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.”
”B.T.” was clearly pleased. Tartikoff has made no secret of his belief that Smith represents the network’s best hope for an instant hit since The Golden Girls made its debut in 1985. In NBC’s publicity barrage, Smith has been compared to Michael J. Fox, Eddie Murphy, and Oprah Winfrey, and the network has rushed the young musician through an unusually intense whirlwind of photo shoots, interviews, press sessions, promotions, and rehearsals. As he starts work on the series and a new rap album, Smith is taking it all calmly. ”I’ll work on the show from nine to five and go into the studio from six to midnight for as long as I can do it,” he says.
If Smith accepts the pace, he seems slightly nervous about the hype. ”People are expecting a lot, and I’ve never done any acting, so I don’t want to be compared to anyone,” he says in a soft voice. ”I have a natural feel, but let me practice first so I can be proud of what I do. This is really new for me. I had to learn not to look at the camera. In videos, that’s what you do.”
Doing that, in fact, was how he came to TV. It was Smith’s in-your-face, eyeballs-to-the-lens performances in the comical videos for ”Parents Just Don’t Understand” and ”I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson” that first attracted TV producers. Smith and his partner, 24-year-old Jeff Townes (who, as D.J. Jazzy Jeff, provides music for Smith’s lyrics), have worked together since Smith was a student at Philadelphia’s Overbrook High. Their clowning, flavored with suburban teenage complaints and pop-culture pokes at everything from The Brady Bunch to Freddy Krueger, first yielded a hit in 1986, when ”Girls Ain’t Nothin’ but Trouble” became a European sensation. They weren’t exactly ready. ”We landed in England and thought, ‘Damn, what is this? What are they screaming for?”’
Smith and Townes expanded that success with the albums He’s the D.J., I’m the Rapper (1987) and And in This Corner… (1989). In music videos, their cartoonish songs became mini-movies displaying Smith’s instinctive comic grace. But, though Smith was eager to try acting, he fled when producers first came knocking. He didn’t show up for an audition for The Cosby Show last year. An offer from A Different World followed and on the day of his tryout, Smith was again absent. ”I realized later,” he says, ”how scared I was to take that step.”
Smith eventually decided he was ”ready to take a shot.” At The Arsenio Hall Show, he met Benny Medina, head of black music at Warner Bros. Records, who approached him with an idea for a show loosely based on Medina’s life. It would be about a black teenager, steeped in East Coast hip-hop culture, who moves in with relatives in Beverly Hills. Smith signed up within days, and music impresario Quincy Jones, whose credits range from his own recent album, Back on the Block, to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, agreed to be co-executive producer.
Weeks later, Jones assembled NBC executives to assess the acting skills of his new star, whose experience consisted of a brief role in a children’s special. Between concert performances, Smith flew to L.A, went to Jones’ Bel-Air home, disappeared into a bedroom to rehearse, came out and performed two scenes from an unused script written for musician Morris Day of the Time. NBC approved the series almost instantly.
A few days after NBC’s press party, Smith, publicist in tow, shows up for a breakfast, looking more relaxed and energetic. Shooting on the second episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air will start in less than a week, and Smith has been reviewing his work in the pilot with a critical eye. ”There were things I could have done better,” he says, and he’s especially down on his delivery of a one-liner to the pompous family butler. ”I missed the rhythm. I didn’t quite hit the laugh.”
Smith is just one of many cooks involved in The Fresh Prince, and they all have strong ideas about how the show should work. Tartikoff’s interest in the pilot was so personal that he tiptoed down to the soundstage to offer sotto voce advice during shooting. And to shape the show’s plots, Jones and Medina have hired writer-producers Andy and Susan Borowitz, white, married Harvard graduates whose credits include Family Ties and Day by Day and who joke that ”most of the show’s going to be drawn from our vast black experience.” Not least, there’s Smith himself, who has strong ideas about his role and wants room to invent his character.
”We’re trying to take the rap perspective, which is unique and surreal, and build a sitcom around it rather than make him just the 19th jive-ass teen on TV,” Andy Borowitz says. Part of that process involves letting Smith improvise, within limits. ”He can do as much as he wants for the first three days,” Borowitz says. ”Some of his ideas are great, and by Wednesday night we put a lot of them in the script. But then, he’s got to stick to it. It’s not like Robin Williams on Mork and Mindy, when the writers never knew what would come out of his mouth during taping.” Adds Susan Borowitz, ”Will gives the impression of spontaneity, but you’re really seeing an extremely disciplined guy who is very committed to acting. And he’s getting better every week.”
”You should see him waiting to go on,” Andy says. ”He looks like a kid waiting to be bar mitzvahed. He’s that serious.”
Smith’s rapper-next-door image — the handsome, bright kid who sings about nothing more threatening than taking the family car without asking Dad — makes him the perfect vessel to carry rap to middle America. His childhood was suburban rather than ”street,” and in school, he combined good grades with enough attitude to earn his nickname. (Dubbed ”Prince” by a teacher ”who thought I was a royal a–,” he tacked on ”Fresh” himself.) Even his family squabbles would make a parent proud: One of his toughest moments came when he told his mother he was turning down an engineering program at MIT to pursue music. But while he acknowledges his squeaky-clean image, he doesn’t want the series to turn its characters into new, idealized clichés. ”The show’s about difference more than conflict,” he says. ”I don’t know how much freedom I’ll have, but there are a lot of issues I’ll want to touch on. For instance, I’m sure my character likes the 2 Live Crew, so maybe there’ll be an episode where his uncle doesn’t want it in the house.
”I think on this show a large portion of black America is being represented, which is very important to me. You know, if you’re 5 or 6 years old and all you watch is Sanford and Son or Good Times, that’s all that’s real to you. Then, something like Cosby comes on and some people think, that’s impossible — no way would a black doctor marry a black lawyer. I’m happy to have the opportunity to turn a little more of that around.”
Before that happens, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air has to become a hit, but all predictions are that it will. With the help of a couple of gimmicks — among them an early guest appearance by D.J. Jazzy Jeff — NBC hopes to attract 30 percent of the viewing audience, which would land the show in the top 10; ad agencies are predicting a solid share of about 23 percent. Even that should be enough to beat the time-slot competition, CBS’ Uncle Buck, ABC’s MacGyver, and Fox’s Monday-night movie. In any case, Smith knows he has hard work ahead. ”I’ll eat right and take my vitamins,” he says. ”I don’t party, and I only have one girlfriend (Tanya Moore, a wardrobe assistant who will buy his clothes).”
He’s also getting ready for fame. As he finishes breakfast, a middle-aged woman approaches, transfixed by his medallion.
”Oh my God,” she murmurs. ”You’re the Fresh Prince. The Fresh Prince. It’s so great that you’re the Fresh Prince.”
”Thank you,” says Smith, smiling, not sure how to respond.
”You’re going to have to get used to a lot more of that,” cautions his publicist.
”Yeah, really,” says Smith, looking pleased but flustered. ”At least, that’s what I hear.”