Box Office Prince

WILL SMITH BATTLES ALIENS IN ""Independence Day,'' but that's nothing. Right now he's battling his own bodyguard. Tron is a 6-foot-4, 300-pound superhuman life force, and he has something Smith wants very badly: a newspaper. Smith makes a mad dash toward him. He grabs for the paper, but Tron swipes it away. They wrestle each other onto a couch, tussle and then: victory! Smith opens the paper to the movie grosses. ""Ninety-two million bucks over the first weekend,'' he exults. ""Incredible!'' A big smile spreads across his sweet-as-pie face.

Saving the world, breaking box-office records -- these days it seems Smith can do anything. At 27, he's got one of the most impressively varied rsums in young Hollywood. In 1993 he earned heaps of praise for his portrayal of a young homosexual posing as Sidney Poitier's son in the film ""Six Degrees of Separation.'' Last year he scored commercially with Martin Lawrence in the buddy-action picture ""Bad Boys.'' With ""Independence Day,'' he goes from big star to really, really big star. Smith plays Steve Hiller, a cigar-chomping marine pilot with old-fashioned American gumption: when an alien gives him attitude, he hauls off and socks it in the jaw. Smith's effortless charm and comic timing may not be the reason people are lining up for this movie, but he is the reason people are cheering at the end. ""I was happy to be a black man saving the world in "Independence Day','' he says. ""Black people have been saving the world for years, and nobody knew it.''

Smith has made a career out of doing more than expected. Raised in Philadelphia, the son of a refrigerator repairman and a school-district employee, he overachieved from an early age. He was offered a scholarship to MIT but turned it down to be a rapper. ""My mother told all the schools I got into to hold the dorm room, just hoping I'd change my mind,'' he says. ""I didn't.'' In 1988 DJ Jazzy Jeff (Jeff Townes) and the Fresh Prince (Smith) won the first rap Grammy. Smith spun off his homeboy-next-door persona for the hit NBC sitcom ""Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.'' But it was his brilliantly nuanced performance as a high-society scam artist in ""Six Degrees'' that brought him Hollywood credibility, even as the character's sexuality caused problems in the African-American community. ""There is homophobia,'' he says. ""But I think it's more that blacks have so few heroes that they want to see their actors in certain types of roles. They don't feel we have the luxury of playing in controversial pieces. But if you do good work, that's all that's remembered.''

Not quite everything has been perfect. He divorced his first wife, Sheree, and shares custody of his 3-year-old son, Will III. Currently he's steady with actress Jada Pinkett (""The Nutty Professor''). And he's filming ""Men in Black,'' another alien adventure, produced by Steven Spielberg. Does he save the world again? ""No,'' he says, laughing his huh-huh laugh. ""Hey, a brother can't do it all.''