Suffering constant irritants like last summer’s alien invasion, planet Earth seemed to be having a shortage of luck in 1996. No doubt because Will Smith, 28, hogged it all. Put aside that he seems to have been born knowing how to rap, act, and make people laugh. This year he proved he also has an innate sense of what it takes to be a movie star. With a casual puff of a cigar, a commitment to ”whup E.T.’s ass,” and a swift right hook, Smith distinguished himself among the ensemble cast of Independence Day, the year’s highest-grossing movie, and went from being famous to being famous. ”I was recognized from TV, but this is way beyond that,” says the actor.
What really sets Smith apart, though, is that he has arrived bearing a uniquely varied resume. First, he was the rapper Fresh Prince, who, along with his partner, DJ Jazzy Jeff (Townes), enjoyed three platinum albums and two Grammys. Then, in 1990, he slid his way onto television as a street-smart kid on the right side of the tracks in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. When the show ended its run this year after six seasons, Smith might have gone the way of that red-haired guy from NYPD Blue. But he’d already drawn good reviews as a gay con man in the 1993 drama Six Degrees of Separation and lured large audiences as a cop alongside Martin Lawrence in 1995’s action comedy Bad Boys.
With Independence Day, Smith showed those films weren’t flukes. Now, ”there’s a whole difference in the way people greet me,” he says. ”With TV, I guess people feel like they invite you into their homes. The day before Independence Day opened, people on the street were like, ‘Will, what’s up?’ The day after, it was, ‘Hey, Mr. Smith. How are you?’ There’s a whole different level of respect.” (Fans may have also recognized his girlfriend, Jada Pinkett, who enjoyed her own rise with The Nutty Professor and Set It Off.)
All that heat feels a little alien to the smooth-talking Smith. He’s finished filming next summer’s Men In Black, a sci-fi comedy in which he costars with Tommy Lee Jones and — surprise — some more aliens, and is trying to stay grounded on and off screen. ”Right now, I’m just getting my golf stroke together,” he says. And at the moment, he seems to have no discernible handicap.