LOS ANGELES — When Will Smith marched onto the Oscars stage and smacked Chris Rock, the unpredictable moment served as a jarring interruption to Hollywood’s feel-good celebration.
But once Smith returned moments later to accept his first-ever Academy Award, he delivered a tearful apology for an act sure to overshadow his milestone achievement. He seized the opportunity during Sunday night’s awards to speak on being a fierce defender just like his tennis dad character Richard Williams from “King Richard.”
Smith felt like the protector of many including his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, after Rock made a joke about her appearance that didn’t sit right with him.
“Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” Smith said as he began his acceptance speech after winning best actor honors. He apologized afterward to many people — including tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, Richard Williams’ daughters — but did not mention Rock in his apology.
Smith then spoke about being a protector for those who worked with him on the film such as Aunjanue Ellis along with Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, the two actors who played Venus and Serena.
“I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people,” said Smith during his acceptance speech after winning his first-ever Oscar. “I know to do what we do you’ve got to be able to take abuse. You’ve got to be able to have people talk crazy about you. In this business, you’ve got to be able to have people disrespecting you. And you’ve got to smile and pretend like that’s OK.”
The exchange began when Rock took aim at Pinkett Smith’s shaved head, saying, “Jada, I love you. ‘G.I. Jane 2,’ can’t wait to see it, all right?” Rock’s reference was made from the 1997 film “G.I. Jane,” starring Demi Moore, who shaved her head to portray a fictional Navy Seal candidate.
Pinkett Smith revealed in 2018 that she was diagnosed with alopecia. She has often discussed the challenges of hair loss on Instagram and other social media platforms.
The joke missed, badly.
Smith walked onto the stage from his front-row seat and took a swing at Rock with an open palm, generating a loud smack. Smith walked back to his seat and shouted for Rock to leave Pinkett Smith alone. Rock replied that he was just making a “G.I. Jane” joke — and Smith yelled back at him a second time.
Smith shouted at Rock to “keep my wife’s name out of your (expletive) mouth,” and the crowd hushed as it became clear this was no act.
The moment shocked the Dolby Theatre audience and viewers at home. At the commercial break, presenter Daniel Kaluuya came up to hug Smith, and Denzel Washington escorted him to the side of the stage. The two talked and hugged and Tyler Perry came over to talk as well.
Smith shared what Washington told him: “At your highest moment, be careful because that’s when the devil comes for you.”
“I’m hoping the Academy invites me back,” Will Smith said, as he concluded his on-stage remarks.
A representative for Rock didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
After the show, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences issued a statement saying it “does not condone violence of any form.”
The Los Angeles Police Department said in a statement that it was aware of the incident.
“The incident involved one individual slapping another,” the statement read. “The individual involved has declined to file a police report. If the involved party desires a police report at a later date, LAPD will be available to complete an investigative report.”
“That was the greatest night in the history of television,” Rock said before resuming his role as presenter.
A few minutes later, rapper Sean Combs — on stage to introduce a tribute to “The Godfather” — tried to play peacemaker and suggested Smith and Rock settle their differences at an Oscars afterparty.
“Will and Chris, we’re going to solve that like family at the Gold party,” Combs said.
The reverberations did not stop there. Several people approached Smith and Pinkett Smith in the commercial breaks that followed; Keith Urban hugged Smith during one stoppage in the show, and Nicole Kidman also went over to say a few words as well.
Backstage, during interview sessions with winners, the Rock-Smith incident seemed like something few — if anyone — wanted to discuss.
“I’m not talking about that,” said Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the director of “Summer of Soul,” which won an Oscar for best documentary.
The confrontation overshadowed Smith’s milestone accomplishment. He was previously nominated twice for best actor, for his role in “Ali” in 2002 and “The Pursuit of Happyness” in 2007. In those films, he portrayed real-life characters: Boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Chris Garner, a homeless salesman.
This time, Smith won against formidable competition including Andrew Garfield, Javier Bardem, Benedict Cumberbatch and Denzel Washington — who won his first and only best actor Oscar award in 2002 over Smith for “Training Day.”
Pinkett Smith was also the subject of jokes from Rock when he hosted the Oscars in 2016. She did not attend the Oscars that year, saying at the time her decision stemmed from a lack of diversity among award nominees and how Black artists were not properly represented.
“I think we have to sometimes remember, like at a certain point, everyone breaks,” said TV personality Karamo Brown. “But I think these are two men that will actually come together, figure it out and like say ‘OK, enough is enough, I’m sorry.’ ... I haven’t been in that situation. I never condone violence or anything of that nature, but I also could understand protecting those you love.”
AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr contributed to this report.