“Officially, we don’t want you to leave. We want you to stay.”
That was the message that Will Packer, the producer of this year’s Oscars, came rushing out to deliver to Will Smith less than 45 minutes after the A-list nominee had struck presenter Chris Rock on the Dolby Theatre stage.
For those who witnessed the drama both onstage and behind the scenes on March 27, the recollections of exactly what followed The Slap have often been discordant and even contradictory. Among the most contentious points: An Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences statement said that Smith “was asked to leave the ceremony and refused.” Smith’s team has disputed the nature of the ask.
The Times spoke to more than a dozen people who were at the Oscars that night, or had direct knowledge of what transpired, and through the conversations, some measure of clarity emerged. Due to the sensitivity of the situation, none of the sources were willing to be quoted by name. The academy and representatives for Smith declined to comment.
“I think everyone has their truth,” said one source. “There are like five people who truly know what happened that night. And in those pressured moments, things certainly could have been misconstrued on all sides.”
More than two hours into the 94th Academy Awards, the show was running long, but the atmosphere was congenial and collegial. The controversy over presenting some categories ahead of the live telecast was barely registering outside of Film Twitter, and while hosts Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes poked fun at targets including Aaron Sorkin, Leonardo DiCaprio and “The Power of the Dog” in their opening banter, the vibe was overwhelmingly one of Hollywood professionals happy to be among their peers — even with COVID-19 protocols in place.
Backstage in the Dolby’s greenroom, tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams — on hand to support the best-picture-nominated “King Richard” — were half-watching the telecast. Jake Gyllenhaal and Zoë Kravitz were waiting to take the stage, as was Kevin Costner, who would soon present the directing Oscar.
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Most assumed it was a staged comedy bit. There was no way the well-liked, effortlessly cool Smith would’ve stormed the stage to strike Rock on live TV over a joke. Nothing could be more antithetical to the image the star had carefully cultivated over more than three decades of blockbuster movies, hit singles and an abundance of successful side projects. To top it all off, he was favored to win the lead actor Oscar that very night for his career-capping turn in “King Richard.”
Then Smith started screaming profanities at Rock from his seat.
“Oh, that was real,” Costner said, adding that everyone was going to have to take a beat. The show needed to regroup.
The immediate fallout
As Sykes would later recall to former Oscars host Ellen DeGeneres on her daytime talk show, the three hosts were busy getting out of their costumes from a comedy bit when The Slap happened. Sykes returned to the backstage area as Smith was heading back to his seat. Someone showed her a video and said, “He smacked Chris.”
According to a source, Sykes then told Sean “Diddy” Combs — who was about to take the stage to introduce an anticipated reunion of “The Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola and actors Al Pacino and Robert De Niro — “You need to go out there and really elevate that room.”
After Rock, “Summer of Soul” director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and his Oscar-winning documentary collaborators left the stage, Combs came out. “I did not know this was gonna be the most exciting Oscars ever. Will and Chris, we’re gonna solve that like family at the Gold Party,” Combs said, referring to the annual post-Oscars celebration hosted by Jay-Z and Beyoncé at the Chateau Marmont. “But right now, we are moving on with love.”
No one in the theater could concentrate on the “Godfather” tribute — or much of anything that followed it. As one veteran personal publicist put it: “I’ve never seen a room deflate so dramatically and never recover. Never.”
Backstage, Rock — who, according to a source close to the comedian, was not aware that Jada Pinkett Smith had struggled with alopecia when he joked about her hairstyle — still seemed shaken by what had happened, even as he tried to laugh it off. “I just got punched in the face by Muhammad Ali and didn’t get a scratch,” a Times photographer heard him crack. (Smith played Ali in a 2001 biopic in a performance that also landed him an Oscar nomination.)
Rock conferred with the producers and also spoke with Combs. The two men, longtime friends, hugged. Smith remained seated in the audience.
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Rock was hardly the only one in the Dolby struggling to wrap his head around what had happened. “That was a stressful moment,” said the veteran publicist. “Some people were frightened. You don’t see that every day — or ever.”
Security at the Oscars is always tight, with hundreds of Los Angeles Police Department officers deployed in and around the Dolby and snipers on rooftops. Backstage, the LAPD asked Rock if he wanted to file a report. If so, they were prepared to arrest Smith and forcibly remove him from the Dolby. Rock demurred, saying he was fine.
While Rock declined to press charges, the question of whether to remove Smith from the ceremony still needed to be addressed.
