Oscars producer Will Packer, who was overseeing the awards for the very first time when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock, has shared his perspective on the incident.
In an interview with Good Morning America‘s T.J. Holmes on Friday, Packer described the state of confusion, then chaos, then conversation that ensued in the immediate aftermath of the altercation. “I thought it was a bit like everybody else,” Packer insisted. But once he saw Smith return to his seat and continue to yell at Rock “with such vitriol, my heart dropped,” the producer said, “and I just remember thinking, ‘Oh no, not like this.'”
Once Rock walked offstage, Packer immediately approached the comedian and asked if Smith had really hit him. “He looked at me and he goes, ‘Yeah. I just took a punch from Muhammad Ali,'” the producer recalled. “He was immediately in joke mode, but you could tell that he was very much still in shock.”
As far as removing Smith goes, Packer noted that he was willing to do whatever Rock wanted. He also disclosed that the Los Angeles police department “made it clear” to Rock that they would arrest Smith if he decided to press charges.
“They were laying out very clearly what Chris’ rights were, and they were saying, ‘This is battery. We will go get him,'” the producer reiterated. But as they were talking, “Chris was being very dismissive of those options… He was like, ‘No, no, no,’ even to the point where I said, ‘Rock, let them finish,’ and they said, ‘Would you like us to take any action?’ And he said, ‘No.'”
EXCLUSIVE: #Oscars producer Will Packer tells @GMA what happened behind the scenes after actor Will Smith slapped host Chris Rock live on stage. @tjholmes https://t.co/AeoYcGkM32 pic.twitter.com/xe9E2cFo8N
— Good Morning America (@GMA) April 1, 2022
There were allegedly additional conversations about Smith voluntarily removing himself that Packer insisted did not involve him. But after Rock said that he would not press charges, Packer went to the Academy leadership on site and relayed that Rock did not want to “make a bad situation worse.” Rock’s tone was not “retaliatory, aggressive or angry,” Packer said, “so I was advocating what Rock wanted in that time, which was not to physically remove Will Smith.”
EXCLUSIVE: #Oscars producer Will Packer tells Good Morning America about the frenetic aftermath of actor Will Smith slapping host Chris Rock live on stage on Hollywood’s biggest night. https://t.co/AeoYcGkM32 pic.twitter.com/8z35t8TPFw
— Good Morning America (@GMA) April 1, 2022
The hope, Packer explained, was that Smith would use his Best Actor acceptance speech to apologize to Rock and attempt to smooth things over. “It couldn’t be made right in that moment,” he said, “but I think we were hoping that he could make it better, that he would stand on that stage and say what just happened minutes ago was absolutely and completely wrong. ‘Chris Rock, I am so sorry. Please forgive me.’ That’s what I was hoping for.” But if he wasn’t going to give that speech, then “yes,” he would have liked for Smith to have left the ceremony rather than stay and accept his award. “Because now you… have the optics of somebody who committed this act [and] didn’t nail it in terms of a conciliatory acceptance speech in that moment who then continued to be in that room.”
As for the optics of the audience giving Smith a standing ovation even after the incident, Packer offered a perspective in defense of the room. “It wasn’t like this was somebody they didn’t know,” he said. “It doesn’t make anything he did right, it doesn’t excuse that behavior at all, but I think that the people in that room stood up for somebody who they knew — who was a peer, who was a friend, who was a brother — who has a three decades-plus long career of being the opposite of what we saw in that moment. I think these people saw the person that they know, and were hoping that somehow, someway, this was an aberration.
“I don’t think these were people were applauding anything at all about that moment,” he continued. “All these people saw their friend at his absolute worst moment and were hoping that they could encourage him and lift him up and that he would somehow try to make it better.” Alas, that’s not what happened.
In the end, Packer gave credit to Rock for how he handled himself in the wake of the slap. “Because Chris handled the moment with such grace and aplomb, it allowed the show to continue,” he said, even if the incident had already “sucked the life out of that room.” Packer ultimately called it a “sad and disappointing moment.”
Shortly after Sunday’s Oscar broadcast ended, Packer offered this tongue-in-cheek response to the evening’s shocking events: “Welp… I said it wouldn’t be boring.” But the comment drew criticism from some Twitter users at the time, including one who wrote, “Making jokes about an assault that happened during your show isn’t the congratulatory message you think it is.”
In a follow-up reply, Packer elaborated, “Black people have a defiant spirit of laughter when it comes to dealing with pain because there has been so much of it. I don’t feel the need to elucidate that for you. But I also don’t mind being transparent and say that this was a very painful moment for me. On many levels.”
In the wake of Smith’s actions at the Oscars, the Academy released a strongly worded statement on Wednesday after its Board of Governors met to discuss possible disciplinary action against the actor. After calling the slap “a deeply shocking, traumatic event to witness,” the Academy apologized to Rock and the other nominees, guests and viewers. At the next board meeting on April 18, Smith could face possible “suspension, expulsion or other sanctions permitted by the Bylaws and Standards of Conduct.”
Smith has since apologized to Rock in a statement on Instagram, saying, “My behavior at last night’s Academy Awards was unacceptable and inexcusable… I was out of line, and I was wrong… I am a work in progress.” And according to Packer, Smith reached out to him personally the morning after the Oscars. “He said, ‘This should have been a gigantic moment for you,’ and he expressed his embarrassment,” Packer recalled. “That was the extent of it.”