Actor Will Smith turns 55 years old today. A celebrated American icon, Smith rose to fame at a young age and portrayed an impeachable public persona of a Hollywood nice guy. Despite his widely reported run-in with Chris Rock at the 2022 Oscar Academy Awards, Smith remains a popular figure in pop culture.

Smith, born William Carroll Smith II, rose to fame on the classic 1990’s sitcom, Fresh Prince of Bel Air. This fictionalised version of his own persona, The Fresh Prince, achieved near-global notoriety for the star. His singing career flourished, as part of a hip hop duo with DJ Jazzy Jeff, Smith released five studio albums. After the success of Fresh Prince of Bel Air, hits like Summertime and Boom! Shake the Room became US Billboard Hot 100 top 20 singles. He then released the solo albums Big Willie Style (1997), Willennium (1999), Born to Reign (2002), and Lost and Found (2005), which contained the US number one singles Gettin’ Jiggy wit It and Wild Wild West. Smith has received four Grammy Awards for his rap performances.

Will Smith Movies

Despite achieving high levels of fame with Fresh Prince of Bel Air and his rapping, in recent times most will reflect on Smith as a movie star. Smith’s first major role was in the drama Six Degrees of Separation (1993). However, it would be 1995’s Bad Boys, in which he starred opposite Martin Lawrence, that would see Smith ascend to Hollywood royalty. The film was commercially successful, grossing $141.4 million worldwide.

Will Smith - Bad Boys For Lifeever

In 1996, Smith made efforts to increase his appeal as a family-friendly star. He appeared as part of an ensemble cast in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day. The film was a massive blockbuster, becoming the second highest-grossing film in history at the time. Following this came a string of family-orientated comedy movies.

In the summer of 1997, he starred alongside Tommy Lee Jones in the hit Men in Black. The film grossed over $589.3 million worldwide against a $90 million budget, with an estimated 54,616,700 tickets sold in the US. In 1999 came Wild Wild West, a disappointment on many levels. But one which has an interesting story of it’s own.

Will Smith as Neo?

In order to film the aforementioned Wild Wild West, Smith reportedly turned down the role of Neo in The Matrix. It may seem absurd to think anyone other than Keanu Reeves was ever considered for the role, however Reeves at the time was in a downward spiral in his career, bagging numerous successive flops. Other actors considered for the role of Neo before Reeves included Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Nicolas Cage, and Leonardo DiCaprio. In fact, even Sandra Bullock was considered, potentially changing the gender of Neo from male to female. Of course, Bullock, ultimately, turned down the opportunity.

Returning to Smith, he reportedly stated that he had no regrets in turning down the role. He suggested that Reeves’ performance as Neo was superior to what Smith could have achieved.

Oscars Controversy

During the 94th Academy Awards, Smith walked onstage and slapped presenter and comedian Chris Rock. This widely shared moment came after Rock made a joke about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head, with a reference to the main protagonist in the film G.I. Jane. Smith then returned to his seat and yelled to Rock, twice, saying, “Keep my wife’s name out your f**king mouth!”

Pinkett Smith had been diagnosed with alopecia areata in 2018 and would later shave her head due to the condition. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) said that Smith was asked to leave the ceremony but he refused. Later in the night, Smith was named Best Actor for King Richard and apologised to the Academy and the other nominees, but not to Rock, in his acceptance speech.

Smith would later issue a formal apology, and tendered his resignation from the Screen Actors Guild, writing in part: “I deprived other nominees and winners of their opportunity to celebrate and be celebrated for their extraordinary work. I am heartbroken. I want to put the focus back on those who deserve attention for their achievements and allow the Academy to get back to the incredible work it does to support creativity and artistry in film. So, I am resigning from membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and will accept any further consequences the Board deems appropriate.”

Will Smith - Men in Black

The Actor’s Future

The more cynical amongst us would suggest that the apology came as an affordance that the incident may damage his persona as a family-friendly performer. Many suggest that his ability to stage comeback from the negative public image he now has may not be possible. However, for a celebrity who moved through music, television and film to achieve global fame, surely anything is possible?

It’s highly likely that Smith will withdraw from the public eye for some time. After a period of regrouping, we may will see Smith return to the limelight. However, it’s likely that the incident will continue to haunt him for some time.