The academy steps in
When the show broke for commercial, some 10 minutes after The Slap, academy CEO Dawn Hudson and President David Rubin immediately sprang from their seats in the audience and headed backstage. After first making sure that Rock was OK, they found Smith’s longtime publicist, Meredith O’Sullivan. An academy lawyer joined them in a private room.
Furious over Smith’s stunning breach of decorum and concerned it would overshadow the entire show, an industry source said academy leaders told O’Sullivan they wanted the actor to leave the Dolby Theatre as soon as possible. The message, they thought, was unequivocal. And it was mutually agreed upon that O’Sullivan would deliver that request to Smith during the next commercial break.
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“This was not the easiest decision,” said the source. “You know Hollywood. ... Everyone likes to try to pass the baton and pass the buck. But this was a pretty quick decision on something that was tough. And it was clear: ‘Will has to go.’”
But others familiar with the conversation remember the ask being softer and more ambiguous: “We think we’d like Will to leave. Can you find out what Will thinks?” That sounded like the academy was testing the waters, and not without some trepidation, given Smith’s A-list nominee status.
Meanwhile in the theater, Combs had made his way to check on Smith during the initial commercial break. Tyler Perry and Denzel Washington, a longstanding mentor to Smith, took the actor aside, attempting to calm him down. “He was out of his mind,” said a source. “They were trying to de-escalate the situation.” As Washington later told Bishop T.D. Jakes, the men prayed together.
Washington walked Smith back to his seat and Bradley Cooper took over, embracing Smith and talking with him for 40 seconds. Smith wiped away tears, sat down and held his wife’s hand.
Following the six-and-a-half-minute in memoriam segment, the telecast paused again for a second commercial break and a visibly shaken O’Sullivan walked to Smith’s table to relay the academy’s request.
“The academy thinks they want you to leave,” she said, standing next to Smith. “What are you feeling?”
Smith wanted to stay. He still couldn’t quite believe what he’d done. And, blessed with self-confidence or cursed with self-delusion, he thought he could fix it.
“I want to apologize,” he said, according to sources, thinking ahead to the likelihood that he’d be back onstage, making an acceptance speech. “I think I can make it right.”
At no point did Hudson or Rubin speak directly with Smith. Later, some would second-guess the academy’s decision to delegate O’Sullivan to be the emissary.
“They should have just asked him to come backstage,” said one source. “You’d have avoided a big scene. Just say, ‘Mr. Smith, we’d like to speak to you in private.’”
While academy leaders have acknowledged they could have handled the situation differently, some familiar with the challenge of producing a live awards show defend the organization’s actions in a volatile and previously unimaginable crisis for which there was no playbook.
“I know from producing the show that time flies by so quickly,” said one academy insider. “Fifteen or 20 minutes can feel like one minute when you’re back there, and those commercial breaks — which is the only time you have to properly deal with anyone in the audience — go by incredibly fast. I can only imagine how challenging it was because, in addition to having their own professional reaction, everybody is having their own human reaction. In the moment, this was a group of humans who were also going through their own shock and trauma.”
Said another former Oscars producer who was in attendance that night, “I’m sure the people who were making those decisions were really trying to quickly weigh the options in the best way they could — and meanwhile, it’s ‘tick, tick, tick, tick’ the whole time. But everyone loves to complain about the academy, and everybody woke up Monday morning with a pure point of view on how they would have handled this differently.”
Smith stays put
Whatever the academy may have wished, Smith stayed in his seat and kept a firm grip on his wife’s hand. Backstage, O’Sullivan reported to Rubin and Hudson that Smith was “gathering himself” and “needs a minute.” The academy leaders took that as an indication that Smith was preparing to leave.
Hudson and Rubin went to discuss the situation with first-time Oscars producer Packer, who was in the broadcast booth desperately trying to keep a show he’d promised would run a tight three hours, crammed full with showbiz pizazz, from flying off the rails.
Packer disagreed with the decision to remove Smith, and already-sky-high tensions rose further. As Packer recalled in an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” later that week, “I immediately went to the academy leadership ... and I said: ‘Chris Rock doesn’t want that.’ I said: ‘Rock has made it clear that he does not want to make a bad situation worse.’”
But sources close to Rock insist the comedian was never consulted. And, as the academy saw it, it wasn’t Packer’s call to make.
