Will Smith's Path to the Oscars Started with 'Six Degrees of Separation' (2022)

Will Smith's Path to the Oscars Started with 'Six Degrees of Separation' (1)

Consider for a moment: you’re an up-and-coming television actor at the helm of a wildly successful sitcom. A move to the silver screen would seem like the inevitable next step, but your Hollywood bona fides are far from established. You anxiously await the call for your agent to tell you that you’ve made it, the big one has come through, you’re a multi-millionaire. All of your debts are cleared. You’re a leading man.

When James Lassiter, Will Smith’s longtime manager and childhood friend, called him with the offer of a major studio deal involving a $10 million contract, he advised Smith to turn it down. “It’s the wrong look,” Lassiter said, as Smith—then a few seasons deep into The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—details in his recent autobiography. “If you truly want to be the biggest movie star in the world, do not take this movie.” It was gangster comedy 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, made in 1997 on a modest budget with David Spade in Smith’s place. Duffel Bag was no star-maker.

Now, Smith is manifestly recognized as one of the biggest stars on the planet. His name is synonymous with superstardom, paralleled only by the Tom Cruises, Angelina Jolies, and Denzel Washingtons of the world. At the box office, his movies have drawn more than $6 billion in global receipts; awards bodies the world over have recognized his unshakable charisma and atypical versatility, with an upcoming Oscar win broadly divined for King Richard. But this was not always the case.

(Video) Six Degrees of Separation (1/12) Movie CLIP - I Was Mugged (1993) HD

Lassiter called Smith, by the latter’s recollection, a month later. “People are not taking you seriously yet as an actor,” he said. “We gotta go against stereotypical roles. We need to make people forget they’re watching a rapper.” There was a new offer on the table, and Lassiter was, to say the least, excited: an indie flick packed with incandescent talent, wherein Smith would be nestled among Donald Sutherland, Stockard Channing, and Ian McKellen. He took Six Degrees of Separation for $300,000.

Smith had boasted a smattering of roles prior to Six Degrees. In 1993's Made in America, he played very much to his established irreverent, comedic type, orbiting the leads (Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Danson) and providing humorous asides. Marc Rocco’s seldom-seen 1992 social drama Where the Day Takes You, a story of L.A. vagabonds in the vein of early Gus Van Sant, placed him as a paraplegic drifter. It offered an early showcase of his emotional verisimilitude, and the New York Times described it as “light-years away from sitcom humor”—but, contrary to what you might expect, it was Made in America that led to Six Degrees.

Will Smith's Path to the Oscars Started with 'Six Degrees of Separation' (2)

“I looked at a number of people,” Fred Schepisi, the director of Six Degrees, says over Zoom. “Originally, MGM were financing the film wholly, and then they decided they could only spring for half of it.” In his search for backing, Schepisi turned to producer Arnon Milchan at New Regency, who had just completed Made in America and found earlier success with The War of the Roses and Pretty Woman. Smith came at Milchan's recommendation.

“I didn’t just accept it," Schepisi recalls. "I kind of said, ‘Let me speak to him. Let’s give him the same as everybody else.’ But Will came along, and he came almost as his character—certainly very enthusiastic. And I thought, 'Yeah, okay, it seems like a damn good idea.' I said, ‘You know, you’re gonna have to change the way you speak. You’re gonna work with a voice coach in the lead-up to the film, and also you’ll work with an acting coach.’ What we decided to do was he’d come and see me once a week, and we’d catch up on where he was at.”

(Video) Six Degrees of Separation (1993) | Official Trailer | MGM Studios

Ellen Chenoweth, the Six Degrees casting director, had a list of “around 20 guys” they had previously considered for the part: “Singers, rappers, actors; some people, like Will, were all of those things. But we settled on him as the most interesting choice.” She stops short of naming any specific alternatives—“I don’t really like doing that,” she says—but notes it was a “leap of faith” for Schepisi to choose Smith. “I have to say, he was not proven as a dramatic actor,” she says. “I think it was the charisma, the charm, the smile; he was a really handsome guy.”

