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The Origin Story of Will Smith, King of Fourth of July

In the mid-1990s, the sitcom star and hip-hop lightweight was simply the Fresh Prince. But with ‘Independence Day,’ he remade himself as one of the all-time best summer action heroes.

Let’s face it: There is probably not going to be a summer movie season this year. But all is not lost. Each Friday for the next few months, we’ll be presenting “The Ultimate Summer Movie Guide,” honoring the greatest, goofiest and most memorable aspects of blockbuster seasons gone by. Maybe it will be a celebration of an iconic film or actor. Perhaps it will be a salute to Marty McFly’s DeLorean. Or, like today, it will be a look back at the moment that Will Smith stopped being thought of as the Fresh Prince.

Will Smith was the first to admit that when he started on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, his hit NBC sitcom and introduction to Hollywood, he was terrible. “I think, ‘Wow, I sucked,’” he said with a laugh back in 1996 when the show was nearing its end. “I don’t know how Quincy Jones thought that I could do a television show. I watch those first couple episodes … I was like, ‘Aaaagh, turn it off!’”

But Jones, one of Fresh Prince’s executive producers, had seen something in the young man, who in the late 1980s was a Grammy-winning sensation as the rapping half of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, the duo behind big, harmless hits like “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” But Smith was in trouble with the government when their follow-up album, And in This Corner…, stiffed — “I had spent all my money and I didn’t forget but I didn’t pay the IRS,” he recalled — which led to him meeting Jones, who insisted they build a show around his genial, telegenic persona. Smith had never acted before, but what the hell, he needed the money. And he’d always wanted to be a movie star.

That background is important to remember — Will Smith was not always Will Smith. At the start of his career, he was merely That Rap Guy or That Sitcom Guy. In both guises, he was the Fresh Prince, the likable, lightweight comic presence. But for a while after, he morphed into Hollywood’s biggest and coolest star. He was the King of the Fourth of July. And it all happened in the span of a few weeks in the summer of 1996.

Before that summer, Smith had done some movies while shooting Fresh Prince — two in particular that set him on the path to being cast in a ridiculous, crowd-pleasing disaster movie about some nasty aliens who come to take over Earth. In 1993, he’d tried a change-of-pace role as Paul, a smooth-talking con man, in the big-screen adaptation of Six Degrees of Separation, which showed a more mature, sophisticated side than he conveyed in his sitcom. (His excellent performance wasn’t without controversy, though: Smith refused to kiss co-star Anthony Michael Hall on camera, even though Paul is gay, which drew criticism from Ian McKellen, another member of the Six Degrees ensemble.) But the bigger deal commercially was 1995’s Bad Boys, where Smith played Mike, a tough-talking, ladies-man cop in an R-rated Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer action extravaganza. If Six Degrees proved he could act, Bad Boys proved he could carry a movie — albeit one in which he was billed under Martin Lawrence, who was actually the bigger star at the time.

In May 1996, with Fresh Prince winding down after six seasons, Smith had his sights set on a film career. Around the show’s finale, Smith, who was 27, sat down with the L.A. Times to take stock of how much he’d grown since being the inexperienced young actor who kept missing his marks and nervously mouthing his co-stars’ lines so he wouldn’t forget when it was his turn to speak. That seemed like a long time ago to him now. “TV is a good workout facility, where you get to work on your timing and other paces,” he said, “but I think I’ve had enough time in the gym. Now I’m ready for the coach to put me in the game … motion pictures.”

He had reason to be cocky: He knew what movie he had coming out in about a month.

In the mid-1990s, director Roland Emmerich and writer/producer Dean Devlin were an up-and-coming creative team — one from Germany, the other from New York — who shared a love for science fiction. With Universal Soldier and Stargate, they’d managed to turn relatively low budgets and cheesy storylines into profitable B-movies. But their next idea was a lot more ambitious: Independence Day, which was an amped-up version of the old War of the Worlds, with everyone from burned-out alcoholics to wacky scientists to the American president teaming up to defeat killer extraterrestrials.

As part of their ensemble, Emmerich and Devlin were looking for someone to play Steven Hiller, a wisecracking, heroic fighter pilot who could rattle off punchlines but also have some dramatic heft. There were a lot of reasons, at that time in Hollywood, why Will Smith wouldn’t be the obvious choice for that part — and, unfortunately, one of them was his skin color.

“Will Smith’s role was not written as Black; his ethnicity wasn’t mentioned, so the studio assumed we wanted to hire a white guy,” Emmerich said in 2016. “But we set our sights on Will very early. There is no one more American than Will Smith. The studio had a problem with it as he was mainly known for [a] sitcom, but they came round to it.”

The producers had been interested in Smith specifically because of Six Degrees. “We were so blown away by what he did in [that movie],” said Emmerich, later adding, “He can be very serious and dramatic in a part, but at the same time, in the switch of a second, very funny, which is what heroes are made of.” Still, there was no guarantee any of this would work. Emmerich and Devlin had never made a film on this scale — let alone one set to open around the Fourth of July, one of Hollywood’s biggest weekends — although, as an Entertainment Tonight segment from the time suggested, Smith’s film stardom was seen as a near certainty.

This transition to movie star didn’t happen in a vacuum — indeed, it was part of an overall maturation for Smith. On TV and in his earlier hip-hop career, he’d projected an amiable, big-kid energy — mischievously playing the lovable prankster who drove the adults around him crazy — but in his real life, he was a dad going through a divorce with his first wife, Sheree Zampino, and beginning a relationship with Jada Pinkett, who’d he marry in 1997. “My everyday life is now drastically different from that of the Fresh Prince,” Smith said soon after Independence Day’s release. “It’s become increasingly difficult to find that guy inside me.”