When the show took its third commercial break since The Slap — the last pause before the lead actor award would be given — O’Sullivan returned to Smith’s side, discussing what he might say should he win. While they were speaking, a source said, Packer came racing across the room with that urgent message: “Officially, we don’t want you to leave. We want you to stay.”
In the “Good Morning America” interview, Packer — who produced the comedy hit “Girls Trip” starring Pinkett Smith — said he didn’t speak directly with Smith during the show. “Maybe he thought he was speaking to Meredith and not Will? Who f— knows?” said a source privy to the conversation.
But, to O’Sullivan and Smith, the message was clear: The academy wanted Smith to stay. The matter was settled.
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A source close to the situation, though, said Packer was acting on his own, thinking Smith’s acceptance speech would deliver exactly the sort of riveting, emotionally charged television that the Oscars needed.
Packer declined to comment for this story but told “Good Morning America,” “I think what many of us were hoping was that [Smith] would go on that stage and make it better.”
Moments later, “Pulp Fiction” stars Samuel L. Jackson, John Travolta and Uma Thurman arrived to open the lead actor envelope for the announcement everyone was waiting for. When Smith’s name was read, a mix of cheers and boos could be heard in the Dolby. Some stood to applaud the actor; others rose simply to see what was going to happen.
Chatter inside and outside the theater came to a complete halt. “Shh! We all want to hear what he got to say. Shut up!” musician Robert Glasper told the crowd gathered at the bar outside the orchestra level.
For the next nearly six minutes, Smith stood before his peers and, tears streaming down his face, delivered an acceptance speech that was certainly unlike anything that he could have planned in the season leading up to it — or that his publicist may have wanted. Likening his actions to his real-life character Richard Williams’ impulse to protect his children, Smith apologized to the academy and his fellow nominees, but not to Rock, saying, “Love will make you do crazy things.”
“That came from the heart,” said a source close to Smith. “[O’Sullivan] offered some general advice, but she only had a few moments on those commercial breaks.”
Smith’s team reconvened after the show ended, but the actor went off the grid until after midnight when he triumphantly strode into the Vanity Fair party, moments after DJ D-Nice began playing “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” Clutching his Oscar, Smith led an entourage that included his wife and their three children — Jaden, Willow and Trey — along with friends and a bodyguard.
To the delight of the partygoers, Smith rapped along to three of his hit songs, smiled and posed for pictures and accepted well wishes. The celebration, at odds with the ugliness that had taken place just hours ago, was duly reported on news and social media outlets. The jarring optics did not sit well with many. One academy governor said their inbox overflowed with complaints well into the next day.
“It was definitely not the best decision he made that night,” a seasoned publicist noted. “Of course, it was also not close to the worst decision he made.”
Late Monday afternoon, Smith issued another apology on his Instagram account, this time including Rock in a long list along with the academy; the show’s producers, attendees and viewers; the Williams family; and the “King Richard” film team. The next day, Smith initiated a brief Zoom call with Hudson and Rubin, in which he apologized again.
On Wednesday, the film academy announced it had formally launched disciplinary proceedings against Smith for violating its code of conduct. Amid speculation that he would be suspended from the organization, if not expelled, the actor took preemptive action, resigning from the academy five days after the Oscars with another detailed apology.
Future fallout — for Smith, for the academy, for the Oscars — remains to be seen. On Friday, the academy’s board of governors, which includes such luminaries as Steven Spielberg, Ava DuVernay and Whoopi Goldberg, gathered and voted to ban Smith for 10 years from all academy events, including the Oscars.
The incident is likely to leave a lasting stain not only on Smith’s public image but on the entire film industry.
“What struck me most about that night is that that whole room stood up and gave him a standing ovation, and then the doors closed and everyone had time to think through things and gossip,” said one industry source who was at the Oscars that night. “And the same people who said they felt most strongly about it danced with him at the Vanity Fair party. That is Hollywood at its finest.”
Times staff writers Amy Kaufman, Sonaiya Kelley, Wendy Lee, Mark Olsen and Jen Yamato contributed to this report.
Josh Rottenberg covers the film business for the Los Angeles Times. He was part of the team that was named a 2022 Pulitzer Prize finalist in breaking news for covering the tragic shooting on the set of the film “Rust.” He co-wrote the 2021 Times investigation into the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. that led NBC to pull the Golden Globe Awards off the air while the organization underwent major reforms. A graduate of Harvard University, he has also written about the entertainment industry for the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Fast Company and other publications.