Will (2022) is a firsthand account of one of Hollywood’s greatest careers. Will Smith doesn’t just tally up his many successes, though. He also opens up about his struggles, shortcomings, and the help he received along the way.
Biographies, Memoirs, Non-fiction, Biography, Autobiography, Memoir, Music, Adult, Contemporary, Self Help, Entertainment, Celebrities, True Stories, Arts, Entertainment biographies, Film, TV & radio, Individual actors, performers, Television
Who is it for?
- Film buffs
- Hip-hop aficionados
- Anyone who loves inspiring true stories
What’s in it for me? Get to know the real Will Smith
How do you build a wall? When Will Smith was a boy, he learned the hard way.
The wall by his father’s shop was crumbling. Will’s father was a contractor back then, so he wasn’t going to hire anyone to fix it. He put Will and his brother, Harry, on the job instead.
That summer went slowly. It was a long wall: 20 feet. The task seemed endless. They’d never get it done, Will said.
His father marched over and told him to forget the wall. There is no wall, he said. All you have to do is think about the brick in your hand. You add the cement and then you lay it down, perfectly. And then you take another brick and do the same with that one too.
Building a wall and building a life are surprisingly similar. Welcome to the summary to Will Smith’s memoir. Fittingly enough, it’s called Will. Oprah called it the best memoir she has read in her lifetime.
Obviously, we don’t have enough space to cover everything about Will’s life. So, instead, we’ll cover seven defining moments of his life. By the end, you won’t have the full, detailed picture. But you will have a little mosaic – a mosaic of moments. So let’s begin our journey. It all starts in – you guessed it – West Philadelphia.
It’s the year 1985, we’re in Philly – more specifically, in the leafy, middle-class neighborhood of Wynnefield. Will is just returning from school. He’s seventeen years old.
As he enters the house, he senses that something is wrong. Sure enough, his mom’s at the kitchen table, with a look somewhere between sadness and anger on her face.
That’s unusual. With his father, trouble’s never been far away. There’s no pleasing the man. A hard-drinking disciplinarian with a mean streak, he’s always been moody and unpredictable. But with Mom, it’s different. They’ve never not been on the same page. Until now.
Will is no scholar, but he’s done well in school so far – well enough to be able to get into a good college. That means everything to his mother.
What you have to know about Mom is that she came up in a poor family in a bad neighborhood during hard times. College saved her. It’s what put her in this comfortable brick house in leafy, middle-class neighborhood of Wynnefield. Times have changed, sure, but the world’s still a brutal place – especially for a young Black man like her son. He has to go to college. That’s her truth.
But Will’s grades have started to slip. And that, he assumes, explains the look on her face.
A while back, Will’s cousin introduced him to hip-hop. He’s been rapping ever since – hippity-hopping around, as his Mom says. Right now, he’s teamed up with a disk-jockey named Jeff Townes. They call themselves Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and they’ve been making waves – first in Philly, then in New York. Hip-hop’s still new, but everyone in the scene knows it’s the next big thing. And they’re riding the wave. There’s even talk of a record deal.
But hip-hop, Mom says, isn’t a career. It’s a hobby. He can rap but he can’t be a rapper. That’s when Will says it – the thing that’ll break her heart. He doesn’t want to go to college.
It’s a stalemate. Neither Mom nor son backs down.
Enter Daddio. For Mom, it’s education that matters. For her husband, it’s hard work. They’re different like that. She chooses words with care, speaking with academic finesse. Daddio, though, is a poet of profanity. Will remembers how he once called a man – and please excuse his French – “dirty rat, cocksuckin’, low-down, mangy pig fucker.”
On hip-hop, though, they see eye to eye: college is a safer bet than a music career.
But there’s an artist underneath the hard exterior of Daddio. Thing is, this cussing old soldier didn’t dream of owning the ice-packing business that puts food on the Smiths’ table. He wanted to be a photographer. But his parents made him sell his camera. Art, they said, wasn’t “practical.”
So Daddio agrees. Will can pursue his music career – with one condition: if Will doesn’t succeed in a year, he’s going to college.
