oh, you made it now.

O'NEILL: Now, it's Denzel's turn to cheer. John David, the oldest of his four kids, started at Moorehouse College this year with a football scholarship.

WASHINGTON: I really give my wife all the credit there. She's been the consistent one in their lives. I've always been the one on the road and not with them all time, you know, working. And you know, I'm just bringing home the bacon.

O'NEILL: Work has recently taken him in a different direction. Denzel decided to test out the director's chair with the story of Antwone Fisher. And though a novice, Denzel said that he had distinctive advantage thanks to the great directors he's had the chance to work with in the past.

WASHINGTON: We're out of this.


WASHINGTON: I made more (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in this film. You know, and you don't even always know what you got from them until it hits you. You know, you may one day think about Jonathan Deming (ph) or you know, a Norman Jewison, you know. So I've been very fortunate to work with some great characters. And hopefully, I've used and applied something from them all.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm still standing. I'm still strong.

O'NEILL: Denzel also has a key onscreen supporting role as a Navy psychiatrist in the film. And as a first time director, he jokes that working with a certain two-time Oscar winner was tough.

WASHINGTON: Do you want to talk about it?

I had to really work with Denzel. I had to really work with him. He's very difficult and unprepared, you know, and just a tyrant on the set and -- yes, if I had to do anything over again, I would have never had hired him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My mother left me.

O'NEILL: "Antwone Fisher" is already generating Oscar buzz for the man named Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, who could add Best Director to his resume.

With a career spanning nearly three decades and still going strong, Denzel still reflects on an old woman's handwritten prophecy that he would travel the world and speak to millions of people.

WASHINGTON: For some reason, I kept the piece of paper. I still have it. And I always felt since that, you know, I do have a purpose and so I try to apply that to what I do, to stay humble. And you know, for years, I thought, well, am I supposed to go like become a preacher now in church. And life isn't over. Maybe I will. I don't know.

O'NEILL: It's a prophecy like his career that continues to unfold.


ZAHN: Denzel Washington's new film, "Antwone Fisher" opened this weekend. Washington has just signed to appear in a remake of "The Manchurian Candidate," the classic, political thriller that originally starred Frank Sinatra.

ANNOUNCER: When PEOPLE IN THE NEWS returns, he is Hollywood's new renaissance man.


DJ JAZZY JEFF, RECORDING ARTIST: If he tells you that he wants to be astronaut, you may laugh, but you can never count him out.


ANNOUNCER: Star gazing with Will Smith, that's next.


ZAHN: Welcome back to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS. When it comes to Will Smith, the question isn't what has he done, but what hasn't he done. In just five years, Smith has gone from fresh prince to king of the summer blockbuster. Along the way, he has married actress, Jada Pinkett, started a family, even returned to music. But if Smith has made it look all too easy, his journey to stardom has been anything but. Here again is Gail O'Neill.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're OK for roll sound.

SMITH: Are you ready for me?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are rolling.

SMITH: Black suit to black shades to black shoes, black tie with the black attitude.

O'NEILL (voice-over): It was another blockbuster summer for Will Smith.

SMITH: Want to brawl with me, trying to brawl with me...

O'NEILL: His new album, "Born to Reign," hit the charts just before a sequel to his 1997 smash, "Men in Black" hit movie theaters.

TOMMY LEE JONES, ACTOR: We work in secret.

SMITH: And we dress in black.

ROZEN: "Men in Black" was just a massive hit. A lot of that had to do with Will Smith's appeal. It put him into the so-called super star stratosphere.

SMITH: Sorry.

O'NEILL: That superstar status has been further cemented for Smith with other summer hits like "Independence Day" and "Enemy of The State."

SMITH: I don't have anything!

O'NEILL: So much so, that the 34-year-old has been dubbed the king of the Fourth of July.

SMITH: You know that's my weekend.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A national rule now.

SMITH: Yes, yes, that's the Willie week.

O'NEILL: Smith seems to like the entire month. His next movie, a sequel to "Bad Boys" is set to be released July 18.

Will Smith was a crowd pleaser from the start. Raised in a middle-class suburb of west Philadelphia with two sisters and a brother, Smith says there was never a shortage of entertainment.

SMITH: My family was very silly, you know. When I was growing up, we all had a lot of fun. We played around a lot.

O'NEILL: Smith says there were plenty of jokes, but dad, Willard, an Air Force veteran...

SMITH: This is my dad. This is Will Smith Sr.

O'NEILL: ... and mom, Caroline, a school administrator, kept a very strict household.

SMITH: Whenever I have a problem, you know, whenever I don't understand what to do with the kids, you know, I always call my dad. And he makes it very clear for me. Hell, just beat them. It's like no, I'm just joking. Oh, it's a bad joke for TV.

