It's not every day that an actor can be truly called an icon of his generation. Such high praise is reserved for actors with truly impressive range and versatility in their roles and projects, as well as true demonstrated talents and accolades. When it comes to actors that got their start in the 1990s and have truly only been getting better since then, it's clear that Will Smith is far and away one of the most iconic actors.
Smith has come a long way since his beginnings as a rapper. While he still dabbles in music occasionally, he's gone from television to the big screen and never looked back, racking up awards and award nominations at every turn. Here, we take a look back at the most memorable roles in Smith's filmography so far and how they compare to each other.
10 Deadshot (Suicide Squad)
Frankly speaking, Suicide Squad was a mess, as most other films in the DCEU have been so far. But Will Smith's work as Floyd Lawton, also known as Deadshot, was unarguably one of the film's high points. Few actors would have been able to nail the duality of a merciless criminal and devoted father in the way that Smith did.
Smith's performance also gelled in incredible ways with Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn, perhaps owing in part to Smith and Robbie's past work together in the film Focus. Furthermore, Deadshot served as one of the main grounding points for the film, providing it with an emotional center it definitely otherwise lacked.
9 Dr. Robert Neville (I Am Legend)
Long before The Walking Dead and other similar post-apocalyptic media were captivating audiences all around the world, Will Smith turned in one of his emotionally gripping and taxing roles as Dr. Robert Neville in the 2007 action drama I Am Legend. Robert is one of the sole survivors of a virus that spread throughout humanity and wiped out the human race, turning them into monstrous, vampiric zombie creatures.
In many ways, barring a few later scenes in the film, I Am Legend plays as a one-man film, which means the brunt of the weight of its success and emotional resonance rested on Smith's shoulders. And boy, did he deliver. His character's relationship with his ever-loyal dog, Sam, serves as the film's emotional center and allows Smith to show some of his truly underutilized dramatic acting chops.
8 Mike Lowrey (Bad Boys)
Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do? It was one of the first movies that really put Will Smith on the theatrical map, and it was also the franchise that introduced the world to Michael Bay's directorial skills. Bad Boys, first released in 1995, accomplished a lot for your average, run-of-the-mill action film.
But thanks in large part to the buddy cop chemistry between Will Smith's Mike Lowrey and Martin Lawrence's Marcus Burnett, the film would go on to become so much more than just a one-off action film, spawning a series of films and spinoffs that is still ongoing. The third film in the franchise, Bad Boys for Life, is expected to be released in 2020.
7 Alex “Hitch” Hitchens (Hitch)
Will Smith may have made a real career out of his innate dramatic talents, but sometimes, he's really at his best when he gets back to his comedic roots. Look no further than the entirely over-the-top 2005 romantic comedy Hitch for the perfect example of that fact. Starring opposite Kevin James and Eva Mendes, Smith was pitch perfect in the role of Alex "Hitch" Hitchens, a love guru who prides himself on being able to teach even the most unlikely of men how to be romantic experts.
There was nothing groundbreaking about this movie or the way it handled its clear Cyrano-esque material. But through Smith's comedic chops, and his adorable buddy rapport with a then up-and-coming James, the film still stands the test of time as to what a romantic comedy can be when romances, ironically, aren't the real focus.
6 Chris Gardner (The Pursuit Of Happyness)
Will Smith is comedically gifted, and certainly one hell of an action star. There's no denying either of those facts. But one of his best performances of all time—and one that earned him nominations for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, to boot—came in the 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness.
The biopic, tear-jerking drama found Smith in the role of Chris Gardner, a hardworking father who struggles to raise his young son while trying to maintain a job and deal with being homeless for a year. One of the things that makes this film so truly compelling, beyond its inspirational and heart-rending narrative, is that Gardner's son was played in the film by Smith's own son, Jaden.
5 Steven Hiller (Independence Day)
And back we go again to Smith's considerable filmography in the action genre. This time, we're talking about the 1996 science fiction action thriller Independence Day, one of the highest grossing films of all time and perhaps the first true action blockbuster to take the world by storm during its summer of 1996 release.
In Independence Day, Smith shines among a cast of talented actors like Bill Pullman and Jeff Goldblum as Captain Steven Hiller, a young Marine tasked with saving the world from an impending alien invasion with only two days to do so before their planned attack on the 4th of July. Smith is truly riveting in this role, proving yet again that he's exactly the leading man that Hollywood needed at this time.
4 Genie (Aladdin)
When the live-action adaptation of Aladdin was first announced, it was understandable that there was trepidation regarding how the character Genie would be handled. How could anyone possibly compare to the legendary Robin Williams, who produced one of the most beloved and iconic animated characters of all time in his voiceover work and endless improvisation material?
But Disney found the perfect man for the job when they cast Will Smith in the role. Smith's take on Genie was decidedly his own: a character he rendered as many ways just as humorous as Williams' Genie, but also in many ways far more human and realistic, too.
3 Agent J (Men In Black)
Will Smith may have faced aliens in 1996's Independence Day, but that was only just the beginning for his career as an action hero opposite extraterrestrial visitors. Smith's involvement with the world of aliens only grew, and grew, and grew with the release of 1997's Men in Black, the first film in a franchise that would find Smith reprising his role of Agent J opposite Tommy Lee Jones' Agent K in two additional films.
More than Independence Day, Men in Black functions not only as an action science fiction film but as a true comedy, too, allowing Smith to cover almost all of his bases in terms of his best skills in the acting world. Alongside Tommy Lee Jones, he also turns in yet another iconic buddy cop performance.
2 Muhammad Ali (Ali)
Smith may have been nominated for an Academy Award for his turn in the 2006 biopic The Pursuit of Happyness, but that wasn't the first time a biography film would earn him that impressive honor. That distinction, in fact, goes to his performance as Muhammad Ali in the 2001 biopic Ali.
Smith was buoyed in the film by a truly incredible cast of actors, but on his own, Smith was already a true force of nature in his performance of the Greatest of All Time himself, Muhammad Ali. To prepare for the role, Smith approached it from an almost method actor stance, spending a year training for a boxer's life, and learning the intimate details of Ali's life and faith.
1 Will Smith (The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air)
Now, this is a story all about how his life got flipped, turned upside down. Will Smith's career really kicked off with the role of the same named character on the 1990-1996 iconic sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Even within the show, it's joked about multiple times how outrageous it seems for a series to be made based on the success of an up-and-coming rapper.
But episode after episode, and season after season, Will Smith proved that he had more than what it took to be the leading man we all deserved, regardless of whether it was for comedy or drama. His character's development over the seasons, along with his total willingness to go along with any outlandish sitcom storylines, showed that Smith was able to deftly handle the nuances of character-driven dramas and over-the-top comedies.