As rumors swirl about what happened backstage in the immediate moments after the now-infamous altercation between Will Smith and Chris Rock during Sunday night’s live broadcast of the Oscars ceremony, Will Packer is giving his perspective as the evening’s showrunner.
The screenwriter and film producer spoke out publicly for the first time on Good Morning America Friday morning, giving a never-before-heard perspective on what occurred in the production bay backstage in the moments immediately following the shocking altercation.
Packer oversaw the production of the 94th annual Academy Awards, the first Black man to do so, with an all-Black production team at his side. He, alongside his production partner Shayla Cowan, brought back formal hosts for the first time in three years (three hosts for the first time in over 35 years) and added several surprise elements and show shakeups to draw in additional viewership.
However, much of their hard work has unfortunately been overshadowed by the hot topic on everyone’s tongue this week.
As Packer told host T.J. Holmes on his April 1 appearance on GMA, LAPD officers met with him and Rock while the show was still underway, presenting several courses of action against Smith for his violent outburst.
“They were saying, ‘This is battery.’ That was the word they used in that moment,” Packer said. “They said, ‘We will go get him. We are prepared. We will go get him right now. You can press charges. We can arrest him. They were laying out the options.”
However, Packer says Rock was adamant that legal action was not a route that he wished to take from the start of the conversation.
“And as they were talking, Chris was, he was being very dismissive of those options. He was like, ‘No, I’m fine.’ He was like ‘no, no, no,'” he said, throwing up his hands in calm protest to demonstrate Rock’s demeanor. “And even to the point where I said, ‘Rock, let them finish.’ The LAPD officers finish laying out what his options were. And they said, ‘Would you like us to take any action? And he said no.”
Packer says that like so many live viewers, even he and his production staff initially thought that the incident was some sort of off-the-cuff comedic bit between the actor and the comedian. He said that Rock had pre-prepared jokes ready to roll in the teleprompter, but never got to any of those jokes.
“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 during the morning show. “He didn’t tell one of the planned jokes, but you can’t make it up. He was just immediately freestyling.”
With Rock being a legendary comedian, Packer and his staff didn’t have a single worry about Rock improvising his material on the spot. “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 was stunned to learn that this was not the case as the moment intensified during the live broadcast. Despite the heated exchange that followed, the shocked producer still had to ask Rock directly if he was actually hit in that moment.
“Yup!,” he says Rock replied. “I just took a punch from Muhammad Ali.”
“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,” Packer went on. “All of that was just — I’ve never felt so immediately devastated like I did in that moment.”
With conflicting reports about the Academy’s attempt to immediately remove Smith (or lack thereof), Packer can only confirm that he was not directly part of any such conversation but relayed the message that none of that was what Rock wanted.
“It happened right before the best actor award. I immediately went to the Academy leadership that was on-site and I said: ‘Chris Rock doesn’t want that,'” he said. “I said: ‘Rock has made it clear that he does not want to make a bad situation worse.'”
Packer spoke out about his own personal feelings regarding the altercation via social media on Monday afternoon after the awards. He called the incident “a very painful moment” on many levels.
However, he says that Smith did reach out to him directly to apologize for his actions the morning after the show.
“He apologized and he said: ‘You know, this should have been a gigantic moment for you. He expressed his embarrassment and that was the extent of it,” he said. Holmes also revealed that Smith shared a six-minute Zoom call with Academy Chairs on Monday as well, as they decided their course of disciplinary action.
But Packer’s admiration lies with Rock, who he credits for his “grace and aplomb” that allowed the show to continue mostly as planned beyond that point.
“[Rock’s calm reaction] 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. I don’t know when we’ll come back and people will be talking about anything else other than the show.”