Will Smith is fond of saying that ''Independence Day'' could make him the first black man to save the world.
That isn't really true, but you can forgive Smith for being a little full of himself at the moment. He's about to star in whatmay be one the summer's highest-grossing movies - possibly the highest. And he has the plum role.
Smith plays a fighter pilot chosen to fly into an alien mother ship in a last-ditch plan to defeat the hostile fleet that threatens Earth.
World-saving has historically been a job reserved for white stars andwhite characters. Smith, speaking to reporters in New York where he is filming ''Men in Black'' with Tommy Lee Jones, jokes that he's attempting to break the color barrier in ''Independence Day. ''
Actually, he isn't. Denzel Washington saved the world from nuclear winter in ''Crimson Tide. '' Danny Glover prevented the earth from turning into a big game preserve for planet-hopping aliens in ''Predator 2. ''
But even if Smith isn't the first black man to save the world, there's no question he's managed to climb on top of it. The Philadelphia native has had an incredibly easy time with stardom, first as a rap artist - a form of entertainment he has almost surely abandoned.
He speaks indifferently about making another rap record.
''I have a studio in my house and I'm messin' around with the music a little bit, but rap has kind of changed'' - he rolls his eyes - ''a little bit since I was doing it, so I think I'll take a minute and try to reposition myself a little bit and see where the break and the opening is for more family-type rap music. ''
A rapper even Bob Dole could love - which may account for his broad-based appeal and polished appearance on the set of TV's ''The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,'' and his roles in half a dozen Hollywood films.
At times, it seems as if his success has come almost too easily. Smith glided through doors that were kicked open by other black actors, and this appears to have shaped his benign view of Hollywood.
''I feel that I'm talented, and I feel like there a lot of people who are talented,'' Smith said, rather glibly, ''and that Hollywood recognizes green. So if you can put asses in the seats, they'll put you in movies. ''
That hasn't always been true, of course. Stars like Eddie Murphy and directors like Spike Lee have forcibly changed the rules in Hollywood. Next-generation stars like Smith are there to take advantage.
It must seem strange to Smith, for instance, that black actors once had a hard time breaking into the mainstream. Since he entered the movie game, he's been taking roles written for white actors.
''Bad Boys,'' a surprise hit last year, was originally written for Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz. When the deal for that pair soured, producer Jerry Bruckheimer gambled on Smith and Martin Lawrence.
Bruckheimer remembers it as the kind of miraculous good luck that turns a forgettable picture into a hit.
''Will Smith is a star. I don't know of any other way to describe it, because it's a hard thing to quantify. If you could bottle it and prescribe it, anyone could be a star. But it's a rare attribute, and Will Smith has it,'' Bruckheimer said.
''Bad Boys'' went on to gross more than $100 million - including a large piece of change overseas, where movies with African-American stars and themes have traditionally not done well (a fact Hollywood uses as an excuse for not making more of them).
The part Smith plays in ''Independence Day'' was not written with race in mind. ''Bad Boys'' made Smith a hot commodity in Hollywood, suddenly ideal for the role of fighter pilot Stephen Hiller.
''What was special about [the casting process] was that it [race] was never an issue. It wasn't even something that was ever discussed on the set, and I guess that's the way it should be,'' Smith said.
In many ways, Smith is in the same position as his character, Capt. Hiller - sitting in the cockpit of an expensive machine (the movie cost more than $70 million), ready to move forward with about a zillion pounds of career thrust.
People who still think of Smith as the the skinny, affable lightweight rapper of ''Summertime'' will have to adjust the idea of Will Smith as a major star, because that's where he's headed.
Smith is tall, he has filled out, his voice has deepened, and in ''Independence Day'' he shows off is well-muscled physique - to appreciative groans from the New York preview audience last month.
He has shrewdly studied the mechanics of movie acting, he works hard and he is adaptive; making the jump from a sitcom to the screen hasn't slowed him at all.
''In the earlier days, people kind of didn't trust that television-to-film transition thing, and I kind of studied it a little bit with Tom Hanks and Robin Williams. Eddie Murphy was kind of the person that I really watched to see how the transition was made,'' Smith said.
''It's really just a really subtle difference,'' he explained. ''The thing is that the film screen is so much bigger that you have to do less. On television, you are always moving around and falling and all of that, and in movies you really have to pull it back because the screen is so big and the camera is so close that you have to do way less. ''
Hollywood has embraced Smith, and he has embraced Hollywood. While he films ''Men in Black'' in New York, he's keeping company with actress Jada Pinkett (Smith has split from his wife), and though the actor still lives on the Main Line, there is probably a Malibu address in his future.
Smith said there are times when he regrets his growing fame.
''You know, your personal life is kind of stolen,'' he said reflectively.
Pinkett said Smith protests too much.
''Will is on, 24-7. He loves interacting with people and that's a great gift that he has that I wish I had,'' she said. ''He knows he gets a chance to be on, and gets a chance to make somebody smile. '' Still, the rap/TV/movie star knows his days of chillin' on Belmont Plateau are over.
'' 'Independence Day' is going to be a big film, and I'm really excited about that. On the other hand, I'll be less able to walk down the street without people saying hey, that's Willy from Philly.''
--Tanya Pendleton contributed to this report