Fatherhood is never easy, especially with the added pressure of finding a bed to sleep in each night. Chris Gardner’s yearlong struggle with homelessness and fatherhood was depicted in the 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness. This is the real story behind the movie.
Chris Gardner’s pursuit of happiness was seen in theaters by millions of people. However, Gardner’s life did not entirely mirror Will Smith’s portrayal of him. Beyond the events of the film, Gardner lived a difficult life before he made his millions.
A Troubled Childhood
Gardner was born in Milwaukee on February 9, 1954. He never really had any male role models in his life and continually saw his sisters’ father (Freddie Triplett) physically abuse his mother and his sisters. Chris was placed in foster care twice – once after his mother was falsely imprisoned for welfare fraud (accused by Triplett), and another time after she tried to burn Triplett alive in his home. In addition, his uncle Henry, a huge influence on a young Chris, died when Chris was nine.
A Blast From The Past
One of the most traumatizing moments from Chris’s childhood involved his stepfather. One Christmas when Chris was a teenager, an intoxicated Triplett burst into the bathroom while Chris was taking a bath. With a shotgun in hand, he ordered Chris to leave the house. Promptly, Chris ran out of the house naked and soaking wet into the frigid Wisconsin winter. He had already kicked Chris’s mother out of the house. Gardner said that the event still stays on his mind.
Serving His Country
After finishing secondary school, Gardner decided to follow in his Uncle Henry’s footsteps and enlist in the United States Navy. Chris was stationed in North Carolina at Camp Lejeune as a medical corpsman. In the film, Chris is depicted as selling medical equipment. While in the Navy, Chris befriended Dr. Robert Ellis, a cardiac surgeon that helped set him up with a clinical research position at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. He moved there after his discharge.
A Child Arrived Just The Other Day
Although he was married to another woman, Chris began a relationship with a woman named Jackie Medina. He eventually moved in with Jackie after she became pregnant with their child. Christopher Jr. was born on January 28, 1981. Although he had hoped to become a physician, he had abandoned his dream when he fully realized the time and money it would take to get there. He was working as a lab assistant but did not make enough to support a girlfriend and child.
The Moment That Changed It All
In the film, Will Smith’s Christopher approached a well-dressed man in a red Ferrari on the street and asked: “What do you do?” Gardner actually did this. However, it was a bit different than it was depicted in the film. Unlike the film, Chris approached this stockbroker in a parking garage while Christopher Jr. was still an infant. The man then followed up and met Chris for lunch to explain the basics of Wall Street, altering his life forever.
A Wall Street Introduction
By speaking with the stockbroker, Chris’s world opened up. The man, Bob Bridges, not only gave him the lowdown on the industry but helped him organize meetings with branch managers at big brokerage firms. Bridges was quite successful, earning over $80,000 a month, had great connections and was willing to help Chris get his foot in the door. Chris canceled all of his sales appointments so he could interview with these companies in hopes of placing into a training program.
One of the biggest pieces of misinformation from The Pursuit of Happyness involves Chris’s job before the training program. Although Chris did sell medical supplies, the film’s writers added the part in which Chris put his life savings into some portable bone density scanners. He did not go broke from purchasing the units himself before attempting to sell them. Also, he sold various medical products, not just the scanners depicted in the film. The products were generally of one brand.
Don’t Go Chasing Bone Density Scanners
One of the most intense scenes in the film involved Will Smith chasing after a man that had stolen one of his bone density scanners. While crossing the street, he is hit by a car and becomes quite emotional. This did not actually happen. Gardner never mentions it in his book nor has he mentioned this in any of the numerous interviews that he has given. It is just a piece of dramatic imagination drummed up by screenwriter Steve Conrad.
Chris’s Troubles Mount
Unfortunately, Chris’s acceptance into the E.F.Hutton training program turned into nothing when the hiring manager was fired. He continued to apply to other programs, but his personal life was also in shambles. His relationship with Jackie reached a head when she tried to run off with Chris Jr. While trying to take Chris Jr. from her arms, he swung her into garden bushes. Police arrested Chris and additionally charged him with owing $1,200 in parking tickets.
Dean Witter Enters The Picture
Chris’s first break within the finance world was with brokerage Dean Witter Reynolds. Unlike in the movie, Chris did not befriend a Dean Witter employee by impressing him with completing a Rubik’s cube. That was added for dramatic effect. He did befriend a broker named Marty that helped him along the way. However, after his spat with Jackie, Chris arrived back at home from prison to find an empty apartment as Jackie had taken their son to the East Coast.
