Making the best of a wild situation? Will Smith just won his first-ever Academy Award at the 2022 Oscars — nabbing the Best Actor trophy for his portrayal of Serena and Venus Williams‘ father, Richard Williams, in 2021’s King Richard — but his drama with Chris Rock overshadowed the moment.
On Sunday, March 27, the Pursuit of Happyness star — who made headlines earlier in the evening for slapping Rock after the comedian made a controversial “joke” about Jada Pinkett Smith‘s hair — addressed the situation in his acceptance speech after sharing a kiss with his spouse.
“Oh, man. Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” he began as he got visibly emotional. “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, you got to pretend like that’s OK.”
Smith then revealed what Denzel Washington told him after the actor comforted him during the commercial break. “Denzel said a few minutes ago, ’At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you,’” Smith said. “It’s like, I want to be a vessel for love. … I want to say thank you to Venus and Serena and the entire Williams family for entrusting me with your story.”
He ended his speech with an apology. “I want to apologize to the academy. I want to apologize to all my fellow nominees. … Art imitates life: I look like the crazy father. Just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things. …
Thank you for this moment. And thank you on behalf of Richard and the entire Williams family. Thank you. I hope the academy invites me back.”
Smith’s Oscar nab marks his third Best Actor nomination and his first win. The critically acclaimed film, which is also up for Best Picture at the awards show, follows the Williams family patriarch as he sets out to make his daughters the greatest tennis players the world has ever seen.
The Men in Black star swept several awards shows this year, taking home the Golden Globe for the role in January, which he followed up with a SAG Awards win for Best Actor in February.
“Wow. That may have been one of the greatest moments of my career just now, because my name was called for King Richard sitting next to Venus Williams and sister Isha, who also was an executive producer on the film],” the Philadelphia native remarked in his SAG Awards acceptance speech, praising the real-life man behind the character he embodied: “Richard Williams is a dreamer like no one you’ve 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.”
He went on to thank the entire Williams family for “entrust[ing] me and our group with your story,” adding, “It was my deepest pleasure to honor your family and tell your story to the world.”
For their part, the Williams sisters have gushed over the film this awards season.
“It’s so cool we get to share with the world … everything that my father means to me and our family and all that he’s done for us,” Serena, 40, told Variety in November 2021. “My mom and my sisters … and everyone was such a part of it, so it’s kind of cool to kind of see that come to life.”
Venus, 41, commented, “It’s an origin story of how a family actually succeeded. I’m so proud that it’s been being told this way,” noting that “the story is told is also probably the best way it could be told.”
Richard himself hadn’t seen the movie yet, Isha, 46, told Vanity Fair that same month. While “he has a screener of it,” their father “comes from a different time … I was trying to think of the last movie I even remembered him watching in a theater,” recalling the time her dad walked out of a screening of The Color Purple. “But, you know, he could watch tapes of tennis all day long,” she joked.