The Fresh Prince Rises
Hip-hop has its roots in New York street parties.
Disk jockeys – DJs – played records, looping the most danceable parts of popular tracks. Eventually, DJs started using two turntables so they could keep these beats going longer.
Since they were busy managing two records playing at the same time, they couldn’t interact with the crowd. That’s where the “master of ceremonies” – the MC – comes in. They talked to the audience, bragging about the DJ and generally hyping people up.
The most creative MCs then started talking in rhymes that matched the rhythm of the DJ’s beats. Jamaican immigrants called that “rapping.” And that’s how hip-hop was born.
In the ’80s, hip-hop was still new and underground. As folks said back then, it was “fresh.” That’s what Will’s stage name meant. It was a boast. He was fresh because he was the tip of the spear of this revolutionary new music. And he was a prince because he was the best at what he did – rapping.
Boasting was all the rage in early hip-hop. Crowds would gather to listen to two rappers trading barbs over beats. Usually, they’d play up their toughness, acting gangster, bragging about money and women.
Will was different. In high school, there were plenty of guys who had better voices. Some were just better poets. But no one could make a crowd laugh like him. He had an eye for comic details. If he saw someone’s pants were sitting just a little too far above their shoes, he’d use it:
Look at you, pretendin’ you all fly / looks like your shoes went to a party and your pants got high.
It doesn’t matter how tough the other guy’s acting. If the crowd laughs at the line, it’s game over. If you’re funny, you’re untouchable.
Will made it look easy. But the truth was that the Fresh Prince had been molded by the unrelenting work ethic of his father. While other kids with talent were cutting class and smoking weed, he filled notebook after notebook with rhymes, practicing verses and punchlines in front of a mirror. You don’t have to be a gangster when you’re relentless.
Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s debut single, “Girls Ain’t Nothing but Trouble,” was released in 1986. The album that followed in ’87, Rock the House, sold more than 500,000 copies.
That was just the start. He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper, the follow-up album, was released in early 1988. It sold more than three million copies and won the duo a Grammy.
Will had barely hit his 20s and he had it all – fame, wealth, adoration.
He was invincible. Or so he thought.
The Miserable Millionaire
He felt numb. Empty. Sick. Directionless. There was no script. And so he picked up a poker from the fireplace, went to the front door and smashed every glass panel.
And then he left.
Will had just learned that his childhood sweetheart had cheated on him. Fame, money, the new house he’d bought for them – none of it meant anything without Melanie Parker.
They’d been together since they were 16. Will’s idea of himself was bound up with Melanie’s opinion. It hung on her approval. If she cheated on him, it was because of his own deficiency. If he’d been a better man, she wouldn’t have done it. That idea bought him a one-way ticket to misery.
That was 1988 – and the start of the Fresh Prince’s downfall.
He tried to fill the emptiness. He bought another house and three luxury cars to park in the driveway. His dad was not impressed. We’ve all got one ass, he said – what’s anyone need three cars for?
But there were people in Philly whom it did impress. Will started partying with gangsters. They gambled on everything – including those flashy cars. He bought a motorbike and crashed it. He slept with dozens of women, but that only made him feel worse. He also developed a mean streak, just like his dad. Wherever he went, he got into fights.
When you don’t have money, sex, and success, those things start looking like answers. If you had them, you tell yourself, you’d feel great. But you can be rich, famous, successful – and still feel miserable. That’s when a terrifying thought kicks in: maybe the problem is you. Will dismissed that thought. No, he just needed more money. More women. More Grammys.
But things were falling apart just as quickly as they’d come together.
Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s next record, And in This Corner, was released in ’89. They spent $300,000 hiring a recording studio in Jamaica, but they barely stepped foot in it. There was too much rum punch to be drunk in the Caribbean sun. The partying took its toll. Will wasn’t putting in the hours, and it showed. The record was a flop.
And then Uncle Sam came knocking. Will hadn’t paid a cent of income tax. The IRS took everything – the money, the house, the cars. He was broke. Worse, the FBI was closing in on his gangster friends.
