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Hollywood's jack of all trades

Published Oct. 1, 2005

Will Smith might as well be from another planet.

Not only has he accomplished what few Earthlings would even attempt by succeeding simultaneously in Hollywood's big three industries of music, television and film; the star is also popular enough to command more than $10-million per film and get roles conceived for white actors, despite Hollywood's resistance to African-Americans.

The 28-year-old actor/singer/writer is expected to be the big draw for Men In Black, the much-awaited alien summer blockbuster that opened last week. It's Smith's second big science fiction film in as many years. He starred last summer in Independence Day, another alien-infested film that was the biggest moneymaker in 1996.

"Aliens probably watch these movies and think I know something. There's probably an alien hit (contract) on me right now," Smith said in his typically playful way.

The movie industry came under attack from the black community last year when only one out of 166 nominations for the Academy Awards was for an African-American. Although roles for black actors remain scant, Smith's box office appeal is launching him into the stratosphere.

"I think Hollywood still has a long way to go. A lot of studios underestimate the drawing power of African-American actors and actresses," said Frank Jordan, president of the California State Conference of the NAACP.

"Smith is very fortunate and has a unique personality that makes him a box office draw. He's very educated and talented and he has managed to stay grounded," Jordan said.

Smith attributes his appeal to white audiences to the fact that his films, such as Independence Day and the 1995 Bad Boys, were not marketed as "black films."

"They marketed Bad Boys like Top Gun or like any of their other movies. They didn't market it like a black movie. They completely ignored the fact that there were two black stars in the movie," he said.

But he is also quick to remind people he is black, joking that his "Negroid" features have not been captured in the doll representing J, his character in Men In Black, who gets recruited by K, played by Tommy Lee Jones, into a secret organization that battles a population of aliens on Earth.

Smith achieved fame in the music business in 1986 as a rapper named the Fresh Prince, then went on to star in the hit television series, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, which just completed its sixth season. Its popularity led him into films such as the critically acclaimed Six Degrees of Separation.

Smith, who grew up in Pennsylvania, admits he is surprised by the dizzying speed of his career. "It feels a little weird when I go back home. People I know forever act kind of scared," he said. "It wasn't like that with the music or the television show. It's actually kind of scary because I wonder if people are going to expect another big hit like Independence Day."

Smith, who just signed a record deal with Columbia Records, is now planning to star in a movie version of the 1960s television series The Wild, Wild West, in which he will play James T. West, the role created by Robert Conrad.

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