As Will grows older, 'Fresh Prince' looks for change that won't sidetrack success


It's run-through day for the season's final episode of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" (scheduled to air May 10). In front of the empty bleachers, where the live audience sits during taping, the cast moves up and down the line of sets from kitchen to sitting JTC room to schoolroom and back, as the will-Will-won't-Will-graduate story line unfolds.

In the NBC sitcom, Will is just 18, but in reality Will Smith is 23 now and a parent -- Will Smith III was born at the end of last year to Mr. Smith and his wife, Sheree. The new dad's build is still boyish, and his face, with his seductive almond eyes offset by his little jug-handle ears, has the serene, confident innocence of a child who's escaped getting caught with his hand in the candy jar. However, when the show (this season No. 1 among black audiences and among the Top 10 overall) returns next season, it's clearly time to take some adult steps.

"The most important thing for me, when I got into this business, was to always try to stay on the edge. It is really, really difficult with television to be anywhere near the edge, especially Monday night at 8 o'clock. But this year we did do the drug show, and that was our highest-rated episode," Mr. Smith says, referring to the "Just Say Yo" episode that aired in February and placed the show in the national A. C. Nielsen ratings slot No. 9.

In that school prom-night sequence, Will's sitcom cousin, Carlton, accidentally took some speed he found in Will's locker; ultimately, a tearful Will admitted his error.

Mr. Smith had wanted to do that episode last season but says it wasn't until midway through this season, the show's third, that the network "loosened up" and allowed it. He's hoping the bolder trend will continue.

Mr. Smith describes himself as "a child of the Tuesday night ABC sitcoms" -- the era of hits that included "Happy Days," "Laverne and Shirley," "Three's Company," "Taxi" and "Soap" -- and remembers getting into trouble for trying to stay up late to watch the latter two.

He cites "Happy Days," which continued successfully even as its high schoolers graduated and went on to college, as an example of how a sitcom can burst its walls, and why the network shouldn't be worried about "kids leaving the house" and "the set-changing" involved.

Mr. Smith also hopes that the changing mood of the country, a shift in collective consciousness, will have a positive impact on television. His comments and thoughts on the subject sound clear echoes of the need-for-a-change themes of the Clinton administration.

He's thinking about changing his music, too. Mr. Smith has been half of the duo D.J. Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince with Jeff Townes since 1981. Their Grammy-winning raps have included "He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper" and "Summertime," but he says now that they are considering expanding into a group. Work on his next album must wait, though, because, with the sitcom season fully taped, he's now at work on the movie "Six Degrees of Separation," in which he stars as an impostor who tricks New York society into believing he's the son of a famous man.

"There are about 40 screaming girls in San Francisco I have to thank for this role," he says, grinning. The film's producers had been on the set of "Made in America," the coming Whoopi Goldberg/Ted Danson romantic comedy about the consequences of a sperm donorship, in which Mr. Smith has a small role as the boyfriend of Ms. Goldberg's daughter, played by Nia Long. Sustained screaming from fans as Mr. Smith stepped out into the street did not go unnoticed.

Mr. Smith finds no problem in the merging of his true self with that of Will of "The Fresh Prince." "I think it is an asset that the audience relates the character to reality. When I say a line, the audience doesn't feel I'm acting. What that allows me as an artist is to more effectively carry my audience wherever I want them to go.

"When I had that dramatic emotional scene at the end of the drug show, they were there 100 percent with me. And I was able to take them emotionally to the place I wanted to without it being preachy," Mr. Smith says.

Fatherhood has boosted his sense of responsibility. "When the doctor handed me my son, it was this big explosion. Suddenly I felt a huge yoke of responsibility. I have to wear my seat belt now and things like that -- work out, stay healthy, eat right -- because it's not just for me anymore," says Mr. Smith.

Back on the set, in "The Fresh Prince" Will world, however, Mr. Smith is acting irreverent as usual, as he is forced to join a music lesson with young kids in order to make up enough classes to graduate. "It ain't like I have a future in music or nothin', " he jokes, suggesting they play Vivaldi backward, then harmonizing with the children in a James Brown-style version of "You Are My Sunshine."

That Will Smith, in or out of character, has the talent to make standard sitcom humor fresh is no surprise. Just look at the blooper tags to each week's show. Whichever Will, it's a cute act.

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