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The power of Will Smith

The actor’s journey from Fresh Prince to Hollywood royalty

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Hard to imagine, but there was a time when Will Smith wasn’t a sure thing. ”I could not get Columbia to hire him,” Jerry Bruckheimer recalls about casting 1995’s Bad Boys. ”They had offers to every other actor, but no one was available. When I said I wanted Will, they looked at me like I was an alien.”

As the song goes, isn’t it ironic? On July 2, once-reluctant Columbia will premiere the alien-infested Men in Black, starring Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. And if, as expected, MIB breaks out at the box office, Smith will chalk up his third straight moneymaker (Boys made $66 million; last summer’s Independence Day grossed $306 million). Not to mention his second extraterrestrial romp. ”I’ve done so many alien movies that I’m going to team with Sigourney Weaver to do the next Alien,” jokes Smith. ”Except the poster will read ‘Will Smith IS the alien.”’

Certainly his career trajectory has been otherworldly. Although he has only six features under his belt, Smith has become Hollywood’s newest savior: an A-list star with crossover youth appeal. ”He reminds me of John Travolta,” says MIB director Barry Sonnenfeld, ”because they both have that movie-star thing going on.” Factor in versatility — he’s morphed from Grammy-winning rap artist to long-running TV star to big-screen idol — and you’ve got the makings of an emerging Hollywood player. Says ID producer and cowriter Dean Devlin: ”If Will Smith says he wants to be President, get ready to vote.”

What might be most remarkable about Smith’s rise is that it comes in the face of Hollywood’s traditional resistance to black stars, a reality brought home by the criticism of the Oscars in ’96. Smith, says casting director Billy Hopkins, ”is a crossover in a white man’s world.” But is it because he’s more Colin Powell than Jesse Jackson? As Smith recently told a group of white reporters: ”You’re not afraid of me. I’m fun for everybody.” Whether his success will engender real changes in industry attitudes remains to be seen. But there are short-term benefits. ”He won’t be able to do every movie,” explains Hopkins. ”But producers will think, ‘We’ll find the next Will Smith.’ So at least a few other black actors will get a shot.”

There are other indicators of Smith’s crossover success. One is money: After earning a reported $5 million for MIB, he now commands $12 million to $15 million per film. Secondly, he has the clout to get roles conceived for white actors. Reportedly, when Tom Cruise turned down Enemy of the State, a thriller from Disney, Smith was next in line — a significant sign of growing power for an actor of any color. According to a source, Smith is close to signing on to both State and The Wild, Wild West, Sonnenfeld’s take on the wry ’60s TV series for Warner Bros. And if selling a script is a mark of muscle, Smith’s got that, too. Love for Hire, a romantic comedy written by him and his girlfriend, Jada Pinkett, was bought by producer Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment for Universal. The film, in which Smith will star, begins shooting this fall.