There was nothing to keep him in Philly. In 1989, he decided to get out. He borrowed enough money for a deposit on an apartment and a plane ticket. Destination: Los Angeles.
Benny Medina is the real-life Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He wasn’t born and raised in West Philadelphia, but in Watts, Los Angeles, a Black and Hispanic neighborhood that’s also one of the city’s poorest.
After his mother’s death, he ended up living with a wealthy white family in Bel-Air. He went into showbiz and became one of LA’s best-known TV producers.
When Will met him in ’89, Benny was working on a script based on his own life story. He just needed a lead. And so he asked Will a life-changing question: “Can you act?”
Technically, the answer was no – he’d never had formal training or been cast in any role. But performing in front of an audience and eliciting passions? Playing the role people want you to play, rather than who you actually are? Sure Will could act. He said yes.
Benny figured he could and promised to be in touch.
In Philly, “Being Hollywood” is the definition of insincerity, and that’s how Will thought Benny was. It was just one of those LA moments. He wrote it off and moved on.
Fast forward a couple of months. Benny calls. Quincy Jones, the producer of Michael Jackson’s albums, is celebrating his birthday. It’s a rare chance to meet this music-industry legend.
When Will shakes his hand, Quincy gives him a look. The kind of look you give someone when you’ve heard a lot about them but haven’t made up your own mind yet.
He’s in a good mood, though, and they hit it off. Then Will tells him he’s from West Philadelphia. Quincy says that’s where Will’s character is going to be from before he goes to Bel-Air. You know, on the show Benny’s been talking about.
Quincy isn’t messing around, either. He claps his hands. The room’s cleared of furniture, creating an impromptu stage. Guests fall silent. An audience forms.
He presses a script into Will’s hands. Everyone who needs to sign off on this is in the room, he says, and that doesn’t happen often. It’s now or never. He gives Will ten minutes to prepare for the first audition of his life. What happens next is a blurry collage of punch lines and laughs.
The applause jolts Will back to consciousness. The room rises. There’s an ovation. Then there’s Quincy, shouting about analysis causing paralysis. He orders lawyers to draw up contracts and producers to sign them; he tells Will where to put his own name.
By the end of the evening, the show was a done deal. That was March 14, 1990. The writing, the auditions, and the final casting was done by the end of April. Shooting started in mid-May. On September 10, 1990, the first episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air aired on NBC.
Will had arrived in Hollywood.
Will’s manager handed him the phone. It was Steven Spielberg. He wanted to meet.
An hour later, Will was in a helicopter headed east out of New York City.
He had just turned down a script titled Men in Black. Now he was flying out to an estate in the Hamptons to explain why a movie produced by the great director wasn’t good enough for Will Smith.
It was a nervy ride. He had to tell Spielberg that he loved the idea – that was true – while also persuading him that the timing wasn’t right. Without burning his bridges.
Will had just starred in his biggest role yet – US Marine Captain Steven Hiller, a man who overcomes adversity, saves the earth, and gets the girl. It’s hard to overstate the success of Independence Day, the second-highest-grossing film of all time back in 1996. But Independence Day was about aliens. So was Men in Black. It’s easy to get pigeonholed in Hollywood. Will didn’t want to be “the alien guy.”
The helicopter touched down.
And there was Spielberg, dressed in an old T-shirt and jeans and looking like he didn’t know he was Spielberg, legendary director of Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Jaws, Schindler’s List, and E.T.
They chatted over lemonade. He saw Will’s point, Spielberg said, but he also thought he was looking at it all wrong. Men in Black wasn’t really about aliens – it was about a hero’s journey.
That’s one of the oldest narratives in the world, common to every culture that’s ever told stories. A hero receives a “call to adventure” – something happens in their world that forces them to undertake a dangerous journey of discovery. It culminates in the “supreme ordeal” – a life-and-death struggle. If they’re wise enough to overcome their traumas, they find the strength to prevail. Victorious, they return home with their hard-won wisdom – their “treasure.” That’s what allows them to live a life worth living.
So many great movies follow that arc. It doesn’t matter if there are aliens or sharks or Nazis seeking the Holy Grail. What draws us in is that these stories penetrate. They move us. They make us laugh and cry and gasp. That, Spielberg concluded, was the thing to look for in a script or a pitch.