O'NEILL: For most of his childhood, Smith was shipped out of his black middle-class neighborhood to a Catholic school several miles away.

CASTRO: He was doing that Catholic catechism stuff. He excelled at two things in school -- math and making the white kids laugh.

DJ JAZZY JEFF, RECORDING ARTIST: When he was in high school, he used to kind of get into a lot of trouble, a lot of mischief and would charm himself out of it. So they started calling him like Prince Charming.

O'NEILL: It was his first nickname. The teenager with the charm also excelled musically.

In the mid 80's when hip-hop music was in the early stages, Smith discovered he could rap. But Smith's parents made sure their son put education first. The class cut-up eventually transferred to Overbrook High where he buckled down. His excellent math grade even got him an interview at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1986.

CASTRO: His heart wasn't in it. He just wanted to be a rapper.

DJ JAZZY JEFF: He's kind of looking at college. And he's looking at, you know, "Well, I had the normal path that I'm supposed to take and then, I have the fairy tale path on this side because this is what every little kid dreams about and it never happens," you know. So thank God he decided to take the fairy tale path.

O'NEILL: Smith's fairy tale started when he crossed paths with Philadelphia DJ Jeff Townes, better known as DJ Jazzy Jeff.

DJ JAZZY JEFF: He grabbed the mike and just -- the natural chemistry that we have performing and just kind of getting people -- because both of us were silly -- so just kind of getting people involved in a party and just having a good time.

O'NEILL: The two bonded and became a hit stage act. Then they were performing at clubs together. Smith with a new name.

DJ JAZZY JEFF: Back then, in the '80s, everything was fresh. You know, it puts the two together.

Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince forever!

O'NEILL: DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince were a hit. The two released their first record before Smith had even graduated from high school.

SMITH: Listen, homeboys. I don't mean to bust your bubble, but girls of the world ain't nothin' but trouble.

O'NEILL: The duo's funny, clean-cut lyrics in rap songs like "Girls Ain't Nothin' But Trouble" put them in a category all their own.

CASTRO: He latched onto something that was really clever and that was, you know, to try to do a rap song without any profanity.

SMITH: It's 6:00 now and 8:00, will you be ready?


SMITH: All right, fine. See you then, Betty.

My grandmother found my rap book and she wrote a letter in the back of my rap book. She said, "Dear Willard, truly intelligent people do not have to use words like this to express themselves." And that, you know -- I decided OK, all right, all right, Grandma, you're right, you're right.

O'NEILL: This rap light worked for the duo. In 1996, they cut "Rock The House," which sold 600,000 copies. Two of the next three albums went platinum.

SMITH: Mom, this shirt is plaid with a butterfly collar.

O'NEILL: In 1988, mega hit "Parents Just Don't Understand," won DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince the first-ever Grammy for "Best Rap Performance..."

SMITH: There's no need to argue. Parents just don't understand.

O'NEILL: ... much to the chagrin of hard-core rappers everywhere.

TOURE, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, "ROLLING STONE" MAGAZINE: To have Will Smith have two Grammies is pretty much absurd. That's not typically the image that hip-hop is looking to bring. And so much of it is asserting the strength of the black male or how tough we are and he's not sort of going down any of those avenues.

SMITH: There's no need to argue...

DJ JAZZY JEFF: And we got a lot of criticism because you know, it's like OK, everybody's into gangster rap or the hard-core rap. And I think I just looked at it like people go out and people listen to records and they go to shows to be entertained. They don't want to go to be screamed at or be angry.

O'NEILL: Apparently, the record-buying public agreed. When we return, album sales make Will Smith a millionaire by the age of 18. A year later, he loses it all.



SMITH: How you all doing out there? This is my partner. This is DJ Jazzy Jeff with yours truly, The Fresh Prince.

TOURE: Will's story is an amazing story of this kid from nowhere in Philadelphia who becomes a multimillionaire.

O'NEILL: In the late '80s, rappers DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince were flying high.

DJ JAZZY JEFF: Things happened to Will and myself very quickly.

SMITH: So tell you all, the kids across the land, there's no need to argue. Parents just don't understand.

O'NEILL: With their G-rated style of rap, a Grammy and multi- platinum albums, the duo had a winning formula, but fame and fat bank accounts were a disastrous combination for the rap team from Philly.

CASTRO: After they got their first windfall, they just started spending money like fools. They would go out and they would have Gucci shopping sprees and cars and clothes and it went really fast.

O'NEILL: The rock star lifestyle took its toll. In 1988, at the age of 18, Smith was a globetrotting millionaire with a mansion and eight cars. By the next year, it was all gone and the IRS was looking for him.

CASTRO: Yes, they came knocking on his door saying, "I know you know -- I know you've been spending all of this money. What about us?"

