Will Smith's Tragic Real Life Story

This article includes mentions of domestic abuse and suicide.

Will Smith is Hollywood royalty and had been long before he became an Oscar winner in 2022. At the 94th Academy Awards, however, the actor became notorious for more than picking up the best actor statue. He made headlines for smacking comedian Chris Rock on stage, leading to Smith's subsequent resignation from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. 

Back in the day, Smith was a talented young rapper, alongside partner DJ Jazzy Jeff, known for his clean lyrics and overall wholesome image. From his earliest years in the entertainment industry — with hits like "Summertime" and "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble" — he garnered more fame via his successful TV sitcom, "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." Smith's star steadily rose from there, and he commanded increasingly impressive roles and paydays (pulling in $100 million for "Men in Black 3"). However, into every life a little rain must fall, as they say. Even big stars like Will Smith aren't immune to tragedies, and here are some of the sadder things the star has endured throughout his life.

Will Smith witnessed domestic violence

Will Smith may be a world-famous megastar, known for hit movies like "Independence Day" and "Men in Black" as well as his successful music career. But once upon a time, the Fresh Prince was just a scared child who lived in fear of his violent father.

In his book "Will," the actor described the "brutal temper" that came over his father when he drank. "When I was 9 years old, I watched my father punch my mother in the side of the head so hard that she collapsed. I saw her spit blood," he wrote. Although the refrigeration engineer and Air Force veteran, known as "Daddio," was Smith's hero, he was also his tormentor. "Like many sons, I worshipped my father, but he also terrified me," the actor explained, describing his mixed feelings about his childhood.

Those repressed emotions led Smith to later consider killing his own father, when a now-wheelchair-bound Daddio had cancer. "As a child, I'd always told myself that I would one day avenge my mother ... I paused at the top of the stairs. I could shove him down and easily get away with it," Smith revealed in his memoir, writing about how the thought crossed his mind. "Thank God we're judged by our actions and not our trauma-driven, inner outbursts."

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

He believed he 'failed' his mother

As a 9-year-old, Will Smith's life was changed forever by seeing his father hit his mother. "Within everything that I have done since then — the awards and accolades, the spotlights and the attention, the characters and the laughs — there has been a subtle string of apologies to my mother for my inaction that day," Smith wrote in "Will," calling himself a "coward" for not intervening. He believes it was his responsibility as the eldest brother in the family to step in, but he didn't act on that sentiment.

He wrote that his mother, whose family nickname was Mom-Mom, is a quiet woman who was a victim of her husband's twisted views on family, according to Smith. The sight of her falling to the floor stuck with the Hollywood star for years. "It became encased in a hard sediment, an unshakable feeling that ... no matter how successful I've become ... there is that subtle and silent feeling always pulsating in the back of my mind: that I am a coward; that I have failed; that I am sorry, Mom-Mom, so sorry," he continued.

During an event hosted by Idris Elba in London, Smith admitted that he hadn't spoken about any of this with his mother before writing his 2021 memoir. "It's so cathartic to get it out," he shared at An Evening of Stories with Friends at the Savoy Theatre, according to The Independent. "That self-exploration, to be honest with yourself and to move out into your life, your relationships ... with that honesty, is excruciating. But I would recommend it."

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

His parents' complicated divorce

Although Will Smith's parents were separated when he was 13, as Time noted, they didn't get around to formally divorcing until 2000. The actor recalled in his memoir that his mother Caroline found the paperwork when she was moving into a new house, so she decided to get a proper divorce years after the split.

Once they took their case into court, it was revealed that Smith's father had never paid any child support and that he therefore now owed a significant amount of money, thanks to the interest and penalties he had racked up. "Daddio didn't have $140,000, and Mom-Mom was unwilling to make any concession whatsoever," the movie star explained, adding that she wanted to all of the money she was owed. "And there was no version of me letting my father go to jail."