Steven Spielberg didn’t just convince Will to take the Men in Black role that day. He also unlocked the key to Will Smith’s formula for cinematic success.
Father and Son
Will’s second son, Jaden, was born in 1998. He followed his father into movies when he was 12, starring in The Karate Kid alongside Jackie Chan.
Will produced the movie, and he was a relentless taskmaster. Everything had to be just right – especially with his son’s performances. Jaden’s scenes were endlessly reshot. And just when it looked like the project was reaching its conclusion, Will extended filming in China by three months.
So father and son clashed. Will claimed to be acting in his son’s interests, but Jaden saw it differently. Will had made his life hell because he was terrified of failure.
That fear came from Daddio. A soldier succeeds when he’s single-minded. When he sacrifices everything for the sake of the mission. Ninety-nine percent is as good as zero. Those were his truths.
And they became Will’s, too. You focus on the mission and you block everything else out. You can worry about what those around you are thinking and feeling, or you can win.
It’s hard to live with a man like that. Will knew that better than most, but here he was, a father to his own children, repeating Daddio’s mistakes. He saw his youngest son, Jaden, pulling away from him.
In 2012, Will watched “I Shouldn’t Be Alive,” a TV show featuring harrowing tales of near-death experiences. One of the stories is about a father and son who get lost in the wilderness. When the father is badly injured, the teenage son has to go on a dangerous journey by himself to find help. It was the perfect premise for a Will Smith movie. It was also an opportunity to repair Will and Jaden’s relationship.
Shortly after that, they started shooting After Earth. It tells the story of a father and son who crash-land on Earth in the distant future, after the planet has become uninhabitable. Jaden’s character travels across this wasteland to save his father, played by Will.
After Earth wasn’t like the Karate Kid. This time, Will took a back seat. He was there to support Jaden, not to push him. And Jaden noticed that.
One day, a coordinator asked Jaden to perform an action move he wasn’t comfortable with. He stood his ground, but the coordinator wouldn’t take no for an answer. Will wasn’t on set, but he saw what happened next on a monitor. Jaden said he didn’t think the move was realistic. The coordinator insisted on getting a few takes anyway. Jaden turned to the rest of the crew and asked someone to get his father. That was one of Will’s proudest moments as a father.
The movie flopped. It didn’t matter – shooting it was the real prize. Will wasn’t the enemy anymore. He was someone Jaden trusted. Someone he could turn to for help and support.
One of the most important ideas in filmmaking is that it’s easier to craft compelling narratives when you start at the end. In other words, you’ve got to know your ending.
It’s like the punchline to a joke. If you know the conclusion, you also know what kind of details and clues you need to plant along the way. Everything serves a purpose; everything leads somewhere.
Life isn’t the movies, which is probably what makes us love them in the first place. Cinema is neater. In reality, we don’t know the ending until we get there and the audience either laughs or boos.
The audience’s reaction plays a key role in the wisdom about death in many cultures. Tibetan Buddhist texts, for example, teach that a dying person must be shown unconditional love in their last moments. This releases them from all expectations, allowing them to pass more peacefully.
For five months, Will dug into this wisdom. It was preparation for his role in Collateral Beauty, a 2016 movie about a father struggling to come to terms with his daughter’s death.
That’s when he learned that Daddio was dying.
Daddio had already had a few brushes with death. For starters, he survived two heart attacks when Will was a kid. When he had his second attack, he knew what was coming when his left arm went limp. He drove himself to the hospital using only his right. But this really was the end. Years of chain smoking and hard drinking had caught up with him. Doctors gave him six weeks.
His relationship with his father had always been difficult, to say the least. He’d beat Will’s mom, been verbally abusive. As a child, Will swore revenge against his father. In one of his darkest moments, he even contemplated pushing his father down a flight of stairs. But with his father’s end so close, revenge left Will’s mind. He wanted to make his passing easier. To look beyond his many faults. To give him a conclusion worthy of his many achievements.
