Three weeks before he's scheduled to graduate from Philadelphia's Overbrook High, Smith and childhood pal "Jazzy Jeff" Townes release their debut hip-hop album Rock The House. With a burgeoning music career, Smith, known by his stage name, "The Fresh Prince," defers a scholarship to MIT to pursue his passion. It pays off. The clean-cut duo's second album, He's The DJ, I'm The Rapper, makes it to No. 4 on Billboard's Top 200 Albums chart and earns them
a Best Rap Performance Grammy for the jokey single
"Parents Just Don't Understand."
Smith is cast as "Will Smith" in the NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, about a street-smart Philly kid who moves in with wealthy relatives in L.A. "Will has this very infectious personality, with a great spirit," NBC entertainment chief Brandon Tartikoff tells PEOPLE. "Whatever he has, you can't teach. I think the Eddie Murphy comparison is there." The show lasts until 1996 and continues to live on in syndication.
Six months after marrying fashion design student Sheree Zampino (they met in 1991), the couple has their first child. Named Willard C. Smith III, their son goes by the nickname "Trey." Smith and Zampino, however, separate in 1995. Smith dedicates his 1998 single "Just the Two of Us," to Trey – who stars alongside his dad in the video – telling him, "It didn't work out with me and your mom/But yo, push come to shove/You was conceived in love."
Smith earns raves for his first dramatic film role as gay con artist Paul in Six Degrees of Separation. However, Smith refuses to kiss costar Anthony Michael Hall and a stand-in is used. "It was very immature on my part," he tells Entertainment Weekly. "I was thinking, 'How are my friends in Philly going to think about this?' I wasn't emotionally stable enough to artistically commit to that aspect of the film."
Shortly after his separation from Zampino, Smith leans on actress Jada Pinkett, who he met in 1990 when she auditioned and was rejected for the role of his girlfriend on The Fresh Prince. "I helped him understand what happened in his marriage," Pinkett tells PEOPLE in July 1996, "and he helped me see what happened in my relationship. He's become my best friend. There's nothing I can't say to him, nothing I can't share."
Following the $140 million success of 1995's shoot 'em up cop flick Bad Boys, Smith tackles the alien thriller Independence Day. He embraces his inner alpha male onscreen as a cigar-chomping fighter pilot who vows to "kick E.T.'s ass." The film earns $93 million in its first week and more than $300 million during its U.S. theatrical run.
Outer space comes to Earth in Smith's newest extra-terrestrial blockbuster, the alien-infested Men in Black. In addition to being the biggest-grossing film of the year, Men in Black rejuvenates Smith's music career as the soundtrack's title cut becomes the most-played radio song in the history of rap, according to EW.
With the release of Big Willie Style, his first album in four years, Smith reasserts the importance of fun in hip-hop. "Rap's gone through a sort of dark ages," Smith tells EW. "With the loss of Biggie and Tupac, the industry is ready for a change. I'm just feeling good to be a part of the renaissance." Listeners embrace his attitude as club favorite "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" gives Smith the first No. 1 single of his career.
As 1997 comes to an end, Smith and Pinkett marry in a lavish ceremony at the Cloisters, a medieval-style mansion near her hometown of Baltimore. The couple, attired in a matching Badgley Mischka gown and suit, tie the knot in front of about 100 friends and relatives. Pinkett, who is almost two months pregnant at the time, will give birth to the pair's first child, Jaden Christopher Syre, on July 8.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): TODD KAPLAN/STARFILE; FOTO FANTASIES; ALBERT ORTEGA/CELEBRITY PHOTO; MYLES ARONOWITZ/MGM; Jim Smeal/WireImage; Kobal Collection/Wireimage; Columbia/Everett; JOHN DOLAN/AP; MURRAY CLOSE/WARNER BROS.