Men In Black: How Will Smith Became Out-of-this-World Famous
The box office hits of the 80s and 90s were built on the backs of Old Hollywood-style stars. Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Julia Roberts could ensure any movie would bring in a lot of money, but 1997 added a surprising contender to that list: Will Smith.
The rapper-turned-sitcom actor already had a few successful turns in ensemble films under his belt with Independence Day and Bad Boys winning over audiences, but in 1997, with six seasons as the star of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air behind him, he made his move to leading man in Men In Black.
Story-wise, the science fiction comedy couldn’t have come at a better time. Cloning was in the news, The X-Files was a massive hit on TV, and people were still discussing the conspiracies behind The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur’s deaths. Director Barry Sonnenfeld chose Smith to star alongside straight-man Tommy Lee Jones specifically for his goofy acting on Fresh Prince rather than in spite of it, realizing the actor’s talents for both grounded emotion and ridiculous humor.
With Will Smith they got more than a leading man though, as Smith also provided the chart-topping rap single “Men in Black”. He’d continue this custom on movies like Wild Wild West where the song would have a longer shelf life than the movie. In fact, his music throughout the 90s kept Smith a household name even when he didn’t have a movie out, and rose his star faster than any other actor.
It might have been his multi-talented nature that made Will Smith one of the biggest box office draws of the next decade, with movies like Hitch, Enemy Of The State, I Am Legend, Hancock and both sequels to Men In Black becoming massive hits thanks to his star power. Even as stars began to draw less in the 00s, Smith managed to open movies more consistently than others, and his return to Men In Black 3 remains a huge recent blockbuster.
The future is still bright for Will Smith’s star as he makes a return to both the recording industry, and to large ensemble action movies like Suicide Squad. As for the Men In Black franchise, it continues to go in strange and daring directions with an upcoming crossover with 21 Jump Street that may just make a star of whoever replaces Will Smith in the iconic Ray-Bans.