One night, he sat next to his father’s bed and told him he’d done good with his life. His father wasn’t expecting that. He kept his gaze on the TV set and took a drag on his cigarette.
He’d led a good life, Will repeated. It was OK to let go when he was ready. Will was going to take care of everyone he’d loved. His father nodded, his eyes welling, his gaze still fixed on the TV screen.
He passed two weeks later.
So what is it that made Will Smith’s life so special? The easy answer is: Look at his career, the Grammys, movies, the luxury cars he owned at age 20. Rags to riches at its best – we love this sort of story. It projects strength, relentlessness, a work-hard mentality.
But that’s not the full picture. As you can probably tell by now, Will Smith’s life was not all peaches and cream. He had his fair share of pain: financial screw-ups, broken relationships, a dysfunctional family. But what made Will Smith the person he is today is how he dealt with it: head on. What is inspiring about his life is not the amount of money in his bank account, but his willingness to face his inner demons. I mean, he even wrote a book about it!
About the author
Will Smith is an actor, producer and musician. He is a two-time Academy Award nominee and a Grammy Award and NAACP award winner. His career spans the worlds of music, TV, and film. He’s best known for his roles in films like Bad Boys, Independence Day, Men in Black, and Aladdin.
Will Smith is an actor, producer, and musician, and an Academy Award, Grammy, and NAACP award winner, who has enjoyed a diverse career encompassing films, television shows, and multiplatinum albums. He holds many box office records, including the most consecutive $100 million–grossing movies (eight). He and his wife founded the Will & Jada Smith Family Foundation to improve lives by providing invaluable resources to accelerate the growth of initiatives that focus on deepening individual and collective empowerment in the areas of arts and education, social empowerment, health and wellness, and sustainability.
Mark Manson is the New York Times best-selling author of Everything is F*cked and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. His books have sold over 12 million copies worldwide.
Mark Manson is the number one New York Times bestselling author of Everything IsF*cked: A Book about Hope and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. Manson’s books have been translated into more than fifty languages and have sold over twelve million copies worldwide. Manson runs one of the largest personal-growth websites in the world, markmanson.net, with more than two million monthly readers and half a million subscribers.
Table of Contents
The Wall VII
1 Fear 1
2 Fantasy 25
3 Performance 49
4 Power 77
5 Hope 111
6 Ignorance 154
7 Adventure 175
8 Pain 194
9 Destruction 221
10 Alchemy 248
11 Adaptation 273
12 Desire 301
13 Devotion 334
14 Boom 355
15 Inferno 389
16 Purpose 414
17 Perfection 449
18 Mutiny 479
19 Retreat 508
20 Surrender 533
21 Love 559
The Jump 573
Illustration Credits 587
The instant #1 New York Times bestseller!
Winner of the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Achievement
One of the most dynamic and globally recognized entertainment forces of our time opens up fully about his life, in a brave and inspiring book that traces his learning curve to a place where outer success, inner happiness, and human connection are aligned. Along the way, Will tells the story in full of one of the most amazing rides through the worlds of music and film that anyone has ever had.
Will Smith’s transformation from a West Philadelphia kid to one of the biggest rap stars of his era, and then one of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood history, is an epic tale—but it’s only half the story.
Will Smith thought, with good reason, that he had won at life: not only was his own success unparalleled, his whole family was at the pinnacle of the entertainment world. Only they didn’t see it that way: they felt more like star performers in his circus, a seven-days-a-week job they hadn’t signed up for. It turned out Will Smith’s education wasn’t nearly over.
This memoir is the product of a profound journey of self-knowledge, a reckoning with all that your will can get you and all that it can leave behind. Written with the help of Mark Manson, author of the multi-million-copy bestseller The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Will is the story of how one person mastered his own emotions, written in a way that can help everyone else do the same. Few of us will know the pressure of performing on the world’s biggest stages for the highest of stakes, but we can all understand that the fuel that works for one stage of our journey might have to be changed if we want to make it all the way home. The combination of genuine wisdom of universal value and a life story that is preposterously entertaining, even astonishing, puts Will the book, like its author, in a category by itself.
