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November 10, 2021

Will Smith says his father's death motivated him to write his new memoir

The West Philly native describes his dad as an abusive alcoholic but also 'the greatest man I have ever known'

Will Smith can add author to his critically-acclaimed resume now the actor and rapper's new memoir, "Will," officially hit bookshelves Tuesday.

During an appearance Tuesday night on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," Smith talked about how terrifying it was to write his first book.

"I bled on (the book), man," Smith told Fallon. "In Philly, we call that putting your business in the street."

"Will" chronicles Smith's journey from West Philly kid to Hollywood television and movie star. The memoir also focuses on his family life, including Smith's complicated relationship with his late father, Willard Carroll Smith Sr., 

Smith Sr. died from cancer in 2016, and his son wrote in his memoir that he witnessed his father physically assault his mother. Smith also described his dad as a "violent alcoholic." The star even admitted there was a time he wanted to kill his dad for absuing his mom.

Smith, 53, said that his father's death allowed him to finally confront difficult things from his childhood and talk about them for the first time.

"(My father's death) was a big part of getting the freedom to talk about it," Smith told Fallon. "Somehow, after he passed, I got free. There were things I just never would've talked about from my childhood while he was alive. My father was the greatest man I've ever known, but he also had some issues. He was really a double-edged sword. Those experiences didn't fit into the narrative of Will Smith. After he passed, I guess I felt like I had suffered enough in my life that I could give advice. It feels like you can't give advice until you've earned it. I just felt like I was in a place in my life where I had reflected enough and I had healed enough things and experienced enough things that I felt that it would have some value of what I was saying."

"The amount of reflection on my life, and even in the process of writing, it's really great to actually have to go back through and look at your life and there are so many things that we all have that we refuse to look at," Smith continued.

Smith embraced the writing process because it forced him to reflect on his life, even parts had had previously refused to revisit. It was liberating, he said, "just put down the character and to be able to go out into the world and just live authentically as you are."

Smith also shared the difficulty he had telling his mom, who worked for the School District of Philadelphia's board of education, that he wasn't going to college. But he said his decision proved to be the right path quickly when a few years later in 1989 the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff won the first Grammy Award for best rap performance for "Parents Just Don't Understand."

Smith is on a book tour promoting "Will." The promotional circuit kicked off Monday at The Met Philadelphia.

The actor is also out on the interview circuit talking about his new film, "King Richard," which debuts Nov. 19 in theaters and on HBO Max. Smith stars as Richard Williams, the father of professional tennis players Serena and Venus Williams. The biopic tells the story of the Williams' sisters journey from Compton, California, to becoming two of the greatest tennis players of all-time, with their father Richard serving as a driving force for their success.

Smith has portrayed real-life, living people on screen before – "Ali," "The Pursuit of Happyness" and "Concussion" – and he said the experience can be terrifying, knowing the person he is depicting will see his performance. Williams, 79, has seen his health decline in recent years, having suffered multiple strokes since 2016.

Smith may have been even more terrified when it came to hearing what the Williams' sisters thought about the film. 

"Venus and Serena were really excited about the possibility and they said that they would potentially be executive producers and they would walk us through the whole process, but they were gonna withhold whether or not they'd put their names on the film until they saw it," Smith said on "The Tonight Show." "So then I get the call that Venus and Serena are walking into the theater to see the film, and it's the worst two hours. Because you spent so much time creating these things, and there's literally only one audience." 

Both women loved the movie and cried the entire time watching it, the actor said.

Smith also said that portraying Richard Williams in the film gave him a different perspective on the man who trained his daughters from a young age before they went on to win a combined 30 Grand Slam titles in their careers.

"What was really interesting to me is that we all feel like we have a picture of Richard Williams, and it's the classic overbearing father hammering his children," Smith said. "But sitting with Venus and Serena and their sisters and their mother, it was completely the opposite. He was a loving, caring, doting father. Venus referred to it as the 'Jedi mind trick' that he had somehow made it so they would have to ask him, 'Please Daddy, can we play tennis?' Their punishment would be that they couldn't play tennis when they got in trouble."

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