Pursuit of Happyness, The: Real-Life Story, Starring Will Smith at his Best

┬áIn The Pursuit of Happyness, Chris Gardner (played by Will Smith) is a bright and talented, but marginally employed salesman. Struggling to make ends meet, Gardner finds himself and his 5-year old son (played by Smith’s real-life son, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith) evicted from their San Francisco apartment with nowhere to go.
No longer able to cope, his wife (played by Thandie Newton) leaves him and moves to New York. When Gardner lands an internship at a prestigious stock brokerage firm, he and his son endure many hardships, including living in shelters, in pursuit of his dream of a better life for the two of them.

TV’s Beginnings

In 2003, executive producer Mark Clayman, a writer and actor, was one of many Americans who saw a story about Chris Gardner on TV’s 20/20. As he recalls: “My wife and I are not avid 20/20 watchers, but we caught this segment, which discussed how Chris was faced with amazing obstacles, homelessness being at the forefront. There was a scene where he revisited a bathroom at a Bart station with his son, and he talked about how he used to bath him in the sink of the restroom.

Bathing in the Restroom

Since we had a son who was a year old at that time, we both were moved to tears by it. I saw it not as a rags-to-riches story, but as a moving father-and-son tale. I turned to my wife and said, ‘I’ve got to get the rights to this story and this could be a home run for Will Smith.”

Gardner’s Version

Chris Gardner’s phone had been ringing off the hook the morning after 20/20 segment aired, but Clayman commanded his attention, because, as he says, “he was honest, direct, sincere, and to the point.”

Father-and-Son Tale

A meeting was set up at the production company, Escape Artists, whose three partners Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, and Steve Tisch had, in the past, individually been responsible for such films as “Antwone Fisher,” “American History X,” and the Oscar-winning “Forrest Gump.” “Chris Gardner’s story was universal,” says Blumenthal,” “It was about how far a father would go to protect his son and to keep him safe. It contained an emotional nucleus that touched everyone and we used that as a stepping stone into a story inspired by Chris Gardner’s life.”

Like Rocky

Blumethal’s partner, Todd Black, was also moved and inspired, as he recalls: “I immediately said, ‘My God, this is a fantastic story. It’s like Rockya guy who is completely beaten down and goes on to succeed.’ It was definitely a movie, and we wanted to be the ones who made it.”

Getting Will Smith

Black and Blumenthal contacted producer James Lassiter, Will Smith’s partner in Overlook Entertainment. Lassiter, too, was impressed by the story: “I knew it would appeal to Will both as a man and as a father.” Lassiter sent the 20/20 tape to Vancouver, where Will Smith was shooting “I, Robot,” and less than 24 hours later, the actor responded.

American Hope and Will

Says Will Smith: “From the moment I watched the 20/20 piece, I saw the story as the embodiment of the American Dream. The concept this country is based on is the hope that any person armed with their own will and determination can create their situationfrom the lowest of the low to the highest of the high.

Would I have Been Man Enough? Father Enough?

Smith explains: “Anytime you se someone who displays that kind of greatness and diligence, the natural question you ask yourself is: ‘Would I have been able to do that? Would I have been man enough, father enough, husband enough to stand up and face the adversity the way that person didthe way Chris Gardner did These were all questions I asked myself.”