“It’s easy to maneuver the material world once you have conquered your own mind. I believe that. Once you’ve learned the terrain of your own mind, every experience, every emotion, every circumstance, whether positive or negative, simply propels you forward, to greater growth and greater experience. That is true will. To move forward in spite of anything. And to move forward in a way that brings others with you, rather than leave them behind.” – Will Smith
Read an Excerpt
I’ve always thought of myself as a coward. Most of my memories of my childhood involve me being afraid in some way-afraid of other kids, afraid of being hurt or embarrassed, afraid of being seen as weak.
But mostly, I was afraid of my father.
When I was nine years old, I watched my father punch my mother in the side of her head so hard that she collapsed. I saw her spit blood. That moment in that bedroom, probably more than any other moment in my life, has defined who I am today.
Within everything that I have done since then–the awards and accolades, the spotlights and the attention, the characters and the laughs–there has been a subtle string of apologies to my mother for my inaction that day. For failing her in that moment. For failing to stand up to my father.
For being a coward.
What you have come to understand as “Will Smith,” the alien-annihilating MC, the bigger-than-life movie star, is largely a construction–a carefully crafted and honed character–designed to protect myself. To hide myself from the world. To hide the coward.
My father was my hero.
His name was Willard Carroll Smith, but we all called him “Daddio.”
Daddio was born and raised in the rough and rugged streets of North Philadelphia in the 1940s. Daddio’s father, my grandfather, owned a small fish market. He had to work from 4:00 a.m. until late at night every day. My grandmother was a nurse and often worked the night shift at the hospital. As a result, Daddio spent much of his childhood alone and unsupervised. The North Philly streets had a way of hardening you. You either crystallized into a mean motherfucker, or the hood broke you. Daddio was smoking cigarettes by eleven and drinking by the age of fourteen. My father developed a defiant and aggressive attitude that would continue all his life.
When he was fourteen, my grandparents, fearing where his life was headed, scraped together what money they could and sent him to an agricultural boarding school in the Pennsylvania countryside where kids learned farming techniques and basic handyman work. It was a strict and traditional place, and by sending him there they hoped to introduce some much-needed structure and discipline into his life.
But nobody was going to tell my father what to do. Other than working on some of the tractor engines, he couldn’t be bothered with what he described as “that hillbilly bullshit.” He would skip classes; he smoked cigarettes and kept on drinking.
At age sixteen, Daddio was done with this school and ready to go home. He decided to get himself kicked out. He started disrupting classes, ignoring all the rules, and antagonizing anyone in a position of authority. But when the administrators tried to send him home, my grandparents refused to take him back. “We paid for the full year,” they said. “You’re getting paid to deal with him, so deal with him.” Daddio was stuck.
But Daddio was a hustler–he was going to find his way out: On his seventeenth birthday, he snuck off campus, walked half a dozen miles to the nearest recruiting office, and enlisted in the United States Air Force. This was classic Daddio–he was so hell-bent on defying authority and rebelling against both his parents and the school that he jumped out of the frying pan of an agricultural boarding school and directly into the fire of the United States military. He ended up in the exact structure and discipline my grandparents had desperately hoped to instill in him.
But as it turned out, Daddio loved it. It was in the military that he discovered the transformative power of order and discipline, two values that he came to worship as the guardrails protecting him from the worst parts of himself. Wake up at 4:00 a.m., train all morning, work all day, study all night–he found his lane. He discovered that he could outlast anybody, and he began to take pride in that. It was another aspect of his defiant attitude. Nobody could force him to wake up with a bugle horn because he already was up.
With his passionate work ethic, boundless energy, and undeniable intelligence, he should have quickly risen through the ranks. But there were two issues.
First, he had a brutal temper, and superior officer or not, if you were wrong, he wasn’t doing it. Second, his drinking. Let me tell you, my father was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, but when he was angry, or drunk, he became an idiot. He would break his own rules, subvert his own objectives, destroy his own things.
After about two years in the military, this self-destructive streak peeked through the veil of order and ended his service career.