An Interesting Interview
The movie got one thing about his Dean Witter interview correct – he did not come dressed appropriately. His spat with Jackie landed him in jail for ten days. When he got out, he stayed at his friend’s house. Chris had his interview the next day and only had a Members Only jacket and sneakers splattered with paint to wear. He might not have made the “pants joke” from the film, but he told Mr. Albanese the truth about his appearance sans the jail part.
Paid In Full…Sort Of
The Pursuit of Happiness got another thing wrong about Chris’s acceptance into the Dean Witter Reynolds training program – he actually did get paid. It made for a nice story that he was working full days without a salary, but trainees received $1,000 a month. It was not the full salary that brokers make, but it was more than enough for a man selling medical equipment. Soon enough, Chris would understand what it meant to make the big bucks.
Chris Jr. Comes Home
After four months, Jackie returned to San Francisco with two-year-old Christopher Jr. Chris’s training salary provided some living expenses but not nearly enough for Chris and his boy. Chris and Jackie decided that it was best for Junior to stay with his father. However, this caused another major issue. Even though he was employed, the building that Chris was living in did not allow children. They would have to find alternative living quarters.
Keeping A Secret
Embarrassed by his situation, Christopher decided to keep both his son and his homelessness a secret from his co-workers. He was still diligently working through Dean Witter’s training program but had to provide for his son too. Many nights they had to choose between money for food or money for shelter, frequently choosing food. By prioritizing food over shelter, the dynamic duo had to constantly look for new and creative places to stay so Christopher could save up for permanent housing.
Age Is Just A Number
Fans of The Pursuit of Happyness might be surprised to learn the real age of Christopher Jr. during the events of the film. In reality, Christopher Jr. was two years old. The film producers and writers decided to make him five years old so he could have more meaningful interactions with Chris Sr. in the film. Gardner approved of the change because he realized they could tell his story better. Jaden Smith was seven at the time he played Chris Jr.
A Good Poppa
In a touching moment with his son (onscreen and real life), Will Smith’s Christopher shared a true moment with Jaden/Chris Jr. In the film, while they were still homeless, Chris Jr. told his father that he was “a good poppa.” When Chris and Chris Jr. were finally off the street, Chris Jr. shared his kind words. Gardner was giving Chris Jr. a bath when he stood up and said, “Poppa, you know what? You’re a good poppa.”
The Most Unfortunate Of Housing Options
Christopher was willing to go to great lengths to find places to sleep. In the direst of circumstances, Christopher and his son slept on the bathroom floor of the MacArthur BART station in Oakland. This is accurately depicted in the The Pursuit of Happyness. They only slept on the floor for a couple of nights, but made the most of the BART for shelter. They would also sleep on the BART trains.
Chris Takes Will On A Field Trip
To prepare for the film, Chris took Will Smith to see the actual bathroom in which he slept with Chris Jr. Gardner told Smith that it made him uncomfortable to be in there for too long, but Smith decided to take in the scene after Chris left the restroom. Gardner said, “We left him in there for a good five minutes, and when he came out he was not Will Smith, he was Chris Gardner.”
Money was tight for Chris, so he had to get creative in how he earned a buck here and there. On several occasions, he gave blood for cash. It did not get him much, but it was better than nothing. Chris never felt good about giving blood for money because it allowed him to see desperation at a whole new level – not only from others that he considered below him but from himself as well.
A Cigarettes Scam
As he was attempting to scrape together money, Christopher learned of a scam to earn some bills. One day, Gardner saw a man fighting with a vending machine for cigarettes in a hotel. When the man went to the front desk and asked for a refund, they obliged. Over the next two weeks, Chris adopted this into a ploy of his own. He would tell the desk that a vending machine ate his money and they would give him a “refund.”
Finding Shelter In A Church
Like the film, Chris did frequent the Glide Memorial Church for shelter. One thing the movie did not detail is that the church only took in homeless mothers with kids. The church’s reverend, Cecil Williams, made a special exception for Chris and Chris Jr. Reverend Williams played himself in the film too. Chris felt indebted to Reverend Williams and vowed to pay him back for sheltering them. He eventually helped bankroll a $50 million project headed by Williams for low-income housing.
Reverend Williams’ Words Stayed With Him
Chris truly cherished the help that Reverend Williams gave to him. Not only did he appreciate him offering shelter, but Chris was moved by his words too. Reverend Williams hammered into Chris’s head that “baby steps count too.” Those simple words were quite helpful in keeping Chris motivated and moving forward. By repeating “baby steps count too” to himself as he roamed the streets of San Francisco, Chris stayed positive and worked toward his goal.
