Will Smith's Men In Black Casting Wasn't The Director's Idea

For a long stretch that began in the '90s and carried over into the 2000s, Will Smith was the king of the summer blockbuster: "Independence Day," "I, Robot," "Hancock," just to name a few. According to Will Smith himself, this was no coincidence. "I am a serious summer movie fan, and I know the type of movie that needs to be in July," Smith said in 2004. "I have a sense of what audiences want to see."

One of the movies included in Smith's summer catalog is 1997's sci-fi action-comedy "Men in Black." Smith and Tommy Lee Jones work as secret agents who police aliens living on earth unbeknownst to us humans. While Smith sensed that the movie would become a summer blockbuster and jumped at the opportunity to play Agent Jay, the film's director, Barry Sonnenfeld, didn't initially have Smith in mind for the role. The idea to plug the "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" actor in that spot came from someone very special in Sonnenfeld's life.

The studios wanted Chris O'Donnell

In an interview with Vulture, "Men in Black" director Barry Sonnenfeld revealed that Chris O'Donnell, not Will Smith, was the choice to pair with Tommy Lee Jones. This decision came from the movie's production companies, Columbia Pictures and the Steven Spielberg-headed Amblin Entertainment. Picking someone like O'Donnell over Smith actually makes some sense, given the time. The "The Scent of a Woman" actor was at the top of his game. He had sex appeal and could play the hotheaded young buck to juxtapose against the no nonsense, intimidating traits possessed by Tommy Lee Jones' character. 

O'Donnell's performance in "Batman & Robin," which came out just a month before "Men in Black," would get panned by critics — though I believe the criticism was a little too harsh for a performance in a campy superhero movie. He was nominated for two Razzie Awards, one of which was for worst onscreen couple with George Clooney, who played Batman. While I do stand by my belief that O'Donnell's showing in "Batman & Robin" was over-criticized, his onscreen dynamic with Clooney — and even with Val Kilmer in "Batman Forever" for that matter –- were probably signs that his onscreen chemistry with Tommy Lee Jones would have paled in comparison to Jones and Will Smith's.

Barry Sonnenfeld's wife wanted Will Smith

"Men in Black" director Barry Sonnenfeld shared in the interview with Vulture that it was his wife who envisioned Will Smith in the role of Agent Jay. As told by Sonnenfeld, he would always get two copies of the scripts he was set to read and give one copy to his wife, Susan, whom he affectionately calls Sweetie. They would read together. "I remember for 'MIB,' lying in our bed, we finished them at the same time, and I said to her, 'Tommy Lee Jones,' and she said to me, 'Will Smith.' And that part wasn't written for a young black rookie," Sonnenfeld said. "And it's only because of Sweetie that we thought of Will." Apparently, Sweetie's foresight was ahead of her time.

Similar to Chris O'Donnell, Smith was a rising movie star in '90s. And after being associated with his squeaky-clean rap music and silly antics on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," one pivotal chase scene in "Bad Boys" where a bare-chested Smith chased criminals as his unbuttoned shirt flapped against the wind is all it took to turn him into an overnight sex appeal magnet. Perhaps, Sweetie saw the chemistry Smith was able to build with his co-star Martin Lawrence in the buddy cop action comedy and foresaw him accomplishing the same in "MIB."

Barry Sonnenfeld tricks his way out of the Chris O'Donnell dilemma

Whatever Sweetie's insights were for suggesting Will Smith for the role of Agent Jay, Sonnenfeld agreed with them. So, how did he convince the head honchos over at Columbia Pictures and Amblin Entertainment to release their fixation on Chris O'Donnell? He didn't; he did the reverse. Here's what the director told Vulture:

"I had to go to dinner at The Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles with Chris O'Donnell, who was deciding between "Men in Black" and another movie. And I told him, 'Here's the truth. I'm not a very good director. I really don't have a clue. I don't think the script is very good. If I were you, I would take the other movie.'"

Every word that spilled out of Sonnenfeld's mouth was a two-timing, bold-face lie. "I was trying to get Chris not to do the movie," he said. "No, I think I am a good director." His ruse worked to perfection. He recounted this story to the Huffington Post and explained that the next day, O'Donnell told him he was not interested in "MIB." The director also revealed that it was none other than Steven Spielberg who personally wanted O'Donnell and instructed Sonnenfeld to have dinner with the actor at The Four Seasons. After Sonnenfeld made quick work of O'Donnell, he arranged a helicopter to transport Will Smith from a wedding in Philadelphia to New York for a meeting with Spielberg. Sonnenfeld said Smith and the revered "Jaws" director hit it off; the rest was history. 

Another gem from the Huff Post article is that executives originally wanted Clint Eastwood in the role of Tommy Lee Jones' Agent Kay. Can you imagine Clint Eastwood and Chris O'Donnell in the leading roles of "Men in Black"? And speaking of gems, bless the heart of Sonnenfeld's wife, Sweetie. It's not everyday that the wife of a movie director earns the (unofficial) title of casting consultant.