It’s been more than 20 years since a series of unfortunate events left Christopher Gardner broke, homeless and wandering the streets of San Francisco with his 2-year-old son Christopher Jr. in tow. Some nights they’d find shelter inside a bathroom at an Oakland BART station and a warm meal and shelter at San Francisco’s Glide Memorial United Methodist Church.
Today, Gardner, 52, is a multimillionaire and the president, founder and CEO of the Chicago-based brokerage firm Gardner Rich & Company. He’s also the owner and CEO of Christopher Gardner International Holdings with offices in San Francisco, New York and Chicago.
Gardner’s amazing rags-to-riches story is chronicled in his best-selling autobiography, “The Pursuit of Happyness,” which was the inspiration for a new film opening Friday starring Will Smith as Gardner and Smith’s son Jaden Christopher Syre Smith as Christopher Jr.
Gardner, who worked as an associate producer on the movie, says that while he doesn’t spend much time looking back on his life — which included a stint in the Navy, work as a medical supply salesman and in a finance training program at Dean Witter — he admits that filming in San Francisco was actually cathartic for him.
“San Francisco is the city where my soul is,” says Gardner, who was born in Milwaukee and now lives in New York and Chicago. “Before, when I’d walk down certain streets in San Francisco, I’d start thinking like, man, this is the street where my son’s stroller broke, or this is the area that I remember being so hungry that one night. It was depressing. But now since making the movie, those memories are different. Now I say, man, this is where Will did that great scene and nailed the part or this is the scene where Jaden just melted my heart. It’s a whole different set of emotions and memories.”
While Gardner had plenty of input in the developing the movie, he didn’t choose the cast. “I didn’t pick Will, fortunately he picked me,” he explained during a recent telephone interview. “I knew about Will’s work as a comedian, rapper and movie action hero. And I also knew that he had never done anything like this. I was a bit apprehensive if he could pull it off. It took my daughter to open my eyes. She said, ‘Dad, don’t be silly. If Will Smith can play Muhammad Ali, then he can certainly play you in a movie.’ ”
Now, when Gardner looks at Smith, he says he is amazed at how well the actor channeled him. “Will Smith played Chris Gardner better than Chris Gardner plays Chris Gardner,” he laughs. “I never offered Will any pointers or tips. We simply discussed family issues. But the entire time we were together on and off camera, Will was watching me the entire time. He had everything down to a science about me, even to how I signed my name. … He had my signature so accurate that I even called my bank to make sure everything was all right.”