Behind Will Smith's Oscars Outburst: 'He Has Lots of Emotional Baggage,' 'Certain Things Set Him Off'

The Best Actor winner slapped comedian Chris Rock during the live telecast after a joke about Smith's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith

Hollywood's biggest night of celebration quickly turned into a global controversy when Will Smith struck Chris Rock in the face with an open hand after the comedian made a joke about the actor's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.

As those on the scene at the Dolby Theater and millions of viewers at home struggled to make sense of the unprecedented situation, Denzel Washington, Tyler Perry and Bradley Cooper all got up and spoke to Smith, 53, during the next commercial break. "Denzel was really the one to defuse the situation," an onlooker tells PEOPLE in this week's cover story.

Backstage, producers, Academy officials and security staff moved quickly to react. "There were a lot of people, and different voices and bifurcated opinions, weighing in on what had just happened and what was the best and quickest course of action," says a source. "People were also checking that Chris Rock was okay. Basically there were just minutes to first figure out if it was a stunt and then try to get people on the same page."

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While the LAPD confirmed that Rock declined to press charges, physically removing Smith from the auditorium "was definitely discussed seriously," the source adds. "You can't plan for something like this and make a split-second decision."

Will Smith; Jada Pinkett Smith People Magazine Cover

For 40 minutes, Smith remained in his seat alongside his wife until he won the Oscar for his portrayal of Richard Williams, the father of tennis stars Venus and Serena in the biopic King Richard. In a tearful and lengthy speech, he addressed the slap directly, apologizing to the Academy and his fellow nominees—but not to Rock himself: "Art imitates life: I look like the crazy father. Just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things."

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The next day the Academy released a statement condemning Smith's violent act and opened a review around the incident that could result in Smith's suspension or expulsion from membership. Smith then posted another apology that evening on Instagram. "Violence in all of its forms is poisonous and destructive," he wrote. "My behavior at last night's Academy Awards was unacceptable and inexcusable. Jokes at my expense are a part of the job, but a joke about Jada's medical condition was too much for me to bear and I reacted emotionally."

chris rock, will smith
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Smith also apologized to Rock. "I was out of line and I was wrong. I am embarrassed and my actions were not indicative of the man I want to be. There is no place for violence in a world of love and kindness… I am a work in progress."

So why did the actor snap? One insider says Smith has been peeved since Rock hosted the Oscars in 2016 and took a jab at Pinkett Smith, 50, for boycotting the ceremony because of the awards' lack of diversity. "He made fun of her in his monologue, saying she can't boycott something she wasn't invited to," the source says. According to another source, the two men "have been friendly, but Chris has also been making fun of Jada for years. At first Will used to laugh about it, but it really bothered Jada. Will has privately told Chris before to stop making fun of her, and that's why this night escalated." (A rep for Rock denies this.)

Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith attend the 2022 Vanity Fair Oscar Party
Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. Kevin Mazur/VF22/WireImage for Vanity Fair

Smith also wrote in his recent memoir about grappling with the legacy of his father's violence toward his mother. "Will is a great guy, but he grew up in a home filled with anger and alcoholism," says a source. "He has lots of emotional baggage, and certain things set him off. He loves Jada very much through years of ups and downs. No matter what, Will loves and protects his family."

After the ceremony Smith and Rock went their separate ways. Rock attended Guy Oseary's afterparty, where he was reportedly consoled by Sykes and Sacha Baron Cohen; Smith briefly attended Vanity Fair's soiree along with Pinkett Smith and kids Willow, Trey and Jaden (who tweeted "And That's How We Do It" after his dad's win).

As for the fallout in Hollywood, insiders think Smith will have to continue to do damage control. "He's regarded with enormous respect," says one. "He has worked hard, and he championed this project, which is an extraordinary story, and his portrayal is Oscar-worthy. But this taints everything, and that's unfortunate. To see that display of behavior on the global stage… That's what he will be remembered for."

Updated by Elizabeth Leonard,
Linda Marx,

Linda is a longtime contributor to PEOPLE in entertainment, politics, sports, fashion, design, travel and business.

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