How Will Smith went from broke and in trouble with the IRS to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Actor Will Smith attends the Centerpiece Gala Premiere of Columbia Pictures' 'Concussion' during AFI FEST 2015.
Kevin Winter | Getty Images

It turns out Will Smith did get in a fight before becoming the Fresh Prince of Bel Air — only it wasn't little. It was with the IRS.

"Before I was in trouble with Uncle Phil, I was in trouble with Uncle Sam," Smith says, explaining the origins of the '90s NBC sitcom that made him a household name on a recent edition of his YouTube series "STORYTIME."

Smith rose to fame alongside Jeffrey Townes, aka DJ Jazzy Jeff, who plays Jazz on "The Fresh Prince," after the two released their hit "Parents Just Don't Understand" in 1988. The song earned them a Grammy and was featured on an album that went triple-platinum.

Suddenly in the spotlight, Smith splurged on cars, motorcycles and name brand clothing before realizing that his lifestyle wasn't sustainable, he recalls.

Then the duo released their next album, "And in This Corner," and it flopped: "It was a tragedy. It went, like, double-plastic."

In reality, it sold over half a million copies, but it was still a disappointment by comparison to their previous success. And Smith was in financial trouble because he was living beyond his means and not paying his taxes. The IRS seized many of his more glamorous purchases.

"Being famous and broke is a sh---- combination," he says, "because you're still famous and people recognize you, but they recognize you while you're sitting next to them on the bus."

Tired of seeing Smith mope, his girlfriend at the time talked him into hanging out on the set of "The Arsenio Hall Show" in hopes that he'd find an opportunity that would boost his career. Reluctantly, he obliged, and it was there, he says, that he met Benny Medina, "the real-life Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" — although Medina went from Watts, California, to Beverly Hills.

Medina took Smith to a party at Quincy Jones' house, where Smith performed an impromptu 10-minute audition for the part of the Fresh Prince in front a room full of actors, artists, celebrities and politicians. As Smith tells it, Jones, who went on to become the executive producer of the show, had lawyers in attendance write up a contract right then and there.

"That's the story of how I became the Prince of Bel-Air," Smith says.

"Failure actually helps you to recognize the areas where you need to evolve," Smith notes in an Instagram story from earlier this year. "So fail early, fail often, fail forward."


And, of course, don't be afraid to put yourself out there, even if it means potentially embarrassing yourself in front of a room full of famous people.

"Always say yes," Smith recommends in the YouTube video. "And I guess listen to your girlfriend."

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