The casting was certainly subversive. Smith’s character, Paul, is a seemingly well-to-do young man who, under the auspices of being a friend of their children at Harvard—as well as the son of Sidney Poitier—cozies his way into the good graces of a bourgeois New York couple, played by Channing and Sutherland. He’s soon revealed to be a gay hustler who has pursued the same ploy with many of Manhattan's esteemed intelligentsia. The role, like Paul’s own performance, demanded electric wit, striking magnetism, and a devious air of coercion.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Channing was performing in the original stage version of Six Degrees on the West End, opposite Adrian Lester’s Paul. “I was sort of preoccupied,” Channing recalls by phone. “It was a very interesting procedure trying to get this movie on. I was basically hired, and all of that. And they said, ‘We’ve found the guy who’s going to play the young man,’ and I said, ‘Oh, great.’ They said to me he’d been a singer, he was famous, had a big television series, blahdy-blah.” Schepisi, Lassiter, and an immensely keen Smith flew to London.

“My military upbringing kicked into gear—I had my mission: I needed to smash this role,” Smith reflects in his book. They went to see the show in its final weeks on the West End. “We went out afterwards,” Channing says. “We instantly liked each other. It’s really pretty simple, you know. I don’t know what that’s about, but we had a lovely time. I remember walking across Leicester Square together, going to dinner, and it was all very easygoing.”

Will Smith's Path to the Oscars Started with 'Six Degrees of Separation' (3)

In his initial months of preparation, Smith “would spend four or five days at a stretch without breaking character,” he recalls—and yet that isn’t something Schepisi ever noticed. “Certainly, obviously, he was getting as deeply as possible into the part,” Schepisi says. “But I don’t think I was really aware that he was doing the whole Method thing.”

Smith was initially bemused by his peers’ process. “The other characters were asking a whole heap of questions about the text— this, that, and the other,” Schepisi remembers. “Will looked at them and said, ‘God, you guys ask a lot of simple questions.’ Donald Sutherland looked at him and said, ‘That’s how we learn the character.’ So he got right into that. They all fed off Will’s enthusiasm, and he fed off their experience.” When Smith’s own line of questioning intensified, Schepisi tapped the support of writer John Guare, who’d received a Pulitzer nomination for Six Degrees. “I could see Will had a lot of talent, but in acting terms, it was pretty raw,” Schepisi says.

Chenoweth recalls a similar level of dedication. “When I met him during our rehearsal, I was struck by—he was quite serious and determined, and not that character at all," she says. "So it was real acting. I don’t know that we all knew how great he could be. We could tell from the TV show that he was fun, and that he was charming, but it certainly didn’t show the dark side of this character. That’s where Fred had to have a little bit of a gamble.”

But Six Degrees didn’t just subvert Smith’s well-trodden comic type. For a young Black man to play gay in the early ‘90s, a social moment dominated by anti-queer prejudice and AIDS hysteria, was actively risky. Indeed, many publicly straight actors still won't take queer parts. “He understood the risks,” Schepisi says. “But I think he understood more what a standout part it was.” He notes, however, that “some of his colleagues” advised him against kissing a man on-screen. “For many reasons, not just for career reasons. But it’s not a big deal—we simulated it. You wouldn’t know if he did or he didn’t.”

Smith received rave reviews for his turn in Six Degrees, a crucial first step in his journey from TV darling to Hollywood leading man. The movie wasn't a commercial knockout—it clawed back just over a third of its modest $15 million budget—but it was hugely popular with critics, earning Channing her first and (thus far) only Oscar nomination. Most importantly, it laid groundwork for the next half-decade, which, as history now shows, would come to cement Smith's career.

(Video) Six Degrees of Separation (8/12) Movie CLIP - Stripping for Info (1993) HD

Many actors balk at admitting to having a plan—for most, there’s a sort of virtue in serendipity and chance—but Smith has shown refreshing candor. In his autobiography, he recounts his exhaustive search to find the "movie star" formula: “[Lassiter] grabbed a list of the top-ten-grossing movies to see if we could determine a pattern. And it was crystal clear. [...] We knew what we were looking for.” Special effects, creatures, and a romantic storyline—not necessarily in that order.

1995 brought his first action blockbuster, Bad Boys. It was a healthy hit. 1996’s Independence Day, released just three years after Six Degrees, was the highest-grossing film of the year, collecting close to double that of the second-placing title, Twister. It had special effects, creatures, and a romantic storyline. Twister did not have creatures.