O'NEILL: At 20, Smith's assets were finally frozen. He and DJ Jazzy Jeff went back to the studio hoping to recoup some cash by making more gold records. The result was 1990's warm weather anthem "Summertime."

SMITH: ... so lay back because it's summertime.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Summer, summer, summertime.

O'NEILL: The song earned them a Grammy, but the rappers never could recapture the magic or the cash. Smith says it was time for a career change and decided to take his gift for gab to a new medium.

DJ JAZZY JEFF: 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, "You know, I really want to make movies."

O'NEILL: For Smith, following that dream meant saying goodbye to Philadelphia and hello to Hollywood.

SMITH: And I was finally there to sit on my throne as the Prince of Bel-Air. O'NEILL: By 1990, Smith's rapping talent caught the eye of producers.

DEBBIE ALLEN, DIRECTOR: I remember they talked about their hot new show and this exciting new rapper.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is amazing. You certainly have grown, Will.

SMITH: Well, we all have.

O'NEILL: They needed a lead for a new TV sitcom and thought the singer would be a natural.


O'NEILL: Smith auditioned and got the role of a lifetime.

SMITH: His royal freshness. That's dope!

I get to play a character that's essentially me, you know. And it's the same thing I've been doing for the past, you know, five years with the music.

CASTRO: They came up with this except of this black kid moving into a really rich suburb. And it was, in a way, a story of his own life because this is what he was around. He was tailor-made for this role.

O'NEILL: Choreographer, Debbie Allen, directed "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" pilot.

ALLEN: He had this infectious charm and great laugh and eyes that really looked at you when you spoke to him. And I knew he had something.

SMITH: I do it all -- acting, cameras. Ssh!

O'NEILL: Smith was convincing in the world, but he was hardly a pro. Nervous about missing his cues, the budding actor memorized his co-star's lines, too.

ALLEN: So I think he came out of that rapping world, you know, knowing all the lines, you know, talking, talking, talking about, blah, blah, blah. So I mean, you know, he would do his lines and then, he would do the other people's lines.

O'NEILL: Smith's acting improved and the rapper-turned actor catapulted back into stardom.

SMITH: Trying to get everything back together, man.

O'NEILL: His love life was hot 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. SMITH: When the doctor handed me my son, you know, it was -- I've tried a number of times to put it into words. You can't -- you -- I don't know. You can't just put it into words.

O'NEILL: His doting dad would later bring him to movie premieres and interviews.

SMITH: Trey! Say hi.


O'NEILL: With a new family and a hit TV show, Smith appeared to have it all, but the actor wanted to do more.

SMITH: I think everything was going well with the television show and to just throw a curve ball; it just seemed like the perfect time to throw a curve ball.

O'NEILL: The small screen star took a gamble and launched a film career.

SMITH: Let's go! Come on! Come on!

O'NEILL: Smith landed a couple of mediocre roles early on. A homeless kid in "Where The Day Takes You..."

SMITH: Yo! It's a white man at the door.

O'NEILL: ... and a bit part in "Made In America" opposite Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Danson. Smith was barely noticed in the elite to the big screen, but his next role would separate him from the rest.

SMITH: This knit-wit Chapman who shot John Lennon said he did it because he wanted to draw the attention of the world to catch her in the rye.

O'NEILL: Smith's big movie break came with his dramatic performance of a gay con man in "Six Degrees of Separation," a serious departure from his Fresh Prince role.

ROZEN: He's making a giant leap in terms of who's he working with, the kind of films he's doing and he was doing a serious role. He wasn't just doing a comedy part.

SMITH: What is schizophrenia, but a horrifying state...

It was grueling. 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.

O'NEILL: But the former rapper would only go so far in the role of a gay hustler. The script called for on-the-mouth kiss between Smith's character and another man. Smith refused to shoot the scene.

SMITH: In all of the other aspects of my career, everything was perfect. Am I going to mess it up?

O'NEILL: The scene was re-shot to accommodate Smith. The actor later said he regretted asking for the change.

SMITH: But I think that I'm more mature now. And I wish I had another shot at it.

O'NEILL: But Smith's shot at a dramatic part still worked. His "Six Degrees" role captivated critics and audiences and set the former rapper firmly on the road to stardom.

O'NEILL: When we return, Smith gets a lot more action as a bad boy in Hollywood, but his personal life collapses.



SMITH: Start what?


SMITH: Will you help me?

O'NEILL: With the success of his role in "Six Degrees of Separation," Will Smith proved he could handle the drama, but he was ready for more action.

SMITH: Bad boys, bad boys, what you going do?

I get bored easily. So I need to have something that is going to make me work, something that I have to learn a character or something, that I have to, you know, get in shape for, something like that.

I'm buff, man.

O'NEILL: Smith made the change in his box office breakthrough, "Bad Boys," the 1995 thriller from action-adventure specialist Jerry Bruckheimer.

