(Will Oliver/Kings Theatre)
Nov 10, 2021
5 things we learned about Will Smith at Kings Theater last night
The actor sat down with Spike Lee to discuss Smith's new memoir, 'Will,' replete with plenty of Fresh Prince and hip-hop fandom
Will Smith made good use of the pandemic. Beginning in 2021, the multi-hyphenate set out to lose 20 pounds in 20 weeks. He also wrote his memoir, “Will.” The latter was the occasion for a sold out event at King’s Theatre on Tuesday. As the crowd filtered, we were treated to an inexplicable workout video punctuated by a breathless Smith saying how he likes to “feel good after running.”
Smith parlayed his weightloss journey into a show called “The Best Shape of My Life” after posting a viral photo about being in the worst shape of his life during the pandemic—a bulging gut protruding off his 221 pound frame.
The first two episodes are live now on YouTube Originals, and the humor and hard work Smith employed to lose the weight set the stage for a night of discussion between the actor and moderator Spike Lee. “I can’t roll up to Brooklyn and not kiss the ring,” Smith said of the legendary director. While Lee mostly served as punctuation for Will Smith’s energetic, humorous stories and easy interaction with the audience—all of whom received a copy of “Will” (Penguin Press)—the pairing highlighted the many ways and varied avenues Will Smith has touched in Hollywood.
Co-written with “Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” author Mark Manson, “Will” charts Smith’s “transformation from a fearful child in a tense West Philadelphia home” to a superstar. The 412-page hardcover is billed as an “epic tale of inner transformation and outer triumph,” and the product of a “profound journey of self-knowledge” (which may or may not have been aided by 14 ayahuasca trips)—buoyed by a heaping helping of axioms from his father, Daddio, and industry insider wisdom. The King’s Theater book release was a fitting celebration for Smith’s intention to offer up his life experience. “It is my deepest hope that when you read this book you’ll see a piece of yourself in there and maybe be inspired to chase your dreams while also loving people better,” he told the audience.
Equal parts humorous and heartfelt, the night—billed “Will Smith: An Evening of Stories with Friends”—saw the actor come to tears reading from his book about his first son from his first marriage, Trey, while a pianist played “Just The Two of Us.” He gave props to celebrities in the audience, including Melle Mel and Fresh Prince cast Janet Hubert (Aunt Viv) and Karyn Parsons (Hilary Banks), both of whom received standing ovations. Not unexpectedly, Smith was joined by long-time collaborator DJ Jazzy Jeff for performances of “Brand New Funk,” “Summertime” and, of course, the “Fresh Prince” theme. Mercifully, no one got jiggy with it.
Here are five things we learned from last night’s show about Will Smith. And, no, he did not talk about The Entanglement.
Will Smith didn’t curse in his early records because of a note from his grandmother, Gigi
Before achieving success (and hip-hop’s first Grammy) as half of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince in the 1980s, Will Smith was just a typical rap-loving 12-year-old who wrote lines in a composition book. When Gigi—a loving grandmother and “Jesus’ homegirl”—found Smith’s notebook, she said nothing but wrote a letter inside: “Dear Willard, truly intelligent people do not have to use words like this to express themselves. Please show the world that you are as smart as we think you are. Love Gigi.”
“In my early rap career, I didn’t curse in any of my records. And I got bashed for that—you know, soft, and corny, and wack, and not Black enough and all of that,” Smith said. “There was no peer pressure that was more powerful than Gigi pressure. She missionized me… I knew when I was going into the world, I wasn’t going just for me. I knew other people’s families and other people’s kids and other people’s grandmothers would be consuming my material. And she made me clear about my responsibility to contribute to the human family.”
His biggest inspiration as a rapper was Grandmaster Caz
Back in the day, rap wasn’t on the radio much, Smith said. To hear hip-hop, you’d have to go to parties, copy tapes and send them to your friends. It was through this process that a pre-Fresh Prince Will Smith heard Bronx rapper Grandmaster Caz, a legend who “single handedly, undeniably was the greatest influence of my hip hop life” and became the prototype for The Fresh Prince.
“He was one of hip hop’s first storytellers. Caz was witty, he was clever. His verses took you on a journey, you’d be on the edge of your seat listening to him rap—always wondering what was going to happen next. Most of all, my dude knew how to land a punch line,” Smith writes in “Will.” The ability to make hip-hop audiences laugh was crucial for Smith, and he created the character of The Fresh Prince based on Caz’s style.
