Will Smith Apologizes to Academy for Chris Rock Slap in Tearful Best Actor Speech

Will Smith was named best actor at the Oscars for his performance as tennis coach Richard Williams in “King Richard,” but his celebratory moment was overshadowed by his unscripted and unexpected burst of violence earlier in the night.

About an hour before winning the first Oscar of his career, Smith walked on stage and slapped Chris Rock — who was presenting the award for best documentary — over a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.

Shortly after, in a tearful acceptance speech, Smith apologized to the Academy and his fellow best actor nominees, but he stopped short of mentioning Rock.

“I want to apologize to the Academy. I want to apologize to all my fellow nominees. This is a beautiful moment, and I’m not crying for winning an award,” Smith said. “It’s not about winning an award for me.”

He tried to turn the attention to the cast and crew of “King Richard,” a feel-good sports drama in which he plays the father of tennis icons Venus and Serena Williams.

“It’s about being able to shine a light on all of the people,” Smith said while openly weeping. “Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams.”

Earlier in the night, Rock took a jab at Pinkett Smith, saying he was excited to see her in “G.I. Jane 2,” a reference to the 1997 movie in which Demi Moore’s character had a shaved head. Pinkett Smith has spoken publicly about struggling with alopecia. After smacking Rock in the face, Smith returned to his seat and twice yelled, “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth!”

Audience members inside the Dolby Theatre, as well as viewers at home, were stunned by Smith’s physical blow, which initially seemed like a comedic skit. But it soon became clear that the dramatic moment was not planned. Without addressing the incident directly, Smith used his victory speech to seemingly justify his actions by invoking his “King Richard” character, a man who was heavily scrutinized by the media for his intense loyalty to his family.

“Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” Smith said. “In this time in my life, in this moment, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world. Making this film, I got to protect Aunjanue Ellis, who is one of the strongest, most delicate people I’ve ever met. I got to protect Saniyya [Sidney] and Demi [Singleton], the two actresses that played Venus and Serena.”

He continued, “I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people. I know to do what we do, you got to be able to take abuse. You got to be able to have people talk crazy about you. In this business, you got to be able to have people disrespecting you. And you got to smile and you got to pretend like that’s OK.”

Smith then shared the words he received from fellow best actor nominee Denzel Washington, who came by to talk to Smith during commercial breaks after the altercation with Rock.

“Denzel [Washington] said a few minutes ago, ‘At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the Devil comes for you,'” Smith said.

Smith attempted to end his speech with a moment of levity, making a joke about being invited back to the Oscars.

“Thank you for this honor. Thank you for this moment. And thank you on behalf of Richard and Oracene [Price] and the entire Williams family. Thank you. I hope the Academy invites me back,” Smith said before exiting the stage.

The 94th annual Academy Awards was intended to be joyous for Smith, who was widely expected to win the first Oscar of his career after two nods. He was previously nominated in 2002 for the boxing biopic “Ali” and in 2006 for “The Pursuit of Happyness.”

Smith became an early frontrunner for the best actor Oscar during awards season, staying in the conversation through wins at the Golden Globe, BAFTA, Critics Choice and Screen Actors Guild awards. In a stacked Oscar race, Smith beat out Javier Bardem (“Being the Ricardos”), Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Power of the Dog”), Andrew Garfield (“Tick, Tick … Boom!”) and Denzel Washington (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”) to take the top prize. Coincidentally, Smith lost the Oscar in 2002 to Washington, who won for “Training Day.”

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, “King Richard” landed six nominations in total, including best picture, supporting actress for Ellis as Venus and Serena’s mother, and original screenplay. In the crowd-pleasing biographical drama, Smith delivers the kind of performance — anchored by the true story of a dedicated-to-a-fault dad to rising sports stars — that Oscar voters love to recognize.

But Smith previously told the New York Times that he once worried “The Pursuit of Happyness” would be the apex of his Hollywood career, despite having dozens of film roles since then.

“I thought I had reached my artistic pinnacle,” he said. “So for the world to respond to this film in this way energizes me as an artist. I’m just wildly inspired to create and even to to be able to tell stories like this.”

At this year’s SAG Awards, in one of Smith’s many recent and moving awards-season speeches, the 53-year-old actor called Richard Williams “a dreamer like no one has ever known.”

“He has a power of belief that borders on insanity and sometimes tips over the border, which is absolutely necessary to take something from impossible to possible,” Smith said at that event.