Smith at first unsure about role in `West'

July 07, 1999|By Barry Koltnow | Barry Koltnow,ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

After Barry Sonnenfeld read the script for the movie "Wild Wild West," he told Warner Bros. he was interested in directing the movie. But he had one condition, and it was non-negotiable.

He wanted Will Smith, with whom he collaborated on the monster hit "Men in Black," to play the role of government agent Jim West.

Someone at Warner Bros. pointed out that Smith was black and that Robert Conrad, who played West on the original TV series upon which the movie was based, was white. Or, as Sonnenfeld describes him, "very white."

Once the director explained why he wanted Smith, Sonnenfeld then called Smith at home and told him of his discussion with Warner Bros., and the actor had the same initial reaction as the studio.

"I asked Barry if he had seen the television show," a laughing Smith said recently during a publicity tour to promote "Wild Wild West," which opened last week.

"I asked Barry if he had noticed any subtle differences between Robert Conrad and myself, and he said, `Oh yeah, you're a lot taller, but no one will notice.' "

Eventually, Sonnenfeld convinced the studio and the actor.

"I wanted to do something hip and cool, and Will would make this movie hip and cool," the director said. "Look, Jim West is James Bond in the Old West, and Robert Conrad was that guy in 1967. But Will is that guy now.

"And putting a black man in that role makes the movie different from the TV show, and that was important to me. I had no intention of doing just another episode of the television series."

Sonnenfeld said he assured both the studio and Smith that his film would deal with the actor's race. In fact, it does deal with the race issue -- the film takes place shortly after the end of the Civil War -- and Smith said the movie often walks a fine line between political correctness and political incorrectness.

"Frankly, casting me in that role seemed wrong at first, and I'm not sure I ever got completely comfortable with the race thing. But Barry had said he had very specific ways to deal with it, and I trusted him. I knew with his wonderfully bizarre sense of humor, he could pull it off.

"But I must admit that some of the scenes, particularly the one where I'm standing by a noose (he is being threatened by a lynch mob) really pushes the envelope. That scene is way out on the edge, and I'll be curious to see how audiences react to it."

Smith, 30, is a product of West Philadelphia, where he learned how to rap and won his first Grammy at 19, as half of the duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. By 20, he was a millionaire.

From the mean streets of Philadelphia, he moved to the not-so-mean streets of Bel-Air, where the Fresh Prince starred in his own television series for six years. He ended the series to concentrate on his movie career, and it was a wise decision.

He already had played a gay con man in the 1993 film "Six Degrees of Separation," a film that Smith now says was the "best career move I've ever made," and then made the transition into the action field with the 1995 hit "Bad Boys."

The fact that "Bad Boys" made $140 million was not lost on Hollywood executives, who love an actor who makes money for them. Then came "Independence Day," which elevated Smith to the level of superstar, followed quickly by "Men in Black."

Suddenly, Will Smith was no mere superstar. The 6-foot-2 actor with the big infectious smile and the jug ears was the king of summer movies, particularly those summer movies opening on the Fourth of July weekend.

In "Wild Wild West," this year's entry in the Will-Smith-Owns-the-Fourth Sweepstakes, Kevin Kline plays Jim West's clever sidekick Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin played him in the TV series) and Kenneth Branagh plays the evil mastermind Dr. Arliss Loveless. Salma Hayek plays a scantily clad woman searching for her scientist father, who has been kidnapped by Loveless.

Despite Smith's impressive record for turning out hits on this particular weekend, the actor said he never worries about overconfidence.

"I never feel like a movie is a slam-dunk," he said. "There are so many things and so many people involved in making any movie that it is a small miracle that a movie even gets finished, let alone is a hit.

"Fortunately, while these big summer blockbusters are never liked by the press, the audience is used to disagreeing with the critics and making a decision on their own.

"But I swear I'm not even nervous about the movie," he added. "I hope it does well, but I think `Star Wars' released the pressure for everyone. Everyone knows what the No. 1 movie of the year is going to be, so the battle is for No. 2."

Smith seems to have his life in order. He and wife Jada Pinkett Smith live on a ranch with their son (Will also had a son from an earlier marriage), and enjoy the fruits of a career that pays him handsomely.

The actor said his only enemy at this point is a lack of time to do everything he wants, and what he really wants to do is a musical (his favorite movie of all time is "The Wizard of Oz") and a romantic comedy (he mentioned Meg Ryan and Cameron Diaz as possible co-stars).

Pub Date: 7/07/99

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