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US actor Will Smith (R) slaps US actor Chris Rock onstage during the 94th Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on March 27, 2022. Image Credit: Robyn Beck/AFP

The 94th Academy Awards briefly came to a stunning halt on Sunday night when Chris Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith, causing Will Smith to come to the stage and hit him in the face.

The moment was not planned, said a person close to the Oscars production. Smith, who won the best actor trophy for his role as Richard Williams (the father of tennis prodigies Venus and Serena) in the biopic ‘King Richard’ minutes later, appeared onstage about 40 minutes later to accept his prize.

The incident started as Rock arrived to present the award for best documentary, and started riffing about celebrity attendees. “Jada, I love you: ‘G.I. Jane 2,’ can’t wait to see it,” Rock said, an apparent reference to Pinkett Smith’s bald head. (Pinkett Smith spoke out about her alopecia diagnosis several years ago.)

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The camera cut to the star couple, and showed Smith laughing. Pinkett Smith rolled her eyes and did not look pleased.

Rock then held up his arms in a “who, me?” gesture as some of the audience groaned. “That was a nice one,” Rock grinned, and then looked like he was ready to continue. All of a sudden, the tone changed very abruptly as Smith jumped out of his seat and made his way to the stage.

“Uh oh!” Rock said jovially. He started laughing as Smith kept walking. Then Smith slapped him in the face.

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A combination picture of Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars Image Credit: Reuters

The audience was still cracking up, perhaps thinking this was all a bit - and then abruptly stopped. ABC cut the sound on the broadcast, so there was about 20 seconds of silence. However, clips from international TV making the rounds on Twitter showed the dialogue between the two actors.

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Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith at the Oscars Image Credit: AFP

“Oh, wow!” Rock said as Smith walked back to his seat. “Wow. Will Smith just smacked the [expletive] out of me.”

“Keep my wife’s name out your [expletive] mouth,” Smith yelled after he sat back down.

“Wow, dude,” Rock said. “It was a ‘G.I. Jane’ joke.”

“Keep my wife’s name out your [expletive] mouth!” Smith shouted louder.

“I’m going to. OK?” Rock said, shaking his head. “OK.”

At this point, the audio kicked back on in the ABC feed.

“That was, uh,” Rock said, trailing off. “Greatest night in the history of television?”

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Actress Nicole Kidman seemingly reacting to the slap at the Oscars Image Credit: Reuters

The audience laughed uncomfortably as Rock, who seemed visibly shaken, moved on to award the prize for best documentary.

Several moments later, reporters in attendance at the show started tweeting about Denzel Washington (as well as Tyler Perry) talking to the flustered couple moments later. Variety reported that Smith’s publicist, Meredith O. Sullivan, also spoke to the actor during the commercial break.

The moment went mostly unmentioned for the next few awards, though presenter Diddy said, “Will and Chris, we’re going to solve that like family...but right now, we’re moving on with love.” (The camera showed Smith and Pinkett Smith in their seats laughing and applauding.)

For the rest of the show, everyone essentially treated the shocking moment like a joke. “Did I miss anything? There’s like, a different vibe in here,” co-host Amy Schumer commented.

Presenter Anthony Hopkins also gave Smith a shout-out. “What an evening,” he said. “Will Smith said it all. What more can be said? Let’s have peace and love and quiet.”

The camera panned to Smith both times, who was laughing in the crowd. Shortly after the ceremony ended, Smith’s son, actor Jaden Smith, tweeted, “And That’s How We Do It.”

This was not the first time Rock made fun of Pinkett Smith at the Oscars. In 2016, Rock hosted the show and mocked the actress for saying she was boycotting the ceremony because of the lack of diversity among the nominees.

“Jada got mad and said she’s not coming. Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties: I wasn’t invited,” Rock said at the time. “But I understand, I’m not hating, I understand you’re mad. Jada’s mad her man, Will, was not nominated for ‘Concussion.’ It’s also not fair that Will was paid $20 million for ‘Wild Wild West.’”

Smith’s Best Actor speech

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Will Smith wipes tears as he wins the Best Actor in a Leading Role for 'King Richard' Image Credit: AFP

#Slapgate led us to Will Smith’s tearful speech when he accepted the best actor trophy, he started with a nod to what had just occurred.

“Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” he said, already in tears, drawing a few knowing chuckles from the audience, who also seemed to not know how to react. “In this time of my life, in this moment, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world.”

He spoke about protecting his co-stars during the film, and also about the pressure of being in the entertainment industry when people can “talk crazy” and “disrespect you.”

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Will Smith with his Best Actor trophy Image Credit: AFP

“I know to do what we do, you gotta be able to take abuse,” Smith said. “And you gotta smile and you gotta pretend like that’s OK.”

Smith said that a few moments before his speech, Denzel Washington told him, “At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you.” Smith added he wasn’t crying because of the award: “It’s not about winning an award for me. It’s about being able to shine a light on all of the people.”

Smith cried throughout his speech, in which he didn’t reference Rock directly, but apologised to the academy and his fellow nominees for the disruption. “I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams,” Smith said, possibly trying to lighten the mood of the still-shocked audience. “But love will make you do crazy things.”