One steamy night in July, Will Smith, a 21-year-old rapper out of West Philadelphia, put on a sweatsuit and drove to Los Angeles' Century Plaza Hotel for a command performance: an NBC press party at which the network's stars were expected to smile, shake hands all around, and drum up publicity for their new series and movies. But when Smith arrived, he quickly and politely moved past the cordon of celebrities, and found a spot in a secluded corner behind a high hedge, where he sat for most of the evening, sleepily eyeing a pickup basketball game near the pool and eating dinner. NBC didn't mind allowing its star-in-the-making one more night in the shadows. If the network has its way, Will Smith is going to land in the limelight and make NBC hundreds of millions of dollars.
Smith is the owner of several platinum records, a deferred scholarship to MIT, and a gold-and-diamond herringbone chain that announces his public identity: the Fresh Prince. Under this alias, Smith fronts one of the world's most popular rap duos, and he's also the main attraction on the new hip-hop- meets-mainstream comedy The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which NBC hopes will achieve Cosby-level success. With its potential to draw in young, old, black, and white viewers, Fresh Prince is considered vital to NBC's prime-time lineup. The network has accordingly made Smith's days long and public, and, except for the supper behind the hedge, he has raced relentlessly through NBC's paces. At one point in the preseason festivities, he was called to a microphone to pay tribute in song to network chairman Brandon Tartikoff, and if Smith felt awkward, he didn't show it. ''Carol Burnett, she was right in swing/And you hit it on the head with that show called Wings,'' he chanted gamely to the man he called ''M.C. B.T.''