It was Chris Gardner's life, and suddenly one of the biggest movie stars in the world was acting it out. Will Smith was playing Chris Gardner.
Watch Bob Brown's full report on "20/20" tonight at 10 p.m.
"He had begun to study me," Gardner said. "Now, that made me uncomfortable. I had never been studied before. But I've got to tell you … Will Smith played Chris Gardner better than Chris Gardner ever did."
Gardner's autobiography was published this week; Smith's film is expected to be released later in 2006. Both are titled "The Pursuit of Happyness." The word "happiness" is deliberately misspelled, just as it was on the wall of a day care center where Gardner once sought care for his infant son, Chris Jr., during some of his worst days.
Gardner used to be homeless, and on rare occasions, he holed up in a public bathroom with his son.
"There's a choice: You eat or you stay in a hotel. We chose to eat. And we stayed in a subway station. We rode the trains. We slept in bathrooms," he said.
Then, after getting himself into a training program and proving he could keep company with the best of them, Gardner became a multimillionaire stockbroker. It was one amazing ride -- a story told on "20/20" in January 2003. In the days just after the story was broadcast, Gardner fielded a lot of weird offers related to his rise from homelessness to wealth -- including a proposal for a reality show.
"Guy calls me up. He's got this great idea. He's gonna take some homeless people off the street, give them a job, and the one that does the most with their life is going to get a $300,000 house, $100,000 in cash. And I can't repeat what I said to the guy. But the gist of it was, being homeless is not a game, and if you think it is, I already won, so send me the money! Haven't heard from him again!"
Now Gardner's story is about how a life with much larger stakes than any reality show got turned into a book and screenplay. Examining his memories with movie and book writers, Gardner said, placed his life on a different scale.
"I would have never gone back in to take another look. Didn't need a second look. Hurt so bad the first time, you didn't need to see it again."
Gardner's story began in a Milwaukee neighborhood, with a kind of mystery: Why a woman with an incredible smile, a woman who turned out to be his mother, sometimes went missing.
"And no one explained to me, well, why am I living with this relative, or why am I living with that relative. My mother was in prison, twice. And it was one of those things that no one ever talked about."
One prison term was for allegedly receiving welfare while working, Gardner said. "And the second time she intended to burn down the house that my stepfather was sleeping in. She wanted to kill him for beating her. And I could say honestly, I'm sorry she didn't succeed. ... Until I went to the U.S. military, the worst violence I ever saw in my life was in my home."
Later in his life Gardner was heavily influenced by decisions he and his mother made, sometimes with just a look between them, when he was terrorized by his gun-wielding stepfather.