One night, he and the guys from his platoon were gambling. (Daddio was sweet with a pair of dice.) He took those dudes for almost a thousand dollars. Once he’d stashed the winnings in his footlocker, he headed out to get something to eat, but when he returned from the mess hall, the guys had stolen back the money. In his fury, Daddio drank himself into a frenzy, took out his service pistol, and lit up the barracks. Nobody got hurt, but it was enough for the air force to show him the door. He was fortunate that he wasn’t court-martialed–instead, they just discharged him, put him on a bus, and invited him to never come back.
This was a tension that ripped through my father’s entire life–he demanded such rigid perfection from himself and the people around him, yet after too many drinks, or if he snapped, he would burn everything to the ground.
Daddio moved back to Philly. Undaunted, he took a job in a steel mill while putting himself through night school. He studied engineering and showed a real aptitude for both electricity and the science of refrigeration. One day, after being passed over for a promotion at the steel mill for the third or fourth time because of his race, he simply walked out the door and never went back. He knew refrigeration, so he decided heÕd start his own business.
Daddio was brilliant. Like many sons, I worshipped my father, but he also terrified me. He was one of the greatest blessings of my life, and also one of my greatest sources of pain.
My mom was born Carolyn Elaine Bright. She’s a Pittsburgh girl, born and raised in Homewood, a predominantly Black neighborhood on the east side of the city.
My mother, a.k.a. “Mom-Mom,” is eloquent and sophisticated. She has a petite frame, with long, elegant, piano player’s fingers, perfectly sized to deliver a gorgeous rendition of “Für Elise.” She had been a standout student at Westinghouse High School and was one of the first Black women to ever study at Carnegie Mellon University. Mom-Mom would often say that knowledge was the only thing that the world couldn’t take away from you. And she only cared about three things: education, education, and education.
She loved business-banking, finance, sales, contracts. Mom-Mom always had her own money.
Life moved quickly for my mother, as it often did in those days. She married her first husband at the age of twenty, had a daughter, and was divorced less than three years later. By twenty-five, as a struggling single mom, she was probably one of the most educated African American women in all of Pittsburgh, yet she was still working jobs beneath the level of her true potential. Feeling trapped and craving bigger opportunities, she packed up the baby and moved to live with her mother–my grandmother Gigi–in Philadelphia.
My parents met in the summer of 1964. Mom-Mom was working as a notary in the Fidelity Bank in Philly. She was rolling out with some girlfriends to a party, and one of them told her she just had to meet this man. His name was Will Smith.
In many ways, Mom-Mom is the total opposite of my father. Whereas Daddio was the boisterous, charismatic center of attention, Mom-Mom is quiet and reserved; not because she’s shy or intimidated, but because she “only speaks when it improves on silence.” She loves words and always chooses them carefully–she speaks with an academic sophistication. Daddio, on the other hand, was loud, spewing the lingo of a 1950s North Philly hood rat. He loved the poetry of his profanity–I once heard him call a man a “dirty rat, cocksuckin’, low-down, mangy pig fucker.”
Mom-Mom doesn’t use profanity.
It’s important to note here, that back in the day, Daddio was the man. Six foot two, smart, good-looking, the proud owner of a fire-engine-red convertible Pontiac. He was funny; he could sing; he could play the guitar. He could lock people into him–he was always the dude standing in the middle of a party with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, a master storyteller who could keep a room buzzing.
When Mom-Mom first saw Daddio, he reminded her of a tall Marvin Gaye. He was savvy and knew his way around people. He could talk his way into a party, get free drinks and a table near the front. Daddio had a way of moving through the world like everything was under control, it was all going to be fine. This was comforting for my mom.
My mother’s memory of their first days together is just a blurred montage of restaurants and clubs, strung together by a stream of jokes and laughter. Mom-Mom couldn’t get over how funny he was, but most important to her, he was ambitious. He had his own business. He had employees. He wanted to work in white neighborhoods, with white people working for him.
Daddio was going places.
My father wasn’t used to interacting with women of my mother’s educational accomplishments–Man, this bird’s smart as a muthafucka, he thought. Daddio was the street smarts to Mom-Mom’s book smarts.