Break On Through To The Other Side
Chris was a natural during his training program and was one of the best performers in the program. Early into the program, he passed his Series 7 Exam which allowed him to become a full employee at the company. Bear Stearns was impressed with his work and tried to recruit him. In the end, he was hired by Dean Witter thanks to his sensational work ethic. He made around 200 calls, coming in early and staying late each day.
He Was Not The Only One
Dean Witter’s training program was incorrectly portrayed in the film. The Pursuit of Happyness made it seem as if only one person from the training program could be hired by the company. In fact, Dean Witter welcomed any of their trainees to join the company so long as they passed the licensing exam. At the end of the program, Chris was hired because he scored an 88% on the test. It was a good start to his stockbroker life.
The Story Reaches The Public
In 2006, Gardner published an autobiography detailing his struggle and rise titled The Pursuit of Happyness. Gardner chose to change the spelling from ‘happiness’ to ‘happyness’ to reflect a trying time in their past. When Chris and his son were taking up shelter in Oakland near MacArthur Park, they frequently passed by a daycare center which had purposefully misspelled ‘happyness.’ He was learning about the “food chain” of daycare in the country so he could send Chris somewhere.
He Has Another Child
Due to the timeframe of the film, Chris’s life beyond the movie is rarely discussed. One part that is left out is that he has another child. After the events of the film, Christopher and Jackie began speaking again. She quickly became pregnant with their second child. Jacintha Gardner was born in 1985. Although she was born in Los Angeles, not far from Chris’s home in San Francisco, Jacintha did not spend much early life with Chris as he had moved to New York.
Welcome To The Concrete Jungle
In 1985, Chris jumped across the country to New York. He had been working for brokerage firm Bear Stearns in San Francisco but had transferred to their Wall Street office. While he was in New York, Chris wanted Chris Jr. to grow up with his sister, so he sent him to Los Angeles to live with his mother. After two years in New York, Chris had had it and decided to move to Chicago.
The move to Chicago was not only great for Chris professionally, but also personally. For starters, he opened his own brokerage firm, Gardner Rich & Company. After struggling to make ends meet, he was now employing people of his own. In addition, the move to Chicago allowed Christopher to move Chris Jr. and Jacintha to Chicago to live with him. While he dealt with the pressures of managing a firm, he had many relatives in nearby Milwaukee to help out with the kids.
A Naive Boy
Gardner did such a great job of putting on a facade of normalcy for his son that Christopher Jr. did not even know that they were homeless. He did not know until he was grown. The now-36-year-old said in an interview, “I didn’t know we were homeless. I just remember that we were doing a whole lot of moving. I just know that when I looked up, he was there. I looked around, he was there.”
From Rags To Super Riches
By 1988, Christopher had achieved an incredible feat – he earned over $1 million in a single year. He was 34 years old and ecstatic with his achievement. To reward himself, Gardner decided to buy himself a Ferrari. It was not red like the one that inspired him to become a stockbroker, but a Ferrari nonetheless. The car was not just any Ferrari either – it had belonged to basketball legend Michael Jordan. His customized license plate read, “NOT MJ.”
Mama Knows Best
When Chris was young, he dreamed of becoming a millionaire. He watched as ballplayers raked in huge contracts each year and he wanted to be a part of it. His mother continuously told him that he could be that successful too. Gardner said, “I just had to find the right venue. It took me 15 years, but the day I walked into a Wall Street trading room, I knew, this was the place my mama was telling me about.”
A Quick Cameo
The Pursuit of Happyness was a huge hit as millions became captivated by Christopher’s story. Will Smith was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Chris. The next time you see the film, look closely, and you can find Chris. Just before the credits, Chris has a brief cameo. He is dressed in a suit as he walks past Will and Jaden Smith. It is that he could be a part of the project that introduced him to the public.
Following the release of the film and his autobiography, in addition to his financial successes, Chris is now worth around $60 million. He founded a new company called Gardner International Holdings in 2006 after selling his share in Gardner Rich. They have offices in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. He travels around the world as a motivational speaker and devotes much of his time to philanthropic causes. His story is an inspiration to many, and he continues to share how his struggle helped him become a success.
Paying It Forward
Chris is thankful for the help he received along the way. He decided to pay it forward to a woman named Niyokie when he became successful on his own. As a junior in high school, she earned an internship with Chris’s firm. She came from a community of substance abusers and teen pregnancies. After she completed the internship, Chris gave her a college scholarship. She became the first of her 12 siblings to graduate from a four-year university.