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Oscars Producer: Academy Didn’t Remove Will Smith Because Chris Rock Advocated for Him to Stay

In a "Good Morning America" interview, the producer opened up about the spontaneous moment that defined his Oscars telecast.

FILE - Will Packer speaks at the "Rob Riggle: Global Investigator" panel during the Discovery Network TCA Winter Press Tour on Jan. 16, 2020, in Pasadena, Calif. Packer will produce next year's Oscars. It's the first time Packer has been selected for the gig and the third time in as many years that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and ABC have enlisted new teams to produce the show. (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP, File)

Will Packer

Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP

Will Packer wants to set the record straight about that slap.

In an appearance on “Good Morning America,” the Oscars telecast producer discussed how LAPD was ready to arrest Will Smith after he slapped Best Documentary presenter Chris Rock onstage. However, Rock didn’t want Smith to be removed, according to the producer. (Sources at Deadline, however, dispute Packer’s version of events and claim that Rock was never asked if he wanted Will Smith to be removed.)

When the slap happened, Packer said he thought it was a bit. “I thought it was part of something that Chris and Will were doing on their own. I thought it was a bit. I wasn’t concerned at all.”

Packer also confirmed that Rock was “freestyling” during his routine onstage, as Rock’s joke directed toward Jada Pinkett Smith about her bald hairstyle was ad-libbed. Packer said, “He had an amazing lineup of jokes that we had. We had him in the prompter and ultimately he did not get to one joke. He didn’t tell one of the planned jokes.”

After the moment happened, Packer approached Chris Rock backstage. “I said, ‘Did he really hit you?’ And he looked at me and he goes, ‘Yeah, I just took a punch from Muhammad Ali,’ as only Chris can. He was immediately in joke mode, but you could tell that he was very much still in shock.

“I knew it was clearly a confrontational moment because of what was happening from Will in the audience, but I still wasn’t sure that he actually struck him,” Packer said. “I made that clear, like, Rock, you tell me, whatever you want to do, brother, and he was telling me, ‘I’m fine.’”

Packer said he never spoke with Smith after the slap, but that he instead went to Academy leadership on site to say that Rock “doesn’t want” Smith to be removed or “to make a bad situation worse.”

Packer said, “That was Chris’ energy. His tone was not retaliatory, it was not angry, so I was advocating 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.”

Packer went on to defend those Academy members who controversially gave Smith a standing ovation later in the show when he won Best Actor for “King Richard.”

“It wasn’t like this was somebody they didn’t know,” Packer said. “It doesn’t make anything that he did right and doesn’t excuse that behavior at all, but I think that the people in that room who stood up for somebody who they knew, right, 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, some way, this was an aberration…I don’t think that these were people that were applauding anything at all about that moment.”

As for whether or not Smith should have actually left the show, “I think what many of us were hoping was that he would go on that stage and make it better,” Packer said. “It couldn’t be made right in that moment, because of what had happened, but I think we were hoping that he would make it better, that he would stand on that stage and say what just happened minutes ago was absolutely and completely wrong [and say], ‘Chris Rock, I’m so sorry, please forgive me.’ That’s what I was hoping for. I felt like he was going to win and I was hoping that if he stayed he said that.”

Still, LAPD was poised to arrest Smith after the incident occurred. “They were saying, you know, this is battery, was a word they used in that moment. They said, ‘We will go get him. We are prepared. We’re prepared to get him right now. You can press charges, we can arrest him…’ Chris was — he was being very dismissive of those options. He was like, ‘No, no, no, I’m fine.’ And even to the point where I said, ‘Rock, let them finish.’ The LAPD officers finished laying out what his options were and they said, ‘Would you like us to take any action?’ And he said no. He said no.”

The appearance marked Packer’s first interview about the altercation, though he previously tweeted “welp…I said it wouldn’t be boring” immediately after the Oscars. When that tweet received some backlash, Packer elaborated, writing that “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.”

Packer’s tenure at the helm of the Oscars show was controversial from the start. The prolific producer behind films like “Girls Trip” and “Ride Along” was open about his intentions to boost the show’s dwindling ratings by reimagining the Oscars as a more mainstream entertainment property. The broadcast upped the star power, opening the show with a live performance by Beyonce and bringing in nontraditional presenters like Tony Hawk and DJ Khaled. But Packer angered much of the film industry with his decision to cut eight below-the-line categories from the live broadcast, opting instead to pre-tape the awards and edit in the acceptance speeches to save time.

While much of the show was critically panned, Packer’s efforts to boost ratings were somewhat successful. The show drew 6 million more viewers than last year’s broadcast, even if it was still the second lowest-rated Oscars of all time. However, more than any creative choice Packer made or any film that won, the 2022 Oscars will likely always be remembered for that slap.

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