Smith was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of Walter Smith, a civil engineer, and his mother Margaret Smith, a homemaker. At the age of fourteen, Smith was sent to the Leelanau School, a prep school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There he got his first taste of acting, and by the time he graduated he decided to attend Carnegie Tech as a drama major. After his freshman year at Carnegie Tech, Smith enlisted in the army and was stationed in Santiago, Chile where he worked at a tracking station for the Vanguard Project, an early satellite program.
After returning from the army, Smith enrolled at the University of North Carolina, but after a year he decided to head to New York City to become a professional actor.
Three years later, Smith was accepted into Actor's Studio, entering the famed drama school the same night as Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino. Smith went on to appear on Broadway, and picked up his first film roles in Man on a Swing and Network.
In 1977, Smith came to Hollywood for a role in the Paul Schraeder film Blue Collar and decided to make L.A. his home. Smith credit's the 1980 television mini series Gideon's Trumpet as a break through role.
Smith's portrayal of Richard Nixon in the television mini series The Final Days was among his most satisfying and earned him a Golden Globe nomination for best actor.
When not working, Smith enjoyed skeet shooting and sailing.
Smith died at his home in Los Angeles on June 13, 2006. He is survived by his wife, Debbie, his son Robbie, and a brother and sister. He also has a 19-year-old stepson.