The producer of the 2022 telecast sat down with Good Morning America for an interview airing five days after the show, where he responded to swirling questions about why Smith wasn’t escorted out of the show following the onstage assault, and shared his backstage conversations with Rock and the LAPD.
The first-time Oscars producer said that in the live moment he, too, thought Smith smacking Rock was a bit, until Rock came backstage and confirmed that he had really been hit by Smith, who would also go on to win the best actor trophy of the night to a standing ovation.
Packer, speaking to T.J. Holmes, confirmed that the joke Rock made about Jada Pinkett Smith that sparked Smith to take the stage (a G.I. Jane jab referencing her shaved head; the actress has alopecia) was unscripted.
“He didn’t tell one of the planned jokes. He was immediately freestyling,” says Packer of Rock. But Packer wasn’t concerned. Even when he saw Smith take the stage, Packer says he, like everyone in the audience, assumed it was a bit.
“Once I saw Will yelling at the stage with such vitriol, my heart dropped. And I just remember thinking, ‘Oh no, oh no. Not like this,’” recalls Packer. “Chris was keeping his head when everyone else was losing theirs. My heart was just in my stomach because of everything about it and what it represented and what it looked like and who was involved. All of that. I’ve never felt so immediately devastated like I did in that moment.”
When Rock walked off stage after the best documentary category presentation (which went to Questlove), Packer confirmed with Rock that Smith really hit him.
“I just took a punch from Muhammad Ali,” Packer says Rock joked, despite being “very much in shock.”
Packer says that once he confirmed the physical assault, Rock insisted to him that he was fine. The LAPD came into Packer’s office and were “laying out very clearly what Chris’ rights are. They were saying: This is battery. We will go get him. We’re prepared. We’re prepared to get him right now. You can press charges. We’ll arrest him.”
But Packer says Rock was being “very dismissive” of those options, reiterating he was fine. “Even to the point where I said, ‘Rock, let him finish.’”
When they asked if he would like them to take action, Rock 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
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
Earlier this week, when beginning disciplinary action against Smith, which is set to take weeks, the Academy issued a statement saying Smith was asked to leave the show following the slap, but that he refused. The statement didn’t provide details, but did say they also “recognize we could have handled the situation differently.”
During Wednesday’s board of governors meeting following the incident, which is now under formal review by the Academy, one board member told The Hollywood Reporter that it still wasn’t made clear who asked Will Smith to leave, or what the sequence of events was. Board members are awaiting further clarity.
Speaking on GMA, Packer said that, before the best actor award, Shayla Cowan, who produced the show alongside Packer, told him that “they” were about to physically remove Smith.
Packer says he had not been a part of those conversations.
“I immediately went to the Academy leadership that was on site 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.’ That was Chris’ image. His tone was not retaliatory, his tone was not aggressive and angry. And so I was advocating for what Rock wanted in that time, which was not to physically remove Will Smith at that time. Because, as it has now been explained to me, that was the only option at that point. It has been explained to me that there was a conversation that I was not a part of to ask him to voluntarily leave.”
Smith reached out to Packer personally the following morning to apologize, ahead of his public apology to Rock that would come later that day on Instagram. “[Smith] said, ‘This should have been a gigantic moment for you. And he expressed his embarrassment and that was the extent of it.”