Chris Gardner, 52, knows all about "baby steps," and the film premiering today about his rags-to-riches life story proves it.
In a star-studded premiere tonight at the Metreon theatre, Gardner, actor Will Smith, Mayor Gavin Newsom and many others will view the film that will double as a holiday fundraiser for Glide Memorial Church. The sold-out $250 tickets will benefit many of Glide’s programs that help the homeless get back on their feet.
The film is based on Gardner’s book, "The Pursuit of Happyness," and chronicles his rise from the streets of San Francisco to a multimillionaire stock broker.
"I can’t watch the whole thing all the way through, I can’t take itbecause I know, frame by frame, the 360-degree view of those scenes," Gardner said.
Gardner’s early years in Wisconsin were spent as a foster child and as the victim of an abusive and alcoholic stepfather. After high school and a stint in the Navy, he moved to San Francisco in 1981 in hopes of going to medical school while working at UCSF.
After a series of financial hardships, Gardner and his 7-month-old son were evicted from their apartment and spent nearly a year homeless. Sleeping under desks, on BART, in hotel lobbies and public restrooms, the only hope in Gardner’s life became the Rev. Cecil Williams and the help of Glide Memorial Church.
"Glide is as much this story as I am," Gardner said. "I can’t forget my old days — but I never look back. The future is just too bright. And when Cecil talks about baby steps, you feel like you can go on forever."
Baby steps led Gardner to a job at a stockbrokerage firm, where an employer took a chance on him, and he is now the owner of his own Chicago firm.
"Chris endured, stood up and focused on making things work for him and his son," Williams said."That’s our message, and life is about winning the battle. Our doors here will be kept open."
Hollywood glitterati aren’t the only ones who played an important role in "The Pursuit of Happyness" — casting directors also paid homeless and formerly homeless parishioners from Glide Memorial Church to take part in the San Francisco scenes.
Chris Gardner’s homeless-to-millionaire success story was acted out with help from Elizabeth Ware, 52, Darius Kittles, 42, Gregory Mullen, 53, Larry Hunt, 48, and Jerry McLilly, 74.
Paid wages between $164 and $2,575 and working from one day to nine as extras and in bit parts, the parishioners were starstruck by what they describe as a very down-to-earth Will Smith, who took time to shake their hands like "any normal person."
Mullen says he is also featured in the beginning of the film, singing a song he wrote for it.
Ware, who battled a heroin addiction for 27 years and was homeless for 15, hosts recovery circles at the church and was honored during the filming by a certain surprise visit.
"They [Will and Jada Smith] came to my group," Ware said.
Will Smith and his son, Jaden Smith, spent time last year in the Bay Area re-enacting the scenes of Gardner’s life.
Parishioners were even more inspired by the wandering Gardner, who explained to them that he would stand in the same line for food at Mo’s Kitchen when he was homeless back in 1981.
"He amazed me," Kittles said in a phone interview. "He is such a successful man that gives back to the community."