As the show went into publicity, about 10 minutes after the slap, Academy CEO Dawn Hudson and President David Rubin immediately rose from their seats in the audience and headed backstage. After making sure Rock was okay, they sought out Smith’s publicist, Meredith O’Sullivan. An Academy attorney joined them in a private room.
Furious at Smith’s staggering breach of decorum and worried it would cast a shadow over the entire show, an industry source told O’Sullivan that they wanted the actor out of the Dolby Theater as soon as possible. The message, according to them, was unequivocal. And it was mutually agreed that O’Sullivan would deliver that request to Smith during the next commercial break.
“It wasn’t the easiest decision,” the source said. “You know Hollywood (…) Everybody likes to try to pass the buck. But this was a pretty quick decision on something that was difficult. And it was clear: ‘Will has to go.
But other people familiar with the conversation recall that the request was softer and more ambiguous: “We think we would like Will to go away. Can you find out what Will thinks? It seemed the Academy was testing the waters, and not without some trepidation, given Smith’s nominee status.
Meanwhile, at the movies, Combs had gone to see Smith during the first commercial break. Tyler Perry and Denzel Washington, Smith’s longtime mentor, took the actor aside to try to calm him down. “He was out of his mind,” a source said. “They were trying to de-escalate the situation.” As Washington later told Bishop TD Jakes, the men prayed together.
Washington walked Smith to his seat and Bradley Cooper took over, hugging Smith and talking to him for 40 seconds. Smith wiped away tears, sat up and took his wife’s hand.
Following the six-and-a-half-minute in memoriam segment, the broadcast was paused again for a second commercial break, and a visibly shaken O’Sullivan made his way to Smith’s desk to broadcast the academy’s petition.
“The academy thinks they want you gone,” he said, moving to Smith’s side.
Smith wanted to stay. He still couldn’t believe what he had 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 the sources, thinking about the possibility of going back on stage and giving an acceptance speech. “I think I can fix it.”
At no point did Hudson or Rubin speak directly to Smith. Some would later question the academy’s decision to appoint O’Sullivan as an emissary.
“They should have asked him to come backstage,” a source said. “They would have prevented a big scene. Just say, ‘Mr. Smith, we’d like to speak with 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 defend the organization’s actions in a previously unimaginable and crisis situation for which no there was a manual to follow.
“I know that time passes very quickly due to the production of the gala,” said a member of the Academy. “Fifteen or twenty minutes can feel like a minute when you’re back there, and those commercial breaks – which is the only time you have to properly deal with someone in the audience – go by incredibly fast. I can only imagine how difficult it was because, in addition to having their own professional reaction, everyone has their own human reaction. At the time, it was a group of human beings who were also going through their own shock and trauma.”
Another former Oscars producer who was in attendance that night said: “I’m sure the people who were making those decisions were really just trying to quickly weigh the options as best they could – and in the meantime, there’s the ‘tick, tick, Tick, tick all the time. But everyone likes to complain about the academy, and everyone woke up Monday morning with a pure point of view about how they would have handled this differently.”