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The Story of Chris Gardner, the Man Behind “The Pursuit of Happyness”


Perhaps the name “Chris Gardner” doesn’t sound very familiar to you, but you’ve surely seen or heard about the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, starring Will Smith. The film is inspired by the true story of Christopher Gardner, a man who has faced many obstacles in life to achieve happiness, even being forced to sleep on the streets with his son.

Bright Side wants to share with you the story of Chris, going beyond the events narrated in the film. Let’s have a look at his childhood, his path to success, and what his life looks like today.

A tough childhood

Christopher Paul Gardner was born on February 9, 1954, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His childhood was far from being a fairy tale; he had an absent father, and his mother, Bettye Jean, married a man named Freddie Triplett, someone who would deeply mark Chris’s life.

Triplett was abusive to his wife and children. He even reported Chris’s mother to the authorities and had her sent to prison for working while receiving help from Social Services. During that time, Chris and his 3 sisters had to temporarily live in foster homes. Months later, Bettye was released, but she would go back to jail again. Drowned in despair, she even tried to set Triplett’s house on fire with him inside.

But out of all that suffering, one day would remain in Chris’s memory forever. It was Christmas and he was 16 years old. He was taking a bath when his stepfather suddenly broke into the bathroom with a shotgun and kicked him out of the house, leaving him on the street, wet and naked on a cold night.

After having lived through these sad experiences, Chris was clear about something: he would not become his stepfather. He chose to take his mother as an example of strength instead.

“I chose to embrace the spirit of my mom—who despite the fact that she had too many of her own dreams denied, deferred, and destroyed—still instilled in me that I could have dreams,” he confessed.

Marriage and fatherhood

Chris left Wisconsin when he entered the US Navy and joined the Medical Corps. There he met Dr. Robert Ellis, who offered him a job as a research assistant at the University of California Medical Center. It was 1974 when he moved to San Francisco.

Chris’ future seemed to brighten. In 1977, he married Sherry Dyson and was planning on going to Medical School, but then realized the time and money he would have to invest were beyond him, so he changed his mind. This damaged his already fractured relationship with his then-wife.

Sometime later, Chris met a woman named Jackie Medina, who got pregnant. This was when Chris separated from his wife to care of Jackie and their son. At the time his son was born, he was working as a research lab assistant, but as his salary wasn’t enough, he became a sales representative for a medical equipment company, but without luxury.

Signs in life travel in Ferraris.

Once he saw a well-dressed man get out of a red Ferrari on the street. That day, his life changed. Impressed, Chris asked, “What do you do, and how do you do it?” The man was Bob Bridges, a stockbroker who made about $80,000 a month.

Driven by the possibility of achieving his long-awaited success, Chris canceled his sales meetings and postponed paying his parking tickets until he was accepted into the training program at another company. Then he quit his old job. But as bad luck would have it, when he showed up at the office on his first day of work, he found out that the person who had hired him had been fired.

With a young son and a deteriorating relationship, Chris was forced to look elsewhere for a new chance and got an interview at Dean Witter Reynolds to train as a stockbroker.

But, once again, luck was not on his side, and, a little over a week before his job interview, he was arrested for $1,200 he had accumulated in fines. He spent 10 days in prison, and when he got out of jail, he realized Jackie had left, taking their son and all of his belongings. A day after his release, Chris had to attend his interview in the same clothes he had used during his time in prison: casual pants, sneakers, and a jacket. Despite that, he was accepted into the internship program. He would receive a salary of $1,000 a month.

4 months later, Jackie returned with little Christopher, and both parents decided that it would be better if he stayed with his father. There was only one small problem, the boarding house where Chris lived didn’t accept children, and he didn’t have enough money to pay rent. It was then that a pilgrimage began for father and son.

Chris’s salary was barely enough for diapers, food, and childcare, so when it came to choose whether the money was spent on food or shelter, the decision was always food. Chris and his little boy spent the night wherever they could; Cheap motels, hostels, parks, under a desk at Chris’ office, and even in a public bathroom at a subway station in Oakland.

Chris and his son went from one “home” to another for about a year. In the meantime, he continued his internship in finance and never told his colleagues that he had no place to live. Instead, he received help from people he didn’t expect, like Rev. Cecil Williams from Glide Memorial Church. He gave Chris a room despite the fact that it was in a program that was only for single mothers. In fact, even some “ladies of the evening” (as Chris himself calls them) started giving him $5 bills regularly, when they saw him with his baby in a rickety stroller.

To earn a few extra bucks, Chris took some random jobs. He mowed lawns, tidied gardens, built roofs, cleaned basements, and even sold his blood, although he was never very proud of the latter.

I call this moment in my life “happiness.”

After going through considerably tough times and standing out as a dedicated and persevering intern, Chris took the exam to obtain his license as a stockbroker in 1982. He passed and managed to get a stable job with a much better salary. Now he was able to pay rent.

Chris had gone from being an apprentice with nowhere to sleep to being a respected stockbroker. He was even offered a chance to work on Wall Street in New York and lived in that city for 2 years before moving to Chicago and starting Gardner Rich & Co., his own company with an initial investment of $10,000 in 1987.

A year later, he managed to earn over a million dollars. Lack of money was no longer a problem for him. Excited about his achievements, he bought his own Ferrari, but not just anyone, he bought one that had formerly belonged to basketball player Michael Jordan.

By 2006, Chris had managed to grow his company immensely and sold it in a multi-million dollar deal. He later became the founder of Christopher Gardner International Holdings and placed offices in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Through it, he contributes to various philanthropic organizations related to education, access to housing, and job creation projects.

Chris is currently a successful lecturer who travels the world motivating people to pursue their dreams and explaining topics related to business success. This is very fulfilling for him.

Chris’s life in a movie

If you’ve already watched the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, you may have noticed some differences from the story you just read. This is because the production team made some creative decisions to better narrate the story on film.

Here we share some curious facts related to the movie:

  • The film is inspired by the book The Pursuit of Happyness, written by Gardner himself. In the original title, the word “happyness” is intentionally misspelled with a “y” instead of an “i” in order to represent “you.”

  • In real life, during the events of the film, Chris’s son was only 2 years old, but in the film adaptation, Christopher (played by Jaden Smith) was 7 years old. The writers did this so that father and son could have more meaningful interactions in the film.

  • To interpret his role in the best way possible, Will Smith and Chris Gardner visited the Oakland bathroom where he once slept with his son. “We left him in there for a good 5 minutes, and when he came out he was not Will Smith, he was Chris Gardner,” said Gardner himself.

  • In a cameo near the end of the film, we see the real Chris appear onscreen when he meets the characters on the street.

  • The movie doesn’t show it, but while Chris was working on the stock market, he got back together with Jackie and they had a second child, a girl named Jacintha.

Chris’s story is truly inspiring, because it shows that, no matter what your problems are, success is possible, which is why we wanted to dedicate this article to him.

What do you think about it? Do you think Chris’s life would have been different if he hadn’t run into the man with the red Ferrari? Tell us in the comments!




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