On this day in 1997, the science fiction-comedy movie Men in Black, starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, opens in theaters around the United States. The film grossed more than $250 million in America alone and helped establish the former sitcom star Will Smith as one of Hollywood’s most bankable leading men. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (Get Shorty), Men in Black was based on an early 1990s comic book by Lowell Cunningham called The Men in Black. Smith and Jones reprised their roles as Agent J and Agent K, two secret agents who must protect the Earth from aliens, in a hit 2002 sequel, Men in Black II. Smith, who began his entertainment career as a rapper, performed on both Men in Black soundtracks.
Born September 25, 1968, in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Smith formed the rap group D.J. Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince with his friend Jeffrey Townes when they were teenagers. Radio-friendly hits like “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “Summertime” propelled the duo to success, and in 1988, they won the first-ever Grammy Award for rap music. Smith would go on to a successful solo career, scoring No. 1 hits with the theme song from Men in Black as well as the smash hit single “Getting’ Jiggy Wit It.” From 1990 to 1996, Smith starred in the popular TV sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. His early film roles included Six Degrees of Separation (1993) and Bad Boys (1995) with Martin Lawrence. Smith’s first blockbuster movie was 1996’s Independence Day, about a hostile alien invasion. After Men in Black, Smith starred in a string of movies, including Enemy of the State (1998), Wild Wild West (1999), Bad Boys II (2003), I, Robot (2004), Hitch (2005), I Am Legend (2007) and Hancock (2008). Though they met with varying degrees of success, these films showcased Smith’s talents as a buff action star with great comedic timing.
In addition, Smith has made several successful forays into serious drama, receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for 2001’s Ali, about boxer Muhammad Ali. The actor nabbed a second Oscar nomination for his star turn in 2007’s The Pursuit of Happyness, which was based on the true story of the homeless salesman-turned-stockbroker Chris Gardner. The film co-starred Smith’s son Jaden. Smith and his wife, the actress Jada Pinkett Smith, married in 1997 and have two children, Jaden and Willow (Smith has another son, Trey, from a previous marriage). Pinkett Smith’s film credits include The Nutty Professor (1996), The Matrix Reloaded (2003), Collateral (2004) and The Women (2008).