SMITH: Don't be alarmed. We're Negroes.

MARTIN LAWRENCE, ACTOR: No man, no, that's too much bass in your voice. That scare white folks. You got to sound like them.

SMITH: We were wondering if we can borrow some brown sugar.

ROZEN: What it had that you hadn't seen before was it had two black men as your leads. You had Will Smith and you had Martin Lawrence. And the film turned into a huge hit.

SMITH: You all get down!

O'NEILL: The buddy cop movie rocked box offices, raking in $140 million. But Smith says his triumph as an action hero on screen did not make him one at home. An intense work schedule and little family time led to the breakup of his marriage to Sheree Zampino in 1995. The two share custody of son, Trey, who is one of Smith's biggest fans.

SMITH: Oh, it was great working with Martin. We had a lot of fun out there working.

W. SMITH III: It was a great movie.


O'NEILL: Smith says his painful divorce taught him a valuable lesson, be a better family man. And in 1996, he got another shot at that role.

SMITH: Oh, this is my sweetie. This is Jada Pinkett.

O'NEILL: Smith began dating actress, Jada Pinkett. The two met years before when Pinkett auditioned for the role of Smith's girlfriend on "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air."

ALLEN: And they met and the next thing I knew, they were like locked.

O'NEILL: Pinkett didn't get the sitcom, but six years later, she did land the Fresh Prince himself.

O'NEILL: The couple married in 1997 and started a family a year later with son, Jaden and daughter, Willow.

CASTRO: I think fatherhood has just completely redefined his life.

O'NEILL: Smith's devotion to his children was apparent at the 2001 Academy Awards.

CASTRO: He got a call on his cell phone that one of his kids had a high fever and he just rushed right out of there. I mean I cannot tell you how many celebrities in that situation would have just called the nanny.

O'NEILL: As Smith's family life flourished so did his career.

ROZEN: "Bad Boys" made Will Smith into a bona fide movie star, but then "Independence Day" confirmed it.

SMITH: Welcome to Earth.

O'NEILL: The science-fiction comedy was a top-grossing movie of 1996 and sent Smith up to the Hollywood big leagues. The hits kept coming.

SMITH: K, something's peaking.

O'NEILL: A year later, he teamed up with Tommy Lee Jones in "Men In Black." Again, Smith tangled with aliens and became a box office phenomenon. The movie was the biggest moneymaker of 1997. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Here come the men in black.


O'NEILL: Smith used the success of "Men In Black" to get back behind the mike. The themed video sent the song to number one on the charts. Another hit wasn't far behind.

SMITH: Gettin' jiggy wit it.

TOURE: "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" was a great anthem party record.

SMITH: Gettin' jiggy wit it.

O'NEILL: But back on the big screen, Smith's run of blockbusters ended in 1999. The overproduced western remake "Wild Wild West..."

SMITH: If you must.

O'NEILL: ... bombed at theaters. It opened on July 4 and was expected to be another "Men In Black" sized triumph.

SMITH: When you tell this story to your grandkids, you make sure you leave this part out.

ROZEN: Smith couldn't save it. You could see him working really hard to try and make these pathetic jokes work.

O'NEILL: Despite his hard work and uncanny resemblance, Smith couldn't save the much-anticipated "Ali." He got into the best shape of his life for the heavyweight role, but the film was no box office champ. But Smith's performance impressed critics and earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

SMITH: Man, you lost your swing. We've got to go find it.

O'NEILL: And Smith's part of the mysterious caddy in "The Legend of Bagger Vance" didn't pack nearly the same punch as his earlier adventure flick roles.

ROZEN: I think you always know with Will Smith, he is one good comedy away from being back on top. And at the time that "Bagger Vance" came out, you knew that they were just polishing that script on the "Men In Black" sequel.

O'NEILL: Though most critics panned "Men In Black II," audiences went to see the sequel and made it one of the most successful movies of the summer.


O'NEILL: Clearly, Smith enjoys making movies.

SMITH: If you want to rock with me...

O'NEILL: But this Hollywood hero sometimes has other serious things on mind.

SMITH: I'm going to run for president probably in about 10 years. I'm going to be the first black president of the United States.

CASTRO: I would not be surprised if he ran for office one day.

DJ JAZZY JEFF: If he tells you that he wants to be an astronaut, you may laugh, but you can never count him out.

O'NEILL: The rapper turned TV actor turned movie star still strives for perfection as he continues to reinvent himself.

SMITH: Even at number one, I still feel an urge to work and try to make it better.


ZAHN: Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett, may soon be the subject of a new television reality show, well, a semi-reality show at least. The Smiths are reportedly working on a new family comedy based on their own high profile, Hollywood lives.

That is it for this edition of PEOPLE IN THE NEWS. I'm Paula Zahn. Thanks so much for being with us.


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