Oscars producer speaks out on what happened behind the scenes after Will Smith slapped Chris Rock

Packer said he thought what happened between Rock and Smith was a "bit."

ByAngeline Jane, Bernabe, Karolina Rivas, and Matthew Yahata via GMA ABCNews logo
Friday, April 1, 2022
Oscars producer speaks on behind the scenes after Smith slapped Rock
"They were saying, you know, this is battery was the word they use in that moment," Oscars producer Will Packer said.

NEW YORK -- 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.

"That is an absolute fact," Packer said. "The LAPD made it clear: 'We will do whatever you want us to do, and one of the options is that we will go and arrest him right now.'"

'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."

WATCH: Will Smith's shocking Oscars stage confrontation with Chris Rock

In a bizarre moment at the Oscars, Will Smith slapped Chris Rock in the face after he directed a G.I. Jane joke at Smith's wife and actress Jada Pinkett Smith.

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

Backstage, Packer said police officers were immediately on scene and ready to follow through with whatever Rock decided. Packer told "GMA" that he would also have Rock's back.

"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.

RELATED: In 1st remarks since Oscars slap, Chris Rock says he's 'still kind of processing what happened'

The nighttime performance in Boston comes just three days after Smith slapped Rock on the Oscars stage, stunning the crowd at the 94th Academy Awards and those watching at home.

"It happened right before the best actor award," Packer recalled, noting that he was not part of the conversation with the Academy to remove Smith from the vicinity. "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.'"

Because Rock was not retaliatory, aggressive or angry following the incident, Packer said he was willing to advocate for whatever the comedian wanted in that moment, which was to not kick out Smith.

Smith's apology

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. When giving his acceptance speech on stage, a tearful Smith seemingly referenced the confrontation without mentioning or apologizing to Rock directly. Instead, he 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. But the Academy's Board of Governors, who announced Wednesday that they are beginning disciplinary procedures against the actor, were initially not in the know.

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 suspension, expulsion or other sanctions.

Oscars producer Will Packer gives his perspectives on what happened at the Oscars.

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."