New prince of Hollywood Celebrity: Personable Will Smith, first a rapper, then a sitcom mainstay, now, with 'Independence Day,' looks like a shoo-in for major stardom in movies.


NEW YORK -- Move over Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, Samuel L. Jackson and Eddie Murphy. "Independence Day" is the movie that will make Will Smith the new black movie box-office hero.

In "Independence Day," Smith plays Marine Capt. Steve Hiller, a wise-cracking fighter pilot who battles a worldwide alien invasion.

Recently in an interview to promote "Independence Day," which opened last week, Smith attributed the publicity buildup surrounding himself to the scope of the $70 million-budgeted science-fiction movie.

" 'Independence Day' is one of those projects that comes along once in a career," said the tall and personable Smith. "It has everything. You laugh. You cry. It has action. It's just an incredible ensemble cast."

Directed by Roland Emmerich from a script he co-wrote with 1994 sci-fi hit "Stargate" partner Dean Devlin, "Independence Day" is a throwback to 1970s disaster films ("The Poseidon Adventure," "Airport") with a large cast of stars: Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Margaret Colin, Randy Quaid, Robert Loggia, Vivica Fox, Harry Connick Jr., Brent Spiner and Harvey Fierstein.

With "Independence Day" providing the fireworks, Smith's career is taking off like a skyrocket.

Smith is filming the Steven Spielberg-produced "Men in Black," opposite Tommy Lee Jones and directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Smith, named the Favorite Male Newcomer at the 1996 Blockbuster Awards, will be back before the cameras for "Bad Boys 2."

Smith, a native of the Philadelphia area, starred in the $100 million-plus grossing "Bad Boys" (1995), "Six Degrees of Separation" (1993), "Made in America" (1993) and "Where the Day Takes You" (1992).

He had the title role on NBC's "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air," which concluded its sixth and final season this spring. He started out as one half of the Grammy-winning rap duo, D. J. Jazzy Jeff (Jeff Townes) and the Fresh Prince.

Industry predictions were that "Independence Day," a 20th Century Fox release, would top $60 million for the holiday weekend. Smith, 27, was asked whether he feels responsibility as a black actor in the leading role of the summer's most anticipated action movie.

"Actually, I think that I'm probably the first black guy who ever saved the world," Smith said, laughing.

"I feel that I'm talented and I feel like there are a lot of people who are talented and Hollywood recognizes green, you know? If you can put [people] in the seats, they'll put you in the movies."

Smith said he looked to other action heroes, including Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford, in portraying his pivotal "Independence Day" role:

"The two actors who really showed me how to play this character were Bruce Willis, first of all, because he plays heroes who don't want to be heroes and Harrison Ford kind of plays the character that way. I want to be the guy who does heroic things out of necessity, not out of enjoyment for it."

Smith began rapping in high school. During his senior year, after a Jive Records representative heard him, the company released his first record, "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble," billed as D. J. Jazzy Jeff.

The duo received a Grammy for best rap performance for "Parents Just Don't Understand," a hit from their second disc, "He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper." They also received a Grammy for the single, "Summertime," from their fourth album, "Homebase," released in 1991.

The transition for Smith from rap to TV movies has been easy. He credits the values his father instilled in him:

"What my father always made very clear to me is just do one thing well, just make sure you can focus. If you do one thing well, everything else will come from that. I started off rapping, and I did it as a hobby.

"And that's when you really get good at something. When you enjoy what you do, you're gonna get good at it. And I just really concentrated on it and I focused on it and the television show came from that and I worked really hard. . . ."

With the opening of "Independence Day," along with his coming movies, Smith has no definite plans to revive his music career. But he's considering it.

"I have a studio in my house, and I'm messing around with the music a little bit. Rap has kind of changed since I was doing it. So, I think I'll kind of reposition myself and see where the break or the opening is for family-type rap music."

Smith said if there is a downside to fame it has to do with the media. "I guess the most difficult thing about starting to be more popular is the press sometimes doesn't necessarily have all the facts before they write it down. Your personal life is kind of stolen, you know?

"With 'Independence Day,' I'm really excited about that [exposure], but on the other hand, I'll be less able to walk down the street without people [saying,] 'Hey that's Willie from Philly!' "

Regardless, Smith expects to maintain his equilibrium. "I enjoy life. I enjoy people. I enjoy having fun. I was never really insecure to have to validate myself through my work. If I had a record that was a hit, that was great. If it wasn't a hit, I didn't need that. "

Pub Date: 7/08/96

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