When the show broke for commercial, some 10 minutes after The Slap, academy CEO Dawn Hudson and President David Rubin immediately sprang from their seats in the audience and headed backstage. After first making sure that Rock was OK, they found Smith’s longtime publicist, Meredith O’Sullivan. An academy lawyer joined them in a private room.
Furious over Smith’s stunning breach of decorum and concerned it would overshadow the entire show, an industry source said academy leaders told O’Sullivan they wanted the actor to leave the Dolby Theater as soon as possible. The message, they thought, was unequivocal. And it was mutually agreed upon that O’Sullivan would deliver that request to Smith during the next commercial break.
“This was not the easiest decision,” said the source. “You know Hollywood. … Everyone likes to try to pass the baton and pass the buck. But this was a pretty quick decision on something that was tough. And it was clear: ‘Will has to go.’”
But others familiar with the conversation remember the ask being softer and more ambiguous: “We think we’d like Will to leave. Can you find out what Will thinks?” That sounded like the academy was testing the waters, and not without some trepidation, given Smith’s A-list nominee status.
Meanwhile in the theater, Combs had made his way to check on Smith during the initial commercial break. Tyler Perry and Denzel Washington, a long-standing mentor to Smith, took the actor aside, attempting to calm him down. “He was out of his mind,” said a source. “They were trying to de-escalate the situation.” As Washington later told Bishop TD Jakes, the men prayed together.
Washington walked Smith back to his seat and Bradley Cooper took over, embracing Smith and talking with him for 40 seconds. Smith wiped away tears, sat down and held his wife’s hand.
Following the six-and-a-half-minute in memoriam segment, the telecast paused again for a second commercial break and a visibly shaken O’Sullivan walked to Smith’s table to relay the academy’s request.
“The academy thinks they want you to leave,” she said, standing next to Smith. “What are you feeling?”
Smith wanted to stay. He still couldn’t quite believe what he’d done. And, blessed with self-confidence or cursed with self-delusion, he thought he could fix it.
“I want to apologize,” he said, according to sources, thinking ahead to the likelihood that he’d be back onstage, making an acceptance speech. “I think I can make it right.”
At no point did Hudson or Rubin speak directly with Smith. Later, some would second-guess the academy’s decision to delegate O’Sullivan to be the emissary.
“They should have just asked him to come backstage,” said one source. “You’d have avoided a big scene. Just say, ‘Mr. Smith, we’d like to speak to you in private.’”
While academy leaders have acknowledged they could have handled the situation differently, some familiar with the challenge of producing a live awards show defends the organization’s actions in a volatile and previously unimaginable crisis for which there was no playbook.
“I know from producing the show that time flies by so quickly,” said one academy insider. “Fifteen or 20 minutes can feel like one minute when you’re back there, and those commercial breaks — which is the only time you have to properly deal with anyone in the audience — go by incredibly fast. I can only imagine how challenging it was because, in addition to having their own professional reaction, everybody is having their own human reaction. In the moment, this was a group of humans who were also going through their own shock and trauma.”
Said another former Oscars producer who was in attendance that night, “I’m sure the people who were making those decisions were really trying to quickly weigh the options in the best way they could — and meanwhile, it’s ‘tick, tick, tick, tick’ the whole time. But everyone loves to complain about the academy, and everyone woke up Monday morning with a pure point of view on how they would have handled this differently.”