Oscars 2022 producer Will Packer is opening up about what happened behind the scenes on Hollywood’s biggest night, after actor Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock on stage.
In an exclusive interview with ABC News' TJ Holmes, airing Friday on "Good Morning America," Packer said the Los Angeles Police Department was ready to arrest Smith at the 94th Academy Awards on Sunday night after he got up from his seat, walked on stage and slapped Rock for telling a joke about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith's hair
A longtime friend of Rock said that he was unaware of Pinkett Smith's alopecia.
'I thought it was a bit'
Packer, who led the first all-Black production team for the Oscars, said he wasn't worried when Rock first took the stage to present the award for best documentary feature.
"I said: 'Watch this, he's gonna kill.' Because I knew he had an amazing lineup of jokes that we had -- we had him in the prompter," Packer recalled. "He didn't tell one of the planned jokes, but you can't make it up. He was just immediately freestyling. But I tell you, if there's anybody that you don't worry about going out in front of a live audience and riffing off the cuff, [it's] Chris Rock. Nobody's better."
Packer said he had no concerns because he knew Rock would make the crowd laugh. But when things suddenly took a turn, Packer said his "heart dropped."
"Once I saw Will yelling at the stage, [it] was such vitriol," he said. "I remember thinking: 'Oh no, no no, not like this. Not like this.' But I've got people, everybody's still in my ear, you know, saying: 'OK, what are we doing on camera two? Is he still up there? Are we doing the best documentary category?' And Chris was keeping his head when everybody was losing theirs."
'But my heart at that point was just in my stomach, because of everything about it and what it represented and what it looked like and who was involved," he added. "All of that was just -- I never felt so immediately devastated like I did in that moment."
Initially, Packer said he "thought it was a bit," like many did in the audience and at home. But when Rock walked off stage, the producer was able to ask Rock directly about what had transpired.
"I said: 'Did he really hit you?" Packer recalled asking Rock off-stage just moments after the incident. "And he looked at me and he goes: 'I just took a punch from Muhammad Ali.' It's exactly what he said, as only Chris can, you know. He was immediately in joke mode, but you could tell that he was very much still in shock."
Behind the curtain
"I made that clear, like, 'Rock, you tell me, whatever you want to do, brother,'" Packer said. "The LAPD came and needed to talk to Chris. And so they came into my office and they were laying out very clearly what Chris' rights were. They were saying: 'This is battery. We will go get him. We will go get him right now, you can press charges, we can arrest him.'"
Still, Packer said Rock was "dismissive" of the options police presented, insisting he was "fine." While Packer didn't speak to Smith, his co-producer, Shayla Cowan, informed him that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was about to remove Smith from the ceremony. The Academy said in a statement Wednesday that they had asked Smith to leave, but he refused.
Smith ended up winning best actor that night for his performance as Richard Williams, the father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams, in the film "King Richard." It was his first-ever Academy Award.
Packer says he has a "different perspective" on the standing ovation Smith received following his best actor win.
"I was in the room and I know a lot of those people, and so it wasn't like this was somebody they didn't know," Packer said. "It doesn't make anything that he did right, it doesn't excuse that behavior at all. But I think that the people in that room who stood up, 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 don't think that these were people that were applauding anything at all about that moment, and 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," Packer added.
When giving his acceptance speech on stage, a tearful Smith seemingly referenced the confrontation without mentioning or apologizing to Rock directly. Instead, Smith apologized to the Academy and his fellow nominees.
The following day, Smith formally apologized to Rock and the Academy for his actions in an Instagram post. Packer said Smith also reached out to him that morning.
"He apologized and he said: 'You know, this should have been a gigantic moment for you,'" Packer recalled. "He expressed his embarrassment and that was the extent of it."
Smith reportedly also apologized to the other Oscars producers in a six-minute Zoom call on Tuesday. The Academy’s Board of Governors announced Wednesday that they are beginning disciplinary procedures against the actor.
The Academy said it is holding its next board meeting on April 18, during which members may decide to take disciplinary action against Smith, such as suspension, expulsion or other sanctions.
Rock handled the moment with 'grace and aplomb'
While Rock hasn't said much about what occurred between him and Smith, he did tell the audience at his first comedy show since the Oscars on Wednesday night that he is still "processing what happened" and that he'll talk about it at some point.
But in the days since the Oscars, many have weighed in and are still shaken by the incident, including one of this year's co-hosts, comedian Wanda Sykes, who told Ellen DeGeneres in an interview to air April 7 that she is "sickened" by what went down on stage.
"For them to let him [Smith] stay in that room and enjoy the rest of the show and accept his award, I was like: 'How gross is this?' Sykes said. "This is just the wrong message. You assault somebody, you get escorted out the building and that's it."
Meanwhile, Packer is still praising Rock for handling the moment how he did, especially as the energy in the room died down.
"Chris handled the moment with such grace and aplomb -- it allowed the show to continue," Packer said. "Because Chris continued the way that he did, he completed the category. He handed the trophy to Questlove, who I feel like was really robbed of their moment. It gave us license in a way to continue the show, which is what we were trying to do."
"It was such a huge moment, and such a sad and disappointing moment that it wasn't something that we were going to come back from within that night, within this week," he added. "I don’t know when we’ll come back and people will be talking about anything else other than the show."