Caroline Bright and Willard Carroll Smith Sr. welcomed four children, including actor Will Smith
Will Smith and his father, Willard Smith Sr. ; Will Smith and his mother, Caroline Smith. PHOTO: STEVE GRANITZ/WIREIMAGE ; EVERETT COLLECTION INC / ALAMY
Will Smith experienced many ups and downs throughout his childhood while being raised by his parents, Caroline Bright and Willard Carroll Smith Sr.
Growing up in West Philadelphia, the actor was one of four kids. He has one older sister, Pamela, and two younger siblings, twins Harry and Ellen. As the eldest son, Will was often privy to his father’s violent outbursts. In his self-titled 2021 memoir, Will, the actor revealed that his late father often turned to alcohol and aggression, usually directed toward him and his mother.
“Will was punished first because he’s older,” Will’s younger brother, Harry, told PEOPLE in 1996. “Then he’d go around a corner and make faces, so we’d laugh — and we’d get punished worse.”
Willard’s behavior strained his relationship with Will and his marriage to Caroline. The pair separated when Will was a teen and later divorced in 2000. Following their separation, Willard became a dad once more to a daughter named Ashley Marie Pettway.
Will and his father maintained a rocky relationship for much of his life, but things changed when Willard was given a life-threatening diagnosis and told he only had six weeks to live. Willard died in 2016, and his death was a pivotal anecdote in Will’s memoir.
Five years later, Will recalled how he and his father “tuned into one another” in a new way in the time leading up to his death. “My father and I had time to talk out everything,” he told an audience at an event in Brooklyn in 2021. “We had weeks and weeks; every single conversation was rich and powerful, and we got clean. Some people don’t get the time.”
In January 2024, Caroline celebrated her 87th birthday. Will marked the special day with a sweet Instagram post, featuring a photo of the mother-son duo sharing a laugh.
“Happy Bday, Mom-Mom!” he captioned the post. “There’s nothing like laughing with your Mother.”
Here’s everything to know about Will Smith’s parents, Caroline Bright and Willard Carroll Smith Sr.
They raised their children in West Philadelphia
Will Smith with his mother, Caroline and his siblings, Pamela, Harry and Ellen.WILL SMITH INSTAGRAM
Will and his siblings grew up in a middle-class family in West Philadelphia during the 1960s and 1970s.
Amid the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, Will opened up about his experiences with racism and recounted how cops called him racist slurs “on more than 10 occasions” as a kid in Philly.
“I understand what it’s like to be in those circumstances with the police, to feel like you’ve been occupied. It’s an occupying force,” he said on the podcast On One with Angela Rye.
The I Am Legend actor added that he was “frequently” stopped by police and had markedly different experiences with cops than his White classmates. “White kids were happy when the cops showed up and my heart always started pounding,” he said.
They have three other children: Pamela, Harry and Ellen
Will Smith with his mother Caroline Bright and his siblings — Pamela, Henry and Ellen — in 2021.WILL SMITH INSTAGRAM
The pair share four children: two sons and two daughters. They welcomed their eldest, Pamela, in 1964, and Will, who inherited his father’s name, was born in 1968. Their family grew by two in 1971 with the addition of twins Harry and Ellen.
Will and his younger brother have a close bond. Harry once worked as Will’s accountant before joining the team at Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s production company, Overbrook Entertainment. The brothers have also dabbled in the real estate business together.
Harry is a father of two: He shares a daughter, Sydney, with his ex Melissa Montoya and a son, Langston, with Ananda Lewis from MTV’s Total Request Live. Currently, Harry is the CEO of the distribution company Smith Global Media.
Ellen is the founder and CEO of a nonprofit called Dining with Divas, which hosts holiday dinners for mothers and families in need. Ellen is also a licensed cosmetology instructor and a single mother of two children, according to PhillyChitChat.
The eldest of the Smith bunch, Pamela, runs her own retail store called Pash Boutique.
Willard owned his own refrigeration company
Willard was “always hustling,” according to his son. Despite his work ethic and advanced skills, on multiple occasions, Willard was denied a promotion at the steel mill where he worked due to his race — so he started his refrigeration firm.
The operation eventually grew to include electrical technicians, Will wrote in his memoir. Though his father was always busy, he “was able to keep four kids fed and clothed and still managed to find time to spend with us,” he told PEOPLE.
Caroline worked as a school board administrator
Will Smith and his mom Caroline Bright attend the premiere of ‘Lakeview Terrace’ in September 2008 in New York City.JIM SPELLMAN/WIREIMAGE
As a Carnegie Mellon University graduate and member of the school board of Philadelphia, Caroline ensured that academics were of the utmost importance in her household. Against her wishes, college was not in the cards for Will, who was focused on getting his rap career off the ground.
During an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in November 2021, Will recalled that telling his mother he wasn’t going to college was “the worst thing” he could say to her. The actor was accepted to the Milwaukee School of Engineering in 1986.
“When I told her I wasn’t going to college ’cause I wanted to rap … she had no idea,” said Will, adding that Willard gave him a year to pursue a music career before going to school. “Within a year, we won the first Grammy ever given to a rap artist.”
On the subject of school, Will noted that they weren’t allowed to use the word “ain’t” in their house and that his mother was a stickler for grammar.