Smith’s first hit, 1986’s “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” was directly inspired by Caz’s 1982 mixtape freestyle “Yvette.” “I studied every single line…and then I wrote my own version of his story. I guess why I connected to him so much was that I had had a similar experience … but It never dawned on me to write a rhyme about it,” “Will” details. Caz “validated and unleashed a creative part of me that I never thought anybody would care about. He made it okay for me to be me.”
Caz was in the audience Tuesday night, seated next to Melle Mel.
Smith auditioned for The Fresh Prince at Quincy Jones’ birthday party—with no notice
Following his rap career, Will Smith began hanging out around Los Angeles to “see what he could get into” and ended up coming into Quincy Jones’ fold. Jones flew Smith out from Philly to attend his birthday party which, expectedly, was filled with producers, executives and talent. Among the guests was NBC head Brandon Tartikoff and producer Benny Medina, who had previously pitched Smith on “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” (Smith had shrugged off the pitch as another Hollywood hopeful project) and whose own story was the loose basis of the show.
Jones was hyped on the show and on Smith, and ordered people to move couches so Smith could have space to audition for the role, right then and there. The young, inexperienced actor was nervous and asked Jones for more time for an audition: “He said, ‘Well, you know what’s gonna happen in a week? Brandon Tartikoff will have to reschedule. Something’s gonna come up and then he’ll have to reschedule for a week after that.’ … and then Quincy all of a sudden got real sober. And he says, “but right now everybody that needs to say yes to this show is sitting out there right now.’ And I was like, ‘Fuck it give me 10 minutes.’”
After Smith auditioned, Quincy Jones demanded a deal memo on the spot and The Fresh Prince’s future was sealed. The impromptu audition taught Smith a valuable lesson: “It’s ok to be scared, it’s just not ok to let it debilitate you.”
Writing the memoir helped end Smith’s decades-long feud with Janet Hubert
Janet Hubert played Aunt Viv for the first three seasons of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, but was replaced with a new actress in season four without much fanfare. Hubert believes she was pushed out, Smith felt Hubert was trying to be the star.
“I can say straight up that Janet Hubert wanted the show to be ‘The Aunt Viv of Bel Air Show’,” Smith told an Atlanta radio station in 1993. “She has basically gone from a quarter of a million dollars a year to nothing. She’s mad now but she’s been mad all along.” Hubert later told the Huffington Post: “My departure was planned for a long time… There will never be a reunion of the Fresh Prince. Will Smith and Alfonso destroyed a 20-year-career with untruths. I got slammed. Will apologized later in an Essence Magazine article, but it still lingers. It’s still there.”
The two buried the hatchet after 27 years during a “Fresh Prince” reunion show. “It was one of the most healing experiences of my life, and it was a big part of the place that working on this memoir got me into,” Smith said to thunderous applause. “I just want to thank you, Janet, for being open.”
‘Whip My Hair’ taught Smith about feelings
Will Smith knew he wanted to be a father from the time he was 5, and was determined to be the best parent he could. Yet, two decades into his fame, he felt tension between being a father and being a professional. “There was a moment of truth and a major transition in my life when Willow had a smash hit record ‘Whip My Hair.’”
Then 10-years-old, Willow was supporting Justin Bieber in Dublin, Ireland and casually told her father that she didn’t want to perform any more. Shocked, Smith told his 10-year-old that she had to continue the tour because they had made a commitment to “Mr. Jay-Z.” “Does it matter that I’m done?” Willow asked. Smith blew off the comment and continued to plan his daughter’s tour, but when Willow came down for breakfast the next morning, “over the night, she had shaved her entire head bald.”
As Smith questioned whether Willow understood the severity of her actions, a switch flipped. Willow should be able to stop performing. “I felt like I had been texting, looking at my phone it stepped out into the street in front of a bus and Willow snapped me back. As strange as It sounds in that moment, I discovered feelings,” Smith said. “My feelings didn’t matter in my childhood home …. The question she was really asking, was ‘Daddy does it matter to you how I feel?’ It was so explosive In my mind, a deep existential question.”
That moment changed Smith’s parenting philosophy. “The question for me became: Can you really quest in that way, can you be ambitious and climb in that way and care for people’s feelings at the same time? And that was a very difficult transition, and journey for me,” he continued. “And then after that moment, I started to realize …my job is to water and nourish and nurture that seed to become the way it already is.”
That focus on loving people as they are, and making loving gestures, runs through “Will.” “I want my life to be valuable. And a part of this book, and a part of the reason that I opened up the way that I opened up, is a gesture of love,” Smith said.
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