After rapping about parents just not understanding and extolling the virtues of summertime with DJ Jazzy Jeff, Will Smith achieved TV stardom as the titular Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (where poor Jeff usually got acquainted with the ground, on the order of Judge Philip Banks). Soon enough, Smith was starring in blockbusters like Independence Day (1996) and I, Robot (2004), crowd-pleasing franchises like the Men in Black and Bad Boys films, and romantic comedies like Hitch (2005), plus earning critical praise (and Oscar nominations) for his work in the dramas Ali (2001) and The Pursuit of Happyness (2006).
As Oscar buzz continues to build around Smith's performance in Concussion, in which he plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, a pathologist who discovers the horrific after-effects of playing professional football, here's a look back at some of the could-have-beens in Smith's career.
1. SNAKE EYES (1998)
Smith was set to co-star with Nicolas Cage in the Brian De Palma-directed film. He would have played the role of Commander Dunne, which eventually went to Gary Sinise. Smith passed on account of not being offered enough money.
2. THE MATRIX (1999)
Johnny Depp was the Wachowskis’ original choice to play Neo in The Matrix, but Will Smith was offered the part at some point in the casting process. In 2004, he told WIRED that he had no regrets about saying no to the film, explaining that, “The Matrix is a difficult concept to pitch. In the pitch, I just didn't see it. I watched Keanu [Reeves'] performance—and very rarely do I say this—but I would have messed it up. I would have absolutely messed up The Matrix. At that point I wasn't smart enough as an actor to let the movie be. Whereas Keanu was smart enough to just let it be. Let the movie and the director tell the story, and don't try and perform every moment.”
3. K-PAX (2001)
“I loved, loved, loved [the script for] K-PAX”, Smith admitted to MTV. “But it never really jelled in my mind. I always wanted to make that movie.” Kevin Spacey, who was originally offered the role of the psychiatrist (later played by Jeff Bridges), stepped in and played Prot instead.
4. OSMOSIS JONES (2001)
The live action/animation hybrid was planned to have featured Smith as the voice of the titular character. After script issues and conflicting schedules forced Smith to leave the project, Chris Rock took the role.
5. PHONE BOOTH (2002)
Colin Farrell ended up playing Stu Shepard in Joel Schumacher's claustrophobic thriller. Smith claimed he “loved” the script, but passed because the “bad guy’s story wasn’t clear enough.”
6. THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE (2002)
In Jonathan Demme’s remake of Charade (1963), Mark Wahlberg portrayed Lewis Bartholomew/Joshua Peters, a role originally played by Cary Grant. Smith was offered the part, but declined in order to star in Michael Mann's Ali (2001) instead. Which was a smart move, as Smith was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, whereas Charlie was ignored by awards shows and audiences alike.
7. MR. AND MRS. SMITH (2005)
Originally the title roles were to go to Brad Pitt and Nicole Kidman. Kidman had to leave the project when The Stepford Wives (2004) went over schedule. When Kidman left, Pitt also dropped out, leading director Doug Liman to consider pairing Will Smith and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Then Johnny Depp and Cate Blanchett. When Pitt stepped back in, it was going to co-star his ex-fiancée, Gwyneth Paltrow. Then Angelina Jolie came along.
8. SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006)
Brandon Routh played the one superhero Hollywood has seemed to have trouble finding success with since Christopher Reeve retired the cape because Smith turned the role down. Smith's explanation: “I had already done Jim West [of Wild Wild West (1999)], and you can’t be messing up white people’s heroes in Hollywood! You mess up white people’s heroes in Hollywood, you’ll never work in this town again!”
9. DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)
In 2013, Smith claimed that he turned down the titular role in Quentin Tarantino's slave-turned-vigilante epic because he believed that the bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) was the real star in the film. In 2015, he said he wanted to make the movie more romantic—“I wanted to make the greatest love story that African-Americans had ever seen.” Despite not seeing eye-to-eye with the writer-director, he said he thought the movie was “brilliant.”
10. INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE (2016)
Earlier this year, writer-director Roland Emmerich insisted that Smith was “excited” to reprise the role of fighter pilot Captain Steven Hiller in next year's Independence Day sequel, with Vivica A. Fox set to come back as his wife Jasmine and a young actor cast as their son. But then After Earth (2013) bombed at the box office and Smith changed his mind. “In the very beginning, I wanted to work with him and he was excited to be in it but then after a while he was tired of sequels, and he did another science fiction film, which was his father-son story, so he opted out,” Emmerich explained.