“I remember one time, I was running out and I screamed to my friends, ‘Yo, where y’all gon be at?’ And my mother said, ‘Uh-uh. Hopefully, they’re gonna be behind that preposition,’ ” he said.
They divorced in 2000
Will Smith with his mother Caroline Bright and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith at the 64th Golden Globe Awards in January 2007.AFF / ALAMY
Caroline and Willard legally divorced in 2000, though they separated when Will was a teenager. The actor wrote about his parents’ split at length in his self-titled memoir, including how he and his father concocted “an underhanded, Ponzi-style backdoor deal” to cover the unpaid $140,000 that Willard owed Caroline in child support.
“I was stuck. Daddio didn’t have $140,000, and Mom-Mom was unwilling to make any concession whatsoever. And there was no version of me letting my father go to jail,” Will wrote.
He cut his father a check for the amount due, which was transferred to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and then to Caroline. The money wire made Will “the first person in the history of Pennsylvania to pay their own damn child support,” he joked.
When Caroline learned Will paid the debt, she issued a check back to her son, which he said made her “the first person in the history of Pennsylvania to pay her own child back the back child support that they had paid for themselves.”
Will had a complicated relationship with his father
Will Smith and his father Willard Carroll Smith Sr. at the BET Awards in June 2002.ALLSTAR PICTURE LIBRARY LTD / ALAMY
Will’s relationship with his father wasn’t always smooth sailing. In his memoir, the artist recounted that although his dad always supported him, Will witnessed his outbursts.
“My father was violent, but he was also at every game, play, and recital,” he wrote. “He was an alcoholic, but he was sober at every premiere of every one of my movies. He listened to every record. He visited every studio. The same intense perfectionism that terrorized his family put food on the table every night of my life.”
The actor was also affected by the abuse Willard inflicted upon Caroline.
“When I was nine years old, I watched my father punch my mother in the side of the head so hard that she collapsed,” Will recalled. “I saw her spit blood. That moment in that bedroom, probably more than any other moment in my life, has defined who I am.”
The traumatic event stuck with Will up until his father’s death. In his book, he wrote that as a child, he promised to “one day avenge my mother” when he “was strong enough” and “no longer a coward.”
This idea that he would one day “slay” Willard came to a head while Will was visiting his ailing father in the hospital. The actor recalled that “a darkness arose within me” as he helped his dad to the bathroom.
“I paused at the top of the stairs. I could shove him down, and easily get away with it,” he wrote. “As the decades of pain, anger, and resentment coursed then receded, I shook my head and proceeded to wheel Daddio to the bathroom.”
Caroline spoke out about Will’s 2022 Oscars slap
Will Smith and his mother Caroline Bright at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris.JEAN BAPTISTE LACROIX/WIREIMAGE
In 2022, Will made headlines when he slapped Chris Rock at the 94th Academy Awards in 2022 after Rock made a joke about Jada.
The comedian likened her hair, which she lost as a result of the autoimmune condition alopecia, to Demi Moore’s shaved head in the 1997 film G.I. Jane. Will took the stage and slapped Rock across the face. Upon returning to his table, where Jada was also sitting, Will shouted, “Keep my wife’s name out your f—— mouth.”
The incident, which was aired live during the Oscars broadcast, set off a barrage of discourse. Caroline later spoke to Philadelphia’s ABC affiliate WPVI about the situation.
“He is a very even, people person. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen him go off. First time in his lifetime,” she said. “I’ve never seen him do that.”
Later that night, Will took home the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in King Richard. “I am proud of him being him,” Caroline added.
Willard died in 2016
Will Smith with his father Willard Carroll Smith Sr. and sons Jaden and Trey at the Los Angeles premiere of ‘Spider-Man’ in 2002.PAUL SMITH / FEATUREFLASH ARCHIVE / ALAMY
Ahead of his memoir’s publication, Will spoke candidly about the loss of his father — including the emotional phone call they shared less than an hour before he died in 2016.
“Even when you’re expecting it, you don’t wanna have to make the call,” he told an audience of the call he made at 3 a.m. “I say, ‘Hey, what’s up, Daddio?’ and he says, ‘Hey, man. I think it’s tonight.’ ”
The father-son duo sat on FaceTime as they said their goodbyes.
“We sit and we just look at each other for about 20 minutes. The soldier was gone, and all I could see was a scared little boy inside of him just like the scared little boy inside of me,” he said. “I hear my sister in the background, she says, ‘Dad, you’re just lookin’. You don’t have anything you wanna say to Will?’ ”
He continued: “And I see him searching for one last brick, searching for one something, you know, but he’s empty. And he says, ‘Anything I ain’t told this m—–f—– up till now, he for sure ain’t gonna get it from me tonight!’ We shared one final laugh, and 45 minutes later Daddio was gone.”
Will concluded, “I wasn’t even crying because we got the opportunity to get finished.”
In 2016, Willard was “diagnosed with everything” and given six weeks to live — though he lived another three months. Will said his father was “deteriorating.”
“It’s something interesting when somebody knows that they’re gonna die. If somebody knows they’re dying and you know, it changes everything in the interaction. The hellos become rich, and the goodbyes become so complete,” Will said.
He noted that having the time to discuss their grievances was the best gift, adding, “We tuned into one another in a way that we never had.”