So Smith and his father conspired to create "an underhanded, Ponzi-style backdoor deal" behind his mother's back, in which he would transfer the money and become "the first person in the history of Pennsylvania to pay his own child support." Mom-Mom was furious when she later found out that Smith had paid off his father's debts and insisted on giving him a check in return, making the whole ordeal even more complicated. "This made me the first person in the history of Pennsylvania to pay their own damn child support," he wrote. 

The actor's sad childhood inspired his comedy

Like many great entertainers, Will Smith's knack for comedy was fueled by his sad childhood. "Comedy defuses all negativity. It is impossible to be angry, hateful, or violent when you're doubled over laughing," he told GQ in 2021, explaining how he developed the comic timing behind "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" as a survival tactic.

"I decided to be funny," Smith wrote in "Will." "I wanted to please and placate him because as long as Daddio was laughing and smiling, I believed, we would be safe." His role as the entertainer in his family meant that he could solve a tense situation by joking around. But it didn't always work, as he noted, and when his father continued to be abusive, the young boy blamed himself. "I should have been able to make the family stable and happy," he insisted. "I should have been able to make everything all right.

His people-pleasing personality would serve him well in the world of show business years later, even if it was formed in response to a traumatic childhood. "And it's in this compulsive desire to constantly please others, to keep them laughing and smiling at all times, to redirect all the attention in the room away from the ugly and uncomfortable toward the joyful and the beautiful — it's there that a true entertainer is born," Smith concluded.

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

The night Will Smith landed in jail

In 1989, Will Smith spent a night in jail after his bodyguard Charles Alston assaulted record producer William Hendricks.

Not long after he won the first ever award for Best Rap Performance at the Grammys, the normally family-friendly musician got involved in a brawl that landed him at "rock bottom," as he told Oprah in an exclusive interview. "When it rains, it pours. So getting into the fight at the radio station, Charlie punching the dude that landed me in jail, so the money is gone, the car is gone," Smith revealed. "I am laying on the floor in a jail cell and I am like, 'You've got to be kidding me! I won a Grammy eight months ago.'"

The star was 20 years old at the time of the fight, which took place at a West Philadelphia radio station. According to the National Enquirer, it was reported that Hendricks' eye socket needed stitches after being fractured by Smith's bodyguard. The future movie star was charged with "aggravated assault, recklessly endangering another person, simple assault and criminal conspiracy," although those charges were never pursued.

The rapper had troubles with the IRS

As of 2021, Celebrity Net Worth lists Will Smith's net worth at a whopping $350 million, but his bank account hit some speed bumps on the way there. Although he had become a star thanks to 1988's "Parents Just Don't Understand," alongside DJ Jazzy Jeff, he didn't hold onto financial success for long. On his YouTube channel, the star revealed the story of his issues with the IRS before he became a household name on television. He said that while their first album had exploded, the second project with DJ Jazzy Jeff underperformed. "I had spent most of my money. Like all of it," he continued, explaining that while he didn't forget about his taxes, he did neglect to write a check when Tax Day rolled around. As he told Oprah, "I wasn't paying attention to that kind of stuff." The IRS repossessed his big-ticket purchases.

"I was like, broke broke broke," Smith recalled on his YouTube channel. "Being famous and broke is a sh**ty combination, because you're still famous and people recognize you, but they recognize you while you're sitting next to them on the bus." Luckily, Smith's financial situation actually led him to finding his way into acting. After his girlfriend at the time told him to go on Arsenio Hall's talk show, the young rapper met an executive called Benny Medina, who had been planning a TV show based on his own life. And soon "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" was born. 

He and his first wife divorced

"Divorce was the worst thing in my adult life," Will Smith admitted in a 2020 "Red Table Talk," reflecting on the end of his first marriage to Sheree Zampino. "Divorce was the ultimate failure for me. I've been hurt a lot in my adult life, but I don't think anything touches the failure of getting divorced from my 2-year-old son's mother." As noted in a 2021 GQ interview, she ultimately served him with divorce papers on Valentine's Day.

