Will Smith at Chicago Theatre with his book "Will" – Chicago Tribune

On stage at the Chicago Theatre Wednesday night, at the only author event of the season to feature a “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” theme song singalong, the human corporation known as Will Smith spoke of his late father’s belief (shared by, among others, Gen. George S. Patton, Jr.) that there is no such thing as luck. Only preparation and opportunity.
Smith is 53. On Nov. 19 he has the movie “King Richard,” likely to lead to an Oscar nomination for his performance as Richard Williams, father of tennis phenomena Venus and Serena Williams, coming out in theaters and on HBO Max. This week Smith’s memoir, “Will,” is out, too, on Penguin Press.
So what’s a big star to do? Prepare the marketing, seize the opportunity and make the most of a quick, packed Chicago promotional assault.
“It’s King Richard Day on the South Side of Chicago!” said the DJ at XS Tennis and Education Foundation, the Washington Park facility that gave Smith and his entourage a good long 12-court stroll to get from one end to the other Wednesday afternoon. The “King Richard” tie-in event included the announcement of six XS scholarships, and Smith appeared with his “King Richard” costars Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton.
“I’m blown away by this place,” Smith said, “and by what Kamau (XS founder and CEO Kamau Murray) and all of you have been able to do here.” A few photos, some testimonials from the actresses, a quick media scrum and then into the waiting SUVs a few yards away.
Two hours later, the Chicago Theatre “evening with” event was warming up, with each ticketholder bearing a brand-new copy of “Will,” handed out from high stacks in the lobby. Walking into the theater, Smith fans were hit with a pre-show video provided by Fitbit, one of the tour sponsors, flashing a workout routine (”Two more! Let’s do it! Awesome job!”) on the video wall backing the stage.
In Brooklyn, N.Y., Smith’s book event put the movie star together in conversation with Spike Lee. On Nov. 11, in L.A., it’s Smith with entertainment powerhouse Ava Duvernay; on Nov. 18 in London, Smith with Idris Elba. Chicago’s edition Wednesday didn’t offer quite the same wattage — Smith sat down on stage across from his co-author, Mark Manson, who promised the crowd he would not be rapping, merely occasionally talking.
The stories Smith told of his childhood, his early success as a musician, his sudden lack of it, his fortuitous audition at Quincy Jones’ birthday party for the NBC brass in the position to green-light a pilot for “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”: They all rolled like well-tuned high-performance vehicles driven around a familiar track at perfect speed, by a master of audience engagement.
Then he went out with a musical coda: a few songs, including the “Fresh Price” theme song singalong. Throughout the evening the crowd broke into easy applause at many junctures, nodding with the life lessons imparted by the man they came to see. And now, the man they’ll be reading. Oprah Winfrey’s already on record as saying “Will” is the best memoir she’s ever read.
He’s a star for a reason. Will Smith has indeed scaled all the pinnacles of capitalist and show business success. The book is about how he’s learning to reprioritize his goals, and leave the trappings of success off to one side in favor of the payoffs of genuine familial relationships.
Nothing in the fastidiously well-planned book event, with each anecdote teed up to coincide with some elegant video projections of old family photographers, etc., at the ready, could be called spontaneous. Little matter. He may be, in effect, performing his own life discoveries for the benefit of an adoring crowd, but it’s sincere. Few, if any, contemporary American stars have eased into middle age so gracefully, after so many decades in different spotlights.
For a multimillionaire who writes of growing up yearning for a “Dallas” Southfork luxe-ranch lifestyle to retain this degree of relatability with a huge public, well … that’s more than mere nostalgia for the “Fresh Prince” days gone by.
Promotionally and otherwise: game, set and match.
Co-written with Mark Manson, Will Smith’s memoir “Will” is now available (Penguin Press, Nov. 2021). The film “King Richard” premieres simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max Nov. 19.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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Twitter @phillipstribune
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