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After onstage slap, Will Smith wins his 1st Oscar

Will Smith accepts the Oscar for best actor in a leading role on Sunday night.
Neilson Barnard
Getty Images
Will Smith accepts the Oscar for best actor in a leading role on Sunday night.

Updated March 28, 2022 at 12:18 AM ET

Editor's note: This story includes language that some may find offensive.

Twenty years after his first nomination, Will Smith finally won his first Oscar – awarded for best actor in a leading role for his portrayal of Richard Williams, the father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena.

The win was overshadowed by the incident earlier in the night, when Smith went up onstage and appeared to attack presenter Chris Rock after the comedian made a dig about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, and her shaved head. (Pinkett Smith has been public about her alopecia, a condition that causes hair loss.) After Smith took his seat again, he angrily yelled at Rock twice to "keep my wife's name out of your f***ing mouth."

In an emotional acceptance speech after receiving the Oscar, Smith told the audience, "I know to do what we do, you gotta be able to take abuse, you gotta be able to have people talk crazy about you. In this business, you gotta be able to have people disrespecting you. And you gotta smile and you gotta pretend like that's okay."

He mentioned speaking to Denzel Washington off camera, who told him, "At your highest moment, that's when the devil comes for you."

Smith thanked the Williams family "for entrusting me with your story," saying he wanted to be an ambassador for love. "Art imitates life," he said. "I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things."

Smith apologized to the Academy and his fellow nominees, but not Chris Rock. He wrapped up his speech by saying he hopes that the Academy invites him back.

His performance in King Richard was his third Oscar nomination, after Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness. King Richard is the origin story of the Williams sisters. Isha Price, one of Venus and Serena's older sisters,told NPR that they have been approached many times to make a movie about Venus and Serena. This one was different, she said. Instead of following a story that is still being written, King Richard became a snapshot of the early days, when Richard Williams served not only as the sisters' trainer, but also as their fierce proponent.

"The size and scope of the dream was so huge that it bordered on insanity," Smith told NPR. "It's sort of where you have to live if you want to do something that's never been done before."

Smith, who has said that he wanted to make this movie to honor the Williams family, saw his own father in the role he had to play. In a recent interview with NPR, Smith said he prepared for the role by speaking and dressing the part. "It sounds like a joke, but when I put on those short-shorts on, I understood: 'Oh wait a second — he thinks he's fly!"

Smith has won a Golden Globe Award, a BAFTA Award, a Critics Choice Award and the Screen Actors Guild Award for this role.

Smith started his acting career on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1990 and has become one of the most prolific actors of his generation. As NPR's Aisha Harris writes, Smith's performance in King Richard was "a culmination of all the performances, on-screen and off-, that led to this point.

NPR's Andrew Limbong contributed reporting for this story.

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Miranda Mazariegos
Miranda Mazariegos is NPR's 2021-2022 Reflect America Fellow. She has worked with NPR's history podcast Throughline and with Weekend All Things Considered. She is now doing a rotation with the Culture Desk.