“A few films [after Six Degrees], we were talking about maybe doing a film together,” Schepisi says. They didn’t make it, however, because Smith had just appeared in a film with a similar role, and he didn’t want to double up. That, in a nutshell, is the Will Smith road map to movie stardom: diversify your portfolio, refuse to stick to a specific type, and never take the easy route. “It’s a wise thing to do,” Schepisi concludes. And so it has proven to be.

(Video) The Science of Six Degrees of Separation

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(Video) Will Smith Opens Up About The Untold Truth Of Him Being Gay After Slapping Chris Rock

Jack King is a London-based freelance writer for the likes of GQ and Vulture. You can find him on Twitter at @jackarking. He sends his apologies in advance.


What was the point of Six Degrees of Separation movie? ›

One of the most common themes of Six Degrees of Separation is the nature of relationships between people. Even the title alludes to the importance and possibility of human relationships, and more significantly, the emerging network of human connections that directly result from postmodern reality.

Is Six Degrees of Separation a true story? ›

The plot of the film was inspired by the real-life story of David Hampton, a con man and robber who convinced a number of people in the 1980s that he was the son of actor Sidney Poitier.

What happens at the end of 6 degrees of separation? ›

The final conversation that takes place between Ouisa and Paul shows his desire to belong to them. He wants to live with them or take over Flan's business. He has started to call himself Paul Poitier-Kittredge.

Who is the protagonist in Six Degrees of Separation? ›

Modern art hangs heavy over the lives of the characters in John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation. Literally. Suspended over the living room of Flan and Ouisa Kittredge–the play's protagonists and narrators, in whose Manhattan apartment most of the action is set–is a painting by Wassily Kandinsky.

Is Six Degrees of Separation satire? ›

When it debuted in 1990, John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation played like a satire of liberal values after the hugely disruptive confusions of a decade of Reaganism. The married couple at its core, Flan and Ouisa Kittredge, are, after all, privileged New Yorkers trapped in a farce of their own making.

How old is Will Smith? ›

Who is Tess in Six Degrees of Separation? ›

Six Degrees of Separation (1993) - Catherine Kellner as Tess - IMDb.

How do you play Six Degrees? ›

How to Play: 6 Degrees The Connection Card Game - YouTube

What could you do on Six Degrees? ›

Users could send messages and post bulletin board items to people in their first, second, and third degrees, and see their connection to any other user on the site. SixDegrees was one of the first social networking sites of the general form that is in widespread use today.

How many degrees of separation are there? ›

Six degrees of separation is the idea that all people are six or fewer social connections away from each other. As a result, a chain of "friend of a friend" statements can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps. It is also known as the six handshakes rule.

What is the meaning of one degree of separation? ›

' A 'degree of separation' is a measure of social distance between people. You are one degree away from everyone you know, two degrees away from everyone they know, and so on.

What are the 6 degrees of freedom in engineering? ›

(6 Degrees Of Freedom) The amount of motion supported in a robotics or virtual reality system. Six degrees provides X, Y and Z (horizontal, vertical and depth) and pitch, yaw and roll. Three degrees of freedom (3DOF) provides X, Y and Z only. See pitch-yaw-roll.

Who is Tess in Six Degrees of Separation? ›

Six Degrees of Separation (1993) - Catherine Kellner as Tess - IMDb.

Was Sidney Poitier in Six Degrees of Separation? ›

Sidney Poitier, who died at age 94 on Thursday, didn't star in Will Smith's 1993 film Six Degrees of Separation, but it wouldn't have been made without him. The play and film told the story of David Hampton, a real-life young man who conned wealthy New Yorkers in the '80s by pretending to be Poitier's son.


1. Interesting facts about Will Smith
(Buzz wonder)
2. Six Degrees of Separation (4/12) Movie CLIP - Everybody's a Phony (1993) HD
3. Six Degrees of Separation (1993) | Rick & Paul’s Night Out | MGM Studios
4. The Script - Six Degrees of Separation (Official Video)
(The Script)
5. Six Degrees of Separation (3/12) Movie CLIP - The Life of Sidney Poitier (1993) HD
6. Six Degrees of Separation Official Trailer #1 - Donald Sutherland Movie (1993) HD
(Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers)

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