He began dating Jada Pinkett, an actor who he would later marry, while he was still married to Zampino. And all three of them had to figure out a co-parenting situation with his 2-year-old son Trey when the "Gotham" actor started living with the Fresh Prince, as she explained on a special episode of "Red Table Talk" that featured Zampino. "Because I did not understand marriage, I did not understand divorce, I probably should have fell back," Jada confessed, reflecting on the early days of her relationship with Will.

One particular fight between the two women took a nasty turn. "I called back and happened to say, 'B****, you livin' in the house I picked out,'" Zampino recalled. "And you said, 'It's my house now.'" Her ex-husband intervened, however. "Well, I want you to know that Will Smith let me have it," Jada noted. "His take was, 'That is Trey's mother, and that's just not your place.'"

Experiences with racism

Will Smith opened up about the racism he faced growing up Black in Pennsylvania, as well as being a star in Hollywood. He revealed on the podcast "Pod Save America" that he's been called the n-word several times, but never by someone with intelligence, according to him. He told the host that during his time as a Hollywood A-lister, he recognized some of the ingrained racism within the industry. He continued, "But at the core of it, I noticed a difference between ignorance and evil. ... They're twins, for sure. Ignorance can be educated. Evil is a much more difficult problem."

In an interview with Stephen Colbert, he compared race relations in America to a marriage that needs counseling. "I always look at things in terms of relationships so when I think about race relations in this country now, there's a thing that happens before things are cleaned up. There's a darkness before the dawn that is always difficult," Smith declared, telling Colbert that he was optimistic about the situation.

"When I hear people say it's worse than it's ever been I disagree completely," he continued, insisting that there was more racism in the past. "We are talking about race in this country more clearly and openly than we have almost ever in the history of this country," Smith added. "Racism is not getting worse, it's getting filmed."

His split from Jada Pinkett Smith

Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, have been open about facing difficulties in their marriage over the years, but their biggest stumbling block might have come in 2011.

Will had prepared an elaborate party for her 40th birthday, as he recounted in his memoir. The three days of festivities included painting lesson with a painter she likes, a documentary he commissioned about Jada's family, a personal performance from Mary J. Blige, and photos of Jada lining a gorgeous archway decorated with flowers. In his mind, Will was the best husband, but to Jada, it was nothing more than an over-the-top display of her husband's ego. She was done with the weekend, and Will decided he was done with their relationship. He recalled saying, "I retire. I retire from trying to make you happy ... I quit — you go do you, and I'm-a go do me."

The couple decided to separate temporarily and Will coped by retreating into ayahuasca with the help of a shaman. "I was floating deep in outer space ... I was trillions of light-years away from earth," the actor wrote, sharing how he ended up tripping on the psychotropic tea 14 times (via the New York Post). "I totally opened myself up to what, I think, was a fresh sampling of the fruits of the human experience," Will recalled in an interview with GQ. Eventually he reunited with Jada, restoring their unconventional marriage.

The death of James Avery

As Uncle Phil on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," the actor James Avery became a paternal figure to Will Smith — both on-screen and behind the scenes. So Smith was just as devastated as the rest of the world when Avery died in 2013 after open heart surgery went wrong, per The Hollywood Reporter.

"Some of my greatest lessons in Acting, Living and being a respectable human being came through James Avery," Smith wrote in a tribute posted to his Facebook page. "Every young man needs an Uncle Phil. Rest in Peace." And when the cast of the classic sitcom reunited in 2020, he reflected on the lessons that the older man taught him. "James Avery was this six-foot-four, 300-pound stage-trained Shakespearean beast and I'm the little rapper from Philly under him and I wanted him to think I was good," the actor explained on the HBO Max special (via The Independent), recalling how they improvised the iconic scene in which Smith's character is abandoned by his dad. "And I fall into his arms at the end of the scene, he's holding me and he's holding me. He whispered into my ear, 'Now that's acting.'"

In a special video from the whole cast in 2020, Smith called Avery a rock, sharing how he helped Smith career decisions as well as helping to hone his acting abilities. "He was Uncle Phil, father, protector, teacher, defender, preacher, to everybody. Everybody on the set was his kids," Smith added.

