Could you imagine being famous and broke at the same time? Sound impossible, right? But that’s exactly where Will Smith found himself in 1989.
After the breakout success of “Parents Just Don’t Understand”, Will was riding high. He won a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance. Then the album went triple platinum. And that’s when he started spending money.
He threw it at everything. Fancy cars, clothes, motorcycles, and anything else that a young kid with money would buy.
Then his next album with DJ Jazzy Jeff fell flat. They’d become too mainstream. Too accessible. As a result, they lost their street following and their popularity dwindled.
The money quickly dried up. Until there was almost none left. When Tax Day rolled around, the IRS wasn’t happy.
“They said I was evading my taxes,” Will said on a 2002 episode of Inside the Actors Studio. “I wasn’t evading ’em. I just wasn’t paying ’em.”
The crowd burst out laughing. He sat back with a smirk too. Because now he can look back and laugh about it.
But back then it was a lot more serious.
Living beyond his means caught up to him. And the IRS seized all of his luxurious purchases. With over $2.8 million in debt and his back against the wall, Smith needed to make a change.
So he moved out to Los Angeles. That’s when his girlfriend gave him a tip that would change his life: go hang out on the set of The Arsenio Hall Show.
So he did.
That’s where he met a guy named Benny Medina, who Will now refers to as “the real-life Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”. Medina had an idea for a show based on his life, and was already getting the ball moving.
So in December of 1989, he took Will to the birthday party of Quincy Jones, who at the time had just signed a two-series contract with NBC. When Quincy heard Benny’s idea for Will to be the star, he decided to do everything in his power to make it work.
Unbeknownst to Will, Quincy invited all the big-wigs at NBC to his party. He planned on not only making the introduction, but also solidifying a deal in the same night.
Within minutes of shaking hands with Will, Quincy Jones handed him a script. Smith explained the situation in a video on his YouTube channel.
“[He said] ‘I need you to go ahead, take a few minutes, take 10 minutes, study the script and…we’re gonna have everybody sit down in the living room and we’re gonna do an audition.'”
Initially, Will refused. After all, he’d never acted before, let alone in front of the entire executive board of a major TV network.
But Quincy Jones wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“[I said] ‘We could do it three weeks from now’…he said ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. Three weeks from now would be good. Or you could take 10 minutes right now, and you can change your life forever.'”
So he gave in, took a few minutes to prepare, and went for it. When he got to the end, everyone stood up and clapped for him.
Quincy Jones asked Brandon Tartikoff, the head of NBC, if he enjoyed the audition. When Tartikoff said he did, Jones went off. He started ordering people around, telling the lawyers to draw up the papers, and get a deal done for the pilot.
“So the lawyers go out in a limo, and they’re drawing up the first deal for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Smith recounted.
When they emerged with the contract, everyone signed it, setting the stage for NBC’s next hit show.
“About five weeks later we were on the set…for the pilot, and I said, ‘Somebody should probably ask me whether or not I can act.'”
But Will quickly found that there were many parallels between rapping and acting.
“There’s no place for a lack of confidence,” he told host James Lipton. “…when you take that energy, when you take that strength, when you take that bravado…it looks really good on camera.”
After that first season of The Fresh Prince, Will Smith’s career took off. In April of 2007, Newsweek called him “the most powerful actor in Hollywood”. Today, he’s amassed five Golden Globes and two Academy Awards.
And to think he almost refused Quincy Jones’ opportunity.
“So the moral of the story is: always say yes,” Smith explains.
Take a a few moments to gather your thoughts before refusing opportunities that make you uncomfortable, because those moments can change the course of your life forever.
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