In Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, the apparent last man on Earth is described as "born of English-German stock" with bright blue eyes. When the latest movie version of the 1954 sci-fi thriller opened last weekend, Matheson's hero was played by the notably not English-German Will Smith.
It wasn't always destined to be that way. Over the course of I Am Legend's 13 years of development, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise and Michael Douglas were all at one point slated to star. But Smith may be the most bankable of the bunch.
"He's the youngest, biggest star in the world," says Todd Black, who produced Smith's The Pursuit of Happyness. "Globally, he's more popular than Leo [DiCaprio] or Brad Pitt."
At a time when the world is growing more multicultural by the minute, movie studios cling to the notion that black performers cannot sell as many overseas movie tickets as their white counterparts. But Smith is shattering that perception.
"It doesn't matter what the genre, and it doesn't matter what date the movie opens - people just want to see him," says Amy Pascal, whose Sony Pictures released Smith's hits Hitch, Men in Black and Bad Boys.
Dawn Taubin, the marketing chief at Warner Bros., which released I Am Legend, says that "you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody with this kind of appeal. He transcends race, gender and age."
This weekend, box-office results across the country cemented Smith's status as one of Hollywood's biggest draws. Legend topped expectations and set a December opening-weekend record by taking in an estimated $76.5 million in North American ticket sales, Warner Bros. said this week.
The mark had been held by The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the trilogy finale that opened to $72.6 million in 2003.
Audience tracking surveys indicate that I Am Legend is generating the level of moviegoer interest normally associated with a summer blockbuster. Competing studios say they are astonished not only by the enthusiasm, but also by the breadth of the film's appeal, most of which they attribute to Smith. I Am Legend is showing strong interest from men and women, young and old - in Hollywood jargon, across all four quadrants.
As domestic revenues rarely cover a film's production and marketing costs, the movie industry relies on international sales for profits. But certain kinds of films - especially those featuring black actors - don't always travel well, particularly in Asia. When Warner Bros. released some of its Lethal Weapon movies overseas, the likeness of Danny Glover was nowhere to be seen on the movie posters.
But just as Smith's character Robert Neville lays waste to vampire zombies in I Am Legend, Smith is killing off that way of thinking. Two years ago, the actor's romantic comedy Hitch sold $177.8 million in tickets domestically, but an even more impressive $189 million outside North America. Last year's The Pursuit of Happyness grossed $162.6 million in the United States and $141.5 million internationally. I, Robot and Men in Black II sold far more tickets overseas than they did in the U.S.
Smith is aware of the history he's making and has conscientiously worked to establish himself around the world. To support I Am Legend, Smith has traveled to Japan and Hong Kong and will soon head to Madrid, Spain; Paris; London; Berlin; Rome; Mexico City; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Although many stars run for their trailers as soon as cameras stop rolling, Smith seems to revel in the public eye.
His on-set demeanor provides a primer in model movie-star behavior and recalls an earlier era when stars would court their fans. During recent filming for Sony's postmodern superhero thriller Hancock in Los Angeles, spectators lined up five-deep along the sidewalks. Between takes, Smith signed scores of autographs, shook hands and mugged for video cameras to the delight of the screaming hordes.
On the Hancock set, Smith said, "If I say, 'I'm black, so I can never be the biggest movie star in the world, a black person could never be the biggest movie star in the world,' I wouldn't try to be the biggest movie star in the world. I'd be creating a barrier for myself. It rarely crosses my mind - purposely."
Smith's attitude toward fans and stardom sets him apart, observers say.
"He is just different from everybody," Pascal says. "He just understands his job. When you decide to be that movie star, you are that movie star; you are that movie star 24 hours a day. He takes nothing for granted."
John Horn and Chris Lee write for the Los Angeles Times.