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‘Men in Black’ at 25: How the Sci-Fi Hit Made Will Smith the Biggest Star of His Era

MEN IN BLACK, Will smith, 1997.
©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Eve

If Steven Spielberg had his way, then “Men in Black” would have been a very important stepping stone in the career of…Chris O’Donnell.

The superstar filmmaker, who was tasked with producing the sci-fi comedy that opened July 2, 1997, thought that the role of Agent J was tailor-made for the rising actor. Although the idea of O’Donnell teaming up with Tommy Jones may seem ludicrous now, it made sense at the time. After all, O’Donnell’s star was at its zenith in the mid-1990s, propelled by buzzy turns in “Scent of a Woman” and “Mad Love,” and not yet brought crashing back to Earth by the disaster that was “Batman & Robin.”

However, the film’s director Barry Sonnenfeld disagreed that the wholesome, hunky O’Donnell was right for the youthful agent. Over a Spielberg-mandated dinner with O’Donnell in which he was intended to convince the actor to sign on, Sonnenfeld offered up a subversive pitch.

″I told Chris that I wasn’t a very good director and I didn’t think the script was very good and if he had any other options, he shouldn’t do ‘Men in Black,'” Sonnenfeld recalled to the Huffington Post in 2017.  “He let it be known the next day that he was not interested.”

A deep dive into the Variety archives reveals that tapping the right person to don Agent J’s signature Ray Bans held up production on “Men in Black.” Jones, who would go on to play Agent K, the strait-laced government agent tasked with keeping tabs on the world’s secret alien population, had already been cast, but the film’s producers had yet to find their J. In an Aug. 5, 1995 article, Variety reported that the movie “…which was to go before the cameras before the end of the year, still has no second lead.” Other bad ideas rumored to have once been in contention to be Jones’ wingman include David Schwimmer, who turned it down to direct a made-for-television movie.

But Sonnenfeld always thought Smith had the right combination of humor and charisma to provide some sizzle for the film. And it helped that the actor had just recently graduated from sitcom renown in “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” to full-blown movie stardom with “Bad Boys,” an action thriller that just happened to have been produced by the same studio behind “Men in Black.” That ultimately closed the deal, with Variety reporting on Sept. 25, 1995 that Smith had joined the cast — and for a cool $5 million.

Smith, the article noted, had a relationship with “Men in Black” backers Columbia Pictures that “…was solidified by the box office hit ‘Bad Boys.'” The article went on to say that Smith would move from “Men in Black” to start shooting “Bad Boys II,” a prediction that proved to be unrealistic since the latter film didn’t end up making it to screens until 2003, nearly eight years later.

That $5 million, head-turning at the time, ended up looking like a steal after Smith’s next film “Independence Day” dominated the box office when it was released on July 3, 1996, propelling him on to Hollywood’s A-list. When “Men in Black” opened over the same holiday weekend in 1997, Smith’s reputation was secured, as was his status as the “King of the Fourth of July.” The anniversary of America’s independence would go on to host such Smith hits as “Hancock” and “Men in Black II,” as well as the odd bomb in “Wild Wild West.” For good measure, not only did Smith help lure crowds to “Men in Black” with his acting, he also was responsible for its infectious title song, a chart-topper that was positively ubiquitous on the radio and MTV that summer (two ways of accessing music that haven’t aged as well as the movie).

To look back at Smith in “Men in Black” is to see that ineffable “it” factor that spells the difference between a talented actor and a movie star. There are lots of great actors, after all, and only a handful of marquee performers, and it’s not always easy to understand the alchemy that is needed to achieve the kind of screen presence that puts butts in seats. But in “Men in Black,” Smith has it in spades. It’s on display in the thrilling chase sequence that finds Smith pursuing an unusually agile adversary through New York City streets, up to the roof of the Guggenheim, as well as in the odd-couple banter he’s able to achieve with Jones (never the easiest of co-stars, as Jim Carrey can attest). And it’s also because instead of being a steroidal action hero in the mold of previous leading men such as Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone, Smith had the good sense to ground his characters in something like reality.

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Will Smith, Rip Torn and Tommy Lee Jones confront a mysterious alien in “Men in Black.” ©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Eve

“That whole super-guy thing, the super-macho man who jumps in front of a bullet just to be tough, is not really appealing,” Smith told Newsweek while promoting “Men in Black.” “It’s more appealing when you duck.”

Smith’s appeal, like that of most movie stars, has dimmed in an era where pre-established IP and superheroes are the new stars. Some of that is attributable to shifting tastes, and some of it is Smith’s own fault. There were too many undercooked vanity projects like “After Earth” and “Collateral Beauty,” and not enough movies like “King Richard” that expanded the parameters of his big-screen persona. That’s to say nothing of the Oscar slap, which in an instant jeopardized all of the goodwill that Smith had established over decades in the public eye. It was a moment of extraordinary delusion and entitlement from which he may never fully recover.

But 25 years ago, when “Men in Black” hit theaters all of those triumphs and disasters were still waiting to unfold in front of Smith. What lay ahead was possibility — and that is a thrilling thing to witness preserved on celluloid.

It was a future so bright, you had to wear shades.