Chris Gardner is a happy, 52-year-old multimillionaire. Don’t overlook the happy part, because it wasn’t always so.
Gardner, now the owner and CEO of Christopher Gardner International Holdings, used to be homeless. He used to sleep in bathrooms of the Bay Area Rapid Transit, or in the shelter provided by Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. He had only pennies to his name, but he never stopped being a father to his son, Christopher, who was with him every step.
Gardner’s story, published in the book The Pursuit of Happyness in May, is now a motion picture starring Will Smith as Gardner. The movie of the same name opens nationwide tomorrow. It chronicles Gardner’s struggles in San Francisco as a medical supply salesman, his wife’s abandonment of the family, and his dealing with homelessness while trying to learn the broker business.
Overlaying these struggles is Gardner’s devotion to his son, played in the movie by Jaden Smith, the real-life son of Will and wife Jada Pinkett Smith.
The father-son angle was of special interest to Mark Clayman, executive producer of “The Pursuit of Happyness” and the man responsible for shepherding Gardner’s story through Hollywood.
Gardner’s story aired in a “20/20” segment on ABC in 2003. After seeing it on Friday night, Clayman contacted Gardner on Monday–along with dozens of other parties interested in film rights.
Clayman told Gardner he wasn’t the biggest fish in Hollywood, but he was a hard worker and would find answers if he didn’t know them. After a three-month courtship–with Clayman explaining his interest in the father-son angle as much as the rags-to-riches storyline–Clayman beat out other producers and won the rights.
He also won the participation of Will Smith, one of the biggest box-office draws on the planet.
“I hadn’t worked with Will,” said Clayman. “I didn’t know him.” But he seemed like the right guy for the part, said Clayman. And Smith was keen to move away from the bigger-budget fare that has filled his resume.
Smith has three children, Gardner has two and Clayman has two. The fatherhood storyline was important to all.
Gardner’s father was never part of his life, and his stepfather was abusive. Clayman said one of the most inspiring and important parts of Gardner’s life is the way he changed his family’s future—not just financially, but emotionally and spiritually.
“He broke cycles in his life,” said Clayman, which had included family abuse, alcoholism, and men not being there for their children.
“He made up his mind in the very beginning that he was always going to be there for his children,” said Clayman. It didn’t matter whether Gardner was poor or rich; being a father was important.
Christopher Jr., now 25, told Oprah he didn’t remember much about being homeless.
“I just know that when I looked up, he was there,” said Christopher Jr. “I looked around, he was there.”
Gardner now sits on the board of the National Fatherhood Initiative, and he still impresses on others the importance of fatherhood, which isn’t lost on Clayman.
“There are people who live in million-dollar homes who aren’t there for their children,” he said.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
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