Everyone loves Will Smith. Even the cynical show business journalists who (secretly) wish him to fail, to see him somehow trip up, succumb to temptation, develop a drink problem or a drug habit. Anything. Anything but the relentless success and supercharged charisma that has the whole world eating out of his hand.
It was on display again last week. Hosting a London press conference before the opening of his latest blockbuster, I, Robot, Smith looked briefly annoyed with the lackluster applause offered by assembled British hacks. "Come on, people," he cried. Soon he had the press pack acting like any other crowd of celebrity-stunned well-wishers, clapping and happily whistling at their hero. You see, everyone does love Will Smith.
Smith is uniquely powerful among the current crop of Hollywood stars. He is incredibly bankable. His brand of big budget action films gross hundreds of millions of dollars. Even when they are bad. Smith has become, at the age of just 35, an American institution. In the US the July 4 holiday is now dubbed "Big Willie Weekend" for the annual Smith movie that will have crowds flocking to the multiplex. He is America's favorite film star.
But Smith is also black. It seems an obvious point, but its importance cannot be underestimated. The lines of ethnicity and skin color are still sharply drawn across America and that is reflected in the mirror of Hollywood. Black actors often get paid less than white counterparts. Their roles are more narrowly defined. They are often black first, actors second.
But for Smith, none of that matters. His success is color-blind and for the privilege he is paid US$20 million a movie. Audiences love him in equal measure, whether they are men or women, black or white.
DoB: Sept. 25, 1968, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Family: Married to Jada Pinkett Smith (three children, one from his previous marriage to Sheree Zampino)
Films: I, Robot, Men in Black (one and two), Wild, Wild West, Independence Day, Bad Boys (among others).
In I, Robot, his love interest is a white actress. Even now pairing a black man and a white woman is rare in Hollywood. But for Smith it hardly rated a mention. Smart, rich, polite and endlessly charming, Smith is the black man that white America wishes its daughter brought home to meet the family. He is the ultimate in cross-over appeal. The one man in America for whom race does not matter.
Willard Christopher Smith Jr was born in 1968 in West Philadelphia to a middle-class home in a nice neighborhood. It was a time of race riots in America. It was the year of the Poor People's March on Washington and Martin Luther King was killed. But for anyone looking for a rags to riches story, or a rise from the ghetto, then Smith is going to disappoint.
The Smiths were not a rich family. They were comfortable. Willard Smith Sr was a former air force pilot who now had his own refrigerator business. His mother, Caroline, worked for the Philadelphia school board. It was a strict household (his father's stint in the military meant his four children faced a disciplined home regime).
It was also a racially mixed neighborhood. As Smith later said: "I grew up in a Baptist household, went to a Catholic school, lived in a predominately Jewish neighborhood and hung with the Muslim kids."
Smith went to good local schools (one mostly white and then one all black) and his parents drummed the value of education into him. It almost worked. On graduation Smith earned the offer of a place at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He turned it down to pursue what had by then become a promising music career (his geeky past survives, however, in an abiding love of chess and mathematics).