Will Smith won his first Academy Award on Sunday (March 27), capturing the best actor honour for his portrayal of Richard Williams, the determined father who raised tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams, in King Richard.
Smith, 53, one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, had been nominated twice before, for Ali (2001) and The Pursuit Of Happyness (2006).
This time, he depicted Richard Williams and his unconventional strategy for elevating his daughters from a municipal park in a hardscrabble Los Angeles neighbourhood to Centre Court at Wimbledon.
Smith apologised to the Academy and his fellow best actor nominees shortly after he went on stage and slapped Chris Rock for making a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith.
“I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people,” said Smith, tearing as he gave his winning acceptance speech.
“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, you gotta be able to have people disrespecting you. You gotta smile, you gotta pretend like that’s okay.”
He added that actor Denzel Washington came up to him after the incident. “Denzel said to me a few minutes ago: ‘At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you.’”
Smith continued: “Art imitates life. I looked like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things.”
He ended the speech by apologising to the Academy and his fellow nominees and said: “I hope the Academy invites me back.”
Smith shot to fame in the television sitcom The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air (1990 to 1996) and took on mostly comedy and action roles early in his movie career before expanding into drama.
He earned his first Oscar nomination for playing boxer Muhammad Ali and his second for portraying another real person, Chris Gardner, a one-time homeless father who went on to found his own brokerage firm.
Isha Price, one of Venus and Serena’s three older half-sisters, was an early collaborator on King Richard’s script, providing details and recollections that made the movie the story of the family.
Venus and Serena Williams joined the project as executive producers only after they watched the completed film. Richard Williams has been in ill health for years and did not take part.
“It is terrifying when you play a real person that is still alive, and you know that they’re going to see it,” Smith told late night TV host Jimmy Fallon in November.