As Vogue’s Julia Felsenthal has pointed out, the irony of Smith’s Hollywood coronation is that Emmerich had never considered his action-disaster spectacle to be star-driven. “One of the points we made was that we didn’t want this to be a movie-star movie,” the filmmaker said in 1996. “The movie was the star. We didn’t need a movie star to make it more expensive. And it would complicate the marketing.” And when crowds went in droves to see Independence Day, which premiered on July 3, 1996, the Will Smith they encountered wasn’t radically different than the one on Fresh Prince. On paper, Steven Hiller was just another smartass with swagger, but Smith seemed more poised and grownup than the sitcom kid audiences knew. And unlike Smith’s boisterous Bad Boys character, Hiller didn’t come across as a self-conscious asshole — Independence Day was the first time Smith seemed fully comfortable on the big screen, imbuing Hiller with effortless charm and buoyancy. Smith relaxed, and so we did, too. Suddenly, he looked like a movie star, the thing he was always meant to be.

In hindsight, it seems so obvious that it would happen, but you’ll just have to believe me that, back then, it was a lightbulb moment watching Smith deck that alien and bellow, “Welcome to Earth!” How had we not seen it before? Of course this guy was destined for big things. But, really, it had been there all along. Whether on “Parents Just Don’t Understand” or Fresh Prince, Smith exuded an electric likability. He made being an entertainer seem, legitimately, like the most fun job in the world. “I love people, you know?” Smith told me back in 2015. “I love being famous. I love how easy it is to make somebody smile. I have fun in crowds — I’m built emotionally for this life.” That never seemed truer than in Independence Day.

The movie was the biggest hit of the year, and almost overnight, it changed how Smith was perceived. Soon, he was on the cover of People, and (perhaps more importantly to Smith) people stopped associating him with his TV and rap personas. In a 2007 interview, he was asked when the last time was that anybody called him Fresh Prince, and Smith laughed. But then he said:

“On July 6, 1996, [being called] ‘Fresh Prince’ stopped. … [T]hat Monday after Independence Day [opened] was the first time that anyone called me Mr. Smith. I was like, ‘What the hell?’ All through The Fresh Prince, all through the music, it was ‘Fresh Prince, Fresh Prince.’ And that morning, when the box office numbers came out, after Independence Day, it was ‘Good morning, Mr. Smith.’ It was so bizarre. I specifically remember that morning is when people started calling me Mr. Smith.”

Even Smith’s dad, who owned a refrigeration firm and had instilled in his son the importance of hard work, couldn’t quite believe what his boy had accomplished:

And so began our brief, wonderful association between the Fourth of July and Will Smith. The following year, he brought more fireworks with Men in Black, an even better blockbuster, which was set to square off against Titanic over the Independence Day weekend before James Cameron had to delay his film because of the complicated special effects. (“That’s my weekend, I own that,” Smith joked in early 1997 when the news got out that Titanic was abandoning its Fourth of July release.) Rocking a suit and shades, Smith was suave as Agent J, paired perfectly with Tommy Lee Jones’ grumpy veteran agent. J was a welcome wrinkle on Independence Day’s Hiller — funny, sharp, stylish, a ton of fun to be around — and the film cemented him as our favorite summer attraction.

Clearly, that unofficial title of King of Fourth of July meant something to Smith, too, because he worked hard to maintain it — to his detriment. The legendarily disastrous Wild Wild West opened in late June 1999 and failed to replicate Independence Day and Men in Black’s phenomenal success. Smith recovered some of his mojo with his 2002 Independence Day entry, Men in Black II, which made a lot of money but was terrible. He followed that up with mid-July releases — 2003’s Bad Boys II and 2004’s I, Robot — but he wouldn’t land on the Fourth of July again until 2008 with Hancock, a movie that seemed designed in a lab specifically to be a surefire hit. And while it certainly was, the bland superhero film seemed tame in a summer that saw the launch of Iron Man and The Dark Knight, the twin films that signaled the dawn of comic-book cinema’s stranglehold on multiplexes. Suddenly, a Will Smith movie just didn’t mean as much as it used to.

We still have blockbusters on the Fourth of July — well, not this year, obviously — but they haven’t been quite as special simply because Smith isn’t in them anymore. As proof, look no further than Independence Day weekend of 2016, when Independence Day: Resurgence opened and bombed. Initially, Smith was supposed to reprise the role that made him a movie star, but he opted out, deciding to do Suicide Squad instead. Smith made it sound like a scheduling conflict, but the rumor was always that the producers couldn’t afford his high asking price. The first film hadn’t wanted big names because the movie was the star — if the second film was going to work, though, it desperately needed Smith, who was a bigger draw than any intergalactic being.

“I should have stopped making [Resurgence] because we had a much better script [when Smith was involved], then I had to, really fast, cobble another script together,” Emmerich admitted last year. But even if Smith had done a second go-round of UFO extermination, it wouldn’t have been the same. In the decades since the first Independence Day, Smith has evolved into a deeper, more interesting actor — especially in dramas like Ali — and the quiksilver exuberance of his youth has inevitably given way to a more complacent middle age. Now, he’s the dude doing dad jokes in Aladdin.

And that guy can’t be the King of Fourth of July.