Will Smith's film with his son flopped

As one of the biggest movie stars in the world, Will Smith hasn't experienced many big flops. But the sci-fi survival film "After Earth," which happens to also star his son Jaden Smith, became a notorious failure. As Deadline reported at the time, the high-budget action film earned $26.5 million during its opening week, despite the studio expecting that it would take at least $40 million. And the critical response was brutal, especially toward the young Jaden.

"That was the most painful failure in my career," Will later admitted to Esquire in 2015. "'Wild Wild West' was less painful than 'After Earth' because my son was involved in 'After Earth' and I led him into it. That was excruciating." Getting into why he stepped away from the movie business for a short while, he said, "I had to dive into why it was so important for me to have number-one movies. And I never would have looked at myself in that way." 

Will believed that his competitive determination to be the best made him hold onto a mindset from childhood. "All I have to do is make sure that no one's ever better than me and I'll have the love that my heart yearns for," he said. "And I never released that and moved into a mature way of looking at the world and my artistry and love until the failure of 'After Earth,' when I had to accept that it's not a good source of creation."

The death of his father

The failure of "After Earth" was quickly put into perspective by some personal news: Will Smith found out that his father had cancer in 2016, just after the movie star started working on a film about cancer.

"I said yes, and three weeks later, my father was diagnosed," he told USA Today, reflecting on how shooting the movie "Collateral Beauty" forced him to reckon with his parent's illness. "Having to face my father's mortality and impending death while I was preparing for this role gave us a really wonderful interaction during that time." Smith explained that they were able to speak about topics they had never explored before and be honest with each other. "So it was a beautiful way to prepare for a movie and an even more majestic way to say goodbye to my father."

During "Will Smith: An Evening of Stories with Friends," the movie star revealed to Spike Lee that his father had been given just over a month to live, per People. "It's something interesting when somebody knows that they're gonna die. If somebody knows they're dying and you know, it changes everything in the interaction," he observed, urging anyone with difficult family relationships to reach out while they still had time. "We tuned into one another in a way that we never had. He was given six weeks but he ended up living for three months."

Jada Pinkett Smith's entanglement

Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith's marriage came under a lot of public scrutiny in 2020 when the latter was linked to August Alsina. In an episode of "Red Table Talk," the couple addressed the headlines about Jada's "entanglement" and explained their nontraditional marriage. One shot of Will seemingly in tears went viral, although he denied crying in GQ. "It was midnight and we were going on vacation the next day," he insisted. "It was like, no, no, no, guys, I'm not sad. I'm f***ing exhausted."

The actor also clarified that they hadn't been traditionally monogamous for a while. "Jada never believed in conventional marriage," Will revealed. "Jada had family members that had an unconventional relationship. So she grew up in a way that was very different than how I grew up." They had many conversations about how to negotiate their marriage, particularly after their 2011 split. "We have given each other trust and freedom, with the belief that everybody has to find their own way," he shared, noting that they want to avoid a relationship dynamic that makes either person feel like they're trapped. He also acknowledges that what works for them may not work for everyone. "I don't suggest our road for anybody," he said. "But the experiences that the freedoms that we've given one another and the unconditional support, to me, is the highest definition of love."

Struggles with mental health

Will Smith has also been honest with his fans about how he struggled with his mental health when he was younger. In his memoir, the actor shared that he thought about committing suicide when he was 13, after his mother, Caroline Bright, finally left. "She'd had enough," he wrote, explaining that his father's physical abuse had pushed her over the edge. "She went to work the next morning and didn't come home. She didn't go far — just a few blocks to (grandmother) Gigi's house — but the message was clear: She was done."

After that turn of events, Smith contemplated suicide, writing that he only considered it a couple of times in his life. "What kept ringing in my mind was a faint memory of hearing Gigi say that killing yourself was a sin," he recalled. Decades later, Smith addressed those suicidal thoughts on his YouTube series "Best Shape of My Life," which tracked the actor's journey with his mental and physical health. He even spoke to his mother about his memories from that time, confessing that he felt cowardly for never stepping in between his parents. "We've never talked about it," Smith revealed.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.