My parents had a lot in common, too. They both had a passion for music. They loved jazz, blues, and, later, funk and R&B. They lived through the glorious Motown days and spent much of it dancing together in musty basement parties and jazz clubs.
But there were strange commonalities, as well–the stuff that startles you and makes you think, This must be God’s plan. Both of my parents had mothers who were nurses who worked night shifts (one was Helen; one was Ellen). Both of my parents had short-lived marriages in their early twenties, and they both had daughters. And in perhaps the strangest coincidence, they had both named their daughters Pam.
My parents got married in a small ceremony at Niagara Falls in 1966. Soon after, Daddio moved into my grandmother Gigi’s house, on North Fifty-Fourth Street in West Philadelphia. It wasn’t long before they combined their very different strengths and talents into an effective team. Mom-Mom ran Daddio’s office: payroll, contracts, taxes, accounting, permits. And Daddio got to do what he did best: work hard and make money.
Both of my parents would later speak fondly of those early years. They were young, in love, ambitious, and they were movin’ on up.
My full name is Willard Carroll Smith II–not Junior. Daddio would always correct people: ‘Hey! He ain’t no mutherfuckin’ Junior.’ He felt like calling me ‘Junior’ diminished both of us.
I was born on September 25, 1968. My mom says that from the moment I showed up, I was a talker. Always smiling, yapping, and babbling away, content to just be making noise.
Gigi worked the graveyard shift at Jefferson Hospital in Center City, Philadelphia, so she’d take care of me in the mornings while my parents were at work. Her house had a huge porch, which served as my front-row seat to the drama of North Fifty-Fourth Street, and a stage on which I could join in the theatrics. She’d prop me up on that porch and watch me jibber-jabber with anybody and everybody who walked by. Even at that age, I loved having an audience.
My twin brother and sister, Harry and Ellen, were born on May 5, 1971. And counting Mom-Mom’s daughter Pam, just like that there would now be six of us under one roof.
Fortunately, the North Philly entrepreneur in Daddio was alive and well. He had gone from repairing refrigerators to installing and maintaining refrigerator and freezer cases in major supermarkets. Business was taking off-he was expanding beyond Philly into the surrounding suburbs. He started to build a fleet of trucks and hire a crew of refrigeration and electrical technicians. He also rented a small building to use as his base of operations.
Daddio was always hustling. I remember one particularly frigid winter, cash got tight, so he taught himself how to repair kerosene heaters. They were all the rage in Philly at the time. He put up a bunch of flyers, and people started bringing him their broken heaters. Daddio figured out that once he’d fixed a heater, he’d have to “test” it for a couple days, to make sure it was working. At any given time, he’d have ten or twelve kerosene heaters “being tested for the quality of his work.” That many heaters will easily warm a West Philly row home, even in the coldest of winters. So Daddio canceled our gas service, kept his family warm and toasty for the winter, and got paid for it.
By the time that I was two years old, Daddio had established his business firmly enough to buy a house about a mile away from Gigi in a middle-class neighborhood of West Philly called Wynnefield.
I grew up at 5943 Woodcrest Avenue on a tree-lined street of thirty grayish-red brick row homes, all connected. The physical proximity of the houses cultivated a strong sense of community. (It also meant that if your neighbor had roaches, you had roaches, too.) Everybody knew everybody.
For a young Black family in the 1970s, this was as American dream as you could get.
Across the street was Beeber Middle School and its majestic concrete playground. Basketball, baseball, girls jumpin’ double Dutch. The ol’ heads slap-boxing. And the second the summer hit, pop goes the water plug. Our neighborhood was thick with kids, and we were always outside playing. Living within one hundred yards of my house, there were almost forty kids my age. Stacey, David, Reecie, Cheri, Michael, Teddy, Shawn, Omarr, and on and on–and that’s not even counting their siblings, or the kids on the next blocks. (Stacey Brooks is my oldest friend in the world. We met the day my family moved to Woodcrest. I was two, she was three. Our mothers pushed our strollers up to each other and introduced us. I was in love with her by the time I was seven. But she was in love with David Brandon. He was nine.)
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