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.
"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 is a man who has earned millions of dollars as a stockbroker, after rising from homelessness. It was an amazing journey -- a story "20/20" first told nearly four years ago -- which resulted in Smith's new film, titled "The Pursuit of Happyness."
"I saw the '20/20' piece on Chris's life," Smith said. "It blew me away. He personified the American dream."
"It is such a story of the mythological picture of what a man is supposed to be," Smith said. "And that… the transferral of manhood from a man to boy is the center of life."
The film opens Dec. 15, and also stars Will Smith's son, Jaden. 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 own 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.
Homelessness Is Not the Stuff of a Reality Show
Then, after getting himself into a training program and proving he could keep company with the best of them, Gardner became a multimillionaire stockbroker. In the days just after his story was broadcast on "20/20," 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 then 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."
A Painful Start to His Extraordinary Journey
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.
"There was gunplay in the house, consistently. I don't own a gun to this day. I'll never own a gun. My last Christmas at home, I was put out of the house, buck naked, at gun point. Till this day, I still have a problem with Christmas. But I made a decision that I was going to be everything that this guy was not. I'm not going to drink, and I'm not going to beat women. I'm not going to be ignorant. And one of the tactics that I developed as a young kid, I would read. And I'd read out loud. And [in my mind] I would be saying to this guy, 'Yeah, you can beat me down, you can beat me and you can beat my mom, you can put us out of here with a gun, but I can read, and I'm going places.'"
Gardner also learned to compartmentalize his reactions to trauma, including an incident of childhood rape by a man who was a member of a gang of thieves in his neighborhood.
"I don't know how any rape victim survives something like that. But ... a lot of us do block it off, shut it down, compartmentalize it, contain it, hide it. I know I did. There was no one I could talk to about it. And at some point in time, I did have an encounter with that gentleman. I expressed myself another way."
Gardner said he struck the man with a cinder block. "And walked away. And left the whole incident right there on the street."
Leaving the Neighborhood for the Navy
What got Gardner out of his neighborhood was the Navy. After four years of duty, he was a young man without a college degree who valued reading and who learned quickly. He became a medical supply salesman in the San Francisco area, supporting a wife and a young son. But he reached another turning point in his life when, in a parking lot one day, he met a man who drove a red Ferrari.
"And I asked him two questions that basically changed my life: What do you do, and how do you do that? Turns out this gentleman was a stockbroker who was making $80,000 a month."
That was all the motivation Gardner needed to start knocking on doors, applying for a training program at a brokerage even though it meant he would have to live on next to nothing while he learned.
"I cut grass, I did yard work, I did roofing, I cleaned basements to take care of my family."
The toughest times were still to come. Gardner was hauled off to jail for $1,200 in parking violations that he couldn't pay. His wife left him. First, she took Chris Jr. with her. Then she returned to the boardinghouse where Gardner had moved to ask him to care for their son. Haunted by his stepfather's abuse and by a promise he had made to himself at the time, Gardner was determined not to abandon his own child.
"Growing up hearing constantly, quote, 'I am not your daddy' with a few other words thrown in there, I made a decision when I was a little boy: When I grow up, and when I had children, my children were always going to know who their father is."
The bottom line was this: Gardner was studying for a broker's license on virtually no income; the boardinghouse where he stayed wouldn't accept children; and he had to live with Chris Jr. in cut-rate hotel rooms when he could afford them. Occasionally, as Gardner brought his son home from day care past a strip of cheap hotels in Oakland, he got help from unexpected sources.
"By the time we were coming home, the ladies of the evening were beginning their shift. And they would always see me, this baby and the stroller. They never saw a woman. So they kind of figured out, something's going on. So they started giving him $5 bills. And if it were not for those ladies of the evening giving that child $5, there would be times I could not have fed him."
Occasionally, he found a place to stay in a nearby Bay Area Rapid Transit station, where he could bathe Chris Jr. in the sink and lock the door when they needed time. One of the moments that changed his life came when the Rev. Cecil Williams of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco saw Gardner standing with his son in a food line outside the church.
"I saw a lot of women with babies, but not a man with a baby," Rev. Williams said. "And it just began to be a rather regular scene, where Chris appeared."
"He had a program for homeless women with children," said Gardner. "And I [told him], 'Obviously, I'm not a woman but I am homeless; I have a child. I need some place to stay to get myself together.' And he let me in."
Gardner and his son stayed in a shelter provided by the church when they needed a room. And when he finally started accumulating money and had enough to rent a modest place of his own, Gardner recalled that his determination to raise his son paid off in one priceless moment.
"I was giving my son a bath by candlelight. We had no electricity, and it was at a point in time, where honestly, I didn't know whether I was going to quit, crack or cry. Some kind of way this child, this baby, picks up on it, and he stands up in the bathtub, and he says, 'Papa, you know what? You're a good papa.' That was all I needed to go on. And to this day I have yet to hear words that meant as much to me."
'It's a Green Thing'
Once Gardner passed his exam to become a stockbroker and the opportunity was his to seize, the success of the formerly homeless man was astonishing. He started with cold calls, was recruited by other firms, and eventually opened his own institutional brokerage firm in Chicago, benefiting from, among other things, government and pension fund rules that created business for minority brokers.
On his way, Gardner said, the business did have some unpleasant baggage attached to it. Because African-American brokers were rare, one particular phone client assumed that Gardner was white.
"This one guy, he would tell me every Jew joke, every nigger joke, every spick joke in the world, and then he would turn around and say, 'Well, buy me 50,000 shares of whatever you called me about.' And one day he calls to say he wants to meet this broker that's been making him all this money. I knew there were only two things that could happen. He was either gonna close his account with me or he was gonna close all the other accounts that he had and I was gonna get all his business."
Gardner said the client closed every other account that he had and, until his death, gave all his business to Gardner. "That's when I learned in this business, it's not a black thing, it's not a white thing, it's a green thing. If you can make me money, I don't care what color you are. So that's how I deal with that to this day."
When actor Will Smith found Gardner's story so compelling that he developed a film based on the stockbroker's life, Gardner joined the project as a consultant. "Chris represents the American Dream," Smith said.
Smith and Gardner both made large donations to Glide Memorial Church, and Smith hired the Rev. Cecil Williams to play himself.
Smith also visited the transit station restroom where Gardner once went so he and Chris Jr. would have a place to stay for a few hours when they were homeless.
"I couldn't be there any longer than a moment," Gardner said. "And I turned to Will, and I said, 'Let's go.' He said, 'No, leave me here for a minute.' I left him. And I gotta tell you, when he came out ... the phrase I once heard him use was that it was if the ghost in the walls had jumped out into him."
A Warm Welcome from Nelson Mandela
One of the great details of Gardner's story is that when San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit System issued new bonds to raise money a few years ago, one of the underwriters was Chris Gardner's company -- run by a man who, when he was homeless, had bathed his son in the bathroom of its train station.
After shooting wrapped on the film, Gardner returned to being a star on the investment circuit, and he started an international mission designed to create economic opportunities in South Africa. For a man whose own father had abandoned him, he said that meeting Nelson Mandela was an unforgettable moment.
"He shook my hand and said, 'Welcome home, son.' And for the first time in my life, for a man ever to say the words to me, 'Welcome home, son,' and for it to be Nelson Mandela, I cried."
The quote on the cover of Gardner's new book, "The Pursuit of Happyness," echoes those sentiments. It reads, "I hold one thing dearer than all else: my commitment to my son."