The Man Who Made a Star of Will Smith

08.2.2004 | Jonathan Leaf | Film | 1 Comment
“Will Smith was completely broke when I met him.”
Andy Borowitz, who along with his wife Susan Borowitz had created Smith’s popular television show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, was speaking. Six-foot-four inches tall, Borowitz was seated in the upstairs lounge at the Friars Club, the famed private frat-house for comedians in midtown New York.

I faced him at a heavy wooden table in a plushly carpeted room that was completely empty but for us and one impassive bar-man. Borowitz, who has recently re-invented himself as one of National Public Radio and The New Yorker’s best and best-liked humor writers, was sipping a cocktail and telling me about his sojourn in Hollywood.

A native of Ohio with good Midwestern manners and an easy-going affability, Borowitz had been brought out to Los Angeles in the 1980s by TV producer and Norman Lear-partner Bud Yorkin. Borowitz was just twenty-one and newly graduated from Harvard and its illustrious Lampoon, a magazine of which he had been the editor not long before another tall, precocious writer named Conan O’Brien.

With some trepidations, Borowitz had packed up his things and driven cross-country — away from his girlfriend and future wife and into the business of penning scripts for shows like “The Facts of Life”. He admits that he had little clear plan of what he was doing, and that he was likely fortunate to befriend the late NBC president, Brandon Tartikoff.

Tartikoff’s patronage would come in handy when record producer Quincy Jones proposed that Andy and Susan and NBC try to create a network sitcom featuring a teen rapper from Philadelphia. The idea was at first vague, and, while they didn’t know it, their future “I, Robot” star was in some difficulty.

“Will owed something like a million dollars in back taxes, and his record company thought he was washed up and didn’t want to put more money into him. At the same time, while he was very raw, you could see that he was bright and that he had presence.” And with time Smith got better and better. “When I watch him now”, Borowitz says, “he doesn’t seem to me to be acting — which, after all, is what you aim for.”

One person that Borowitz thinks Smith learned from was a dreadlocked actor the show brought in for a supporting role on one of its first episodes: future “Traffic” star Don Cheadle. “You could see that Will was really struck by how prepared he was, how much of a pro he was, how Don really knew exactly what he was after with every line and every scene.”

But Smith wasn’t the only one who was impressed. Borowitz and his wife saw a unique talent in Cheadle and decided to fashion a new show for him, which never made it to the airwaves. In the meantime though, changes were taking place at NBC. Their one-time mentor, Tartikoff, was about to leave and be replaced by his officious and widely-despised subordinate, Warren Littlefield.

Littlefield attended the show’s first taping while waiting to take over. “The taping went amazingly well. We got about as many laughs as you can, and I remember Warren telling me that it was clearly the best taping he’d been at all year — and the show was definitely going on the air.”

But once Littlefield took over as president and their friend Tartikoff had left things proved to be different. The new Pharaoh knew not Joseph. “Littlefield wanted shows starring pretty people like Jenny McCarthy. The idea that a show succeeded based on an actor’s talent was really alien to him.”

Years during which the Borowitzs were paid large sums to develop new shows that never quite made it followed Fresh Prince’s success. “We had this really big success right at the beginning of our time there and at first you kind of assume it will keep happening automatically. But, eventually, you realize that it’s an odd combination of circumstances that makes a hit: having the right star in the right role with the rights scripts and supporting actors, timing, network support and approval.”

Borowitz also noticed that everyone liked to take credit for a success. “I remember,” he said, “there was this one network development woman who had it on her resume that she’d helped develop ?Fresh Prince’ and the only thing I can ever recall about her was her showing up for a few tapings and loudly arguing on the phone with her boyfriend in the control room while they were going on.”

Possibly for that reason he’s very loath to take any of the credit he might for having been one of the producers of the movie “Plesantville”, a popular film which starred two then virtually unknown actors named Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon. (“That was Gary,” he says, referring to the movie’s writer-director Gary Ross.)

In the meantime, the Borowitzs had had two children who were starting to get older. “We’d been in Hollywood for a while, and while we weren’t old news — in fact, we’d just been offered this big new deal from Disney when we left — I was a little afraid of becoming that. Hollywood is a funny place, and our children were growing up apart from all their relatives. Susan wanted to go back east to New York, where her family is, and I agreed.”

The couple sold their home, moved to Westchester, and Borowitz began trying to do something he’d hardly done in L.A. — develop his own writing style. A Liberal, he found juicy targets in writing about Conservative politicians and soon started his own political humor website. Now he appears frequently on morning chat shows and is asked to emcee events and do stand-up. His combination of irreverent wit and engaging Midwestern warmth makes him an audience favorite (At the two performances of his I saw, he “killed”, stealing both shows.)

Of course, he does have some fears about the new career he’s entered upon. “After all, if I become more popular doing stand-up, what’s that going to lead to — offers of sitcoms in L.A.”

This is a fun profile. But if Will Smith doesn't appear to be acting, it's because he ain't -- and that's not a good thing...
08.2.2004 | Sidney Coutier

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