Will Smith Thrilled About Becoming The Last Man On Earth

Actor will hunt bloodsuckers in sci-fi flick 'I Am Legend.'

NEW YORK — After smashing robots to pieces in "I, Robot," Will Smith is ready to start busting up vampires in his next declaration, "I Am Legend."

The actor/rapper's sinking his teeth into yet another sci-fi classic, and this time around he'll play the last man on Earth. Smith's already sporting a new 'do for the part, having shaved his head to prepare for battle with the children of the night in what he calls a "viral apocalypse."

Richard Matheson's 1954 novel "I Am Legend" has been adapted to film before, in 1964 as "The Last Man on Earth" (starring Vincent Price) and in 1971 as "The Omega Man" (starring Charlton Heston). But the new version — to be directed by Francis Lawrence ("Constantine") — is said to be more faithful to the original novel.

"I Am Legend" is certainly not without its fans. Dean Koontz once called it "the most clever and riveting vampire novel since 'Dracula,' " while Stephen King has credited both the book and Matheson as strong influences.

As for Smith, he says he loves the genre in its entirety. "I love science fiction," Smith said Monday at a Jazz at Lincoln Center dinner celebrating Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people (see "Diddy, Daddy Yankee, Angelina Jolie Rub Elbows With Bush On Time List"). "I'm a science-fiction junkie."

As Robert Neville, Smith will play the one man not afflicted by a plague that wiped out most of the world and transformed the survivors into bloodsuckers. Neville hunts them down by day, and by night, he hides in his home as the vampires try to coax him into converting to their side. But Neville can't kill them all, and once he becomes a minority of one, he becomes the outcast.

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It's a story that resonates not just with sci-fi fans, Smith said, but also scientists, which is why the actor was eager to seek out real-life virologist Nancy Cox at the Time event to discuss the vampire/disease analogy. In the script by Mark Protosevich (rewritten by Akiva Goldsman), the vampires are created by a mistake in genetic engineering, when doctors alter blood cells to incorporate what they thought were the "good" properties of a virus, such as rapid duplication and molecular strength. Needless to say, it didn't work. (Cox's current experiment involves merging the bird-flu virus with a strain of human influenza).

"I just love how current the idea is," Smith said. "I love it when you can mix in a taste of a potential future, when there's other messages beyond the material, when there's other things at stake."

"I Am Legend" is slated for a 2007 release.

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