Dressed to chill, Will Smith (a.k.a. The Fresh Prince) was draped across a chair in the living room of his Burbank apartment, wearing untied black sneakers, baggy seersucker pants and an oversized hand-painted T-shirt emblazoned with a slightly goofy folk-art rendering of his very own face. Beneath that, in huge garish lettering, was the word "FRESH."
"Will Smith," he said when told that the tape recorder was on, that the interview had begun. "Six foot two. Libra."
There is an irresistible playful streak in Smith, a natural, unpretentious charm that lets him get away with things that would make most people look like incredible jerks. For example, wearing a portrait of himself. But with Smith, somehow, the shirt didn't seem the least big egocentric. In fact, it was kind of endearing, more a tribute to the fan who painted it than an excuse to wear his name on his chest.
The only thing that could have made it more appropriate would have been if the T-shirt had read, underneath the Fresh Prince painting, "I Survived The Hype."
It was this time last year that the Fresh Prince hype machine was kicking into gear. NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff was telling anyone who'd listen that Will Smith was going to be "the next Eddie Murphy," that the Monday night sitcom being built around him, "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air," was going to be the network's hottest new show since "The Golden Girls" debut in 1985.
By the time the show premiered last September, the press had picked up on Tartikoff's cue, comparing Smith's star potential with the likes of Bill Cosby and Michael J. Fox. All this in spite of the fact that Smith, a 21-year-old rapper with two platinum albums and a Grammy award, hadn't acted a day in his life.
"I knew the hype was there, but I didn't realize how much," Smith said, grateful that the show's first season and last fall's hoopla-fest are behind him. "When Brandon compared me to Eddie Murphy, hoo, that was ugly. I was not ready to hear that. But for the most part, I tried to stay away from the press clippings as much as I could, 'cause if I had known all the stuff they were saying, the pressure definitely would have bothered me. So I pretty much had the horse blinders on.
"Besides, I knew it wasn't realistic to compare us with 'The Golden Girls.' For one thing, we didn't have any 80-year-old white women on our show."
"I think what made Will anxious wasn't the hype so much, because he'd dealt with the limelight as a rap star," said Andy Borowitz, co-executive producer (with his wife, Susan) of "Fresh Prince of Bel Air." "It was that he'd never acted before. So when he did the pilot he had no idea whether it would work or not and when it went so well and everyone responded so strongly, it struck him as sort of a fluke. His one question to us was, 'Can I repeat it? Can we do it again?'
"And I think the hype probably exacerbated that anxiety," Susan Borowitz said. "Because if this thing failed, it would fail with everyone watching."
The show's first season, by any reasonable standard, was a success. In spite of going against CBS' killer lineup of Monday night sitcoms, "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" finished a solid 38th in the season's Nielsen ratings, the highest-rated new comedy of the year and, according to NBC, the top-rated show among teens.
"I'm very happy with the show, very confident," Smith said. "I don't even look at the ratings that much, even though we did stomp 'Uncle Buck' all the way to the other end of the week."
"What matters to me is what people say when I go home to Philadelphia. That's my gauge, with my music and with the television show. If the people in downtown Philadelphia are still paying attention, then I know I'm doing fine."
Proud as he is of the show, Smith says his acting was so bad in the early episodes that he can't bear to watch them. "Oh man, I was horrible," he said, clutching his suddenly anguished face. "I lipped everybody else's lines--if you watch real close you can see whenever someone else is talking, I'm moving my lips with 'em. And I was missing marks all over the place. A lot of times you can see the camera desperately trying to follow me. You can almost hear the cameraman going, 'Dammit, Will. Be still.' The thing is, I thought I was doing great. I was blind."
When the first season's filming ended in March, Will went back to work with his longtime collaborator Jeff Townes (better known as DJ Jazzy Jeff) to finish up their fourth album together, scheduled for release this summer.
For now, Smith says, he doesn't want to choose between music and acting. But he is taking acting lessons when he can, trying to pick up the subtleties of his new pursuit. He wants the show to be more substantive next season, to tackle more social issues. Does that mean the Fresh Prince has his eye on more than comedy? Is serious acting a goal?
"Absolutely," he said, with that twinkle in his eye. "Denzel, watch out."
"Fresh Prince of Bel Air" airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on NBC.