The Fresh Prince is crowned: Will Smith wins best actor on an infamous Oscar night

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The Fresh Prince is the king of Hollywood like never before – and even found a way to throw in a little Muhammad Ali spirit.

Ruling the movie industry is nothing new for Will Smith. After all, this is the man who made July 4 his own holiday in the 1990s with blockbusters that pulverized the box office. He’s dropped hit rap tunes, written books, played superheroes (plus one blue genie),  battled aliens (a few times) and embodied a heavyweight boxing champ. 

Not until Sunday, however, has he walked up on the Academy Awards stage and hoisted a best actor trophy. It was a tearful moment for Smith but one with some extra emotion behind it: Just minutes earlier, he exchanged a slap and heated words with comedian Chris Rock for a “G.I. Jane” joke aimed at his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, who has alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss.

“Love makes you do crazy things,” Smith said, wearing his signature smile and apologizing to the Academy and his fellow nominees for the incident that instantly became a “Did that really happen?” sequence that lit up social media.Will Smith accepts the award for best performance by an actor in a leading role for "King Richard" at the Oscars on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)© Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP Will Smith accepts the award for best performance by an actor in a leading role for “King Richard” at the Oscars on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

He started his acceptance speech, though, by namechecking the man he plays in “King Richard” and it wasn’t long before tears were streaming down his face.

“Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family. In this time in my life, in this moment, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling me to do and be in this world,” Smith said. Making the film, 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’ve got to be able to take abuse, you’ve got to be able to take people talking crazy about you, people disrespecting you, and you got to smile and pretend that’s OK.”

But he added an exchange he had after the fight with fellow nominee Denzel Washington meant a lot to him: “At your highest moment, that’s when the devil comes for you.”Aunjanue Ellis (from left), Mikayla Bartholomew, Will Smith, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton and Daniele Lawson in the tennis drama "King Richard."

Smith’s status as an all-time leading man was cemented long before becoming only the fifth Black actor in Oscar history to win the category.

He launched as a hip-hop star alongside DJ Jazzy Jeff in the late 1980s, which he parlayed into the beloved 1990s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Then the silver screen came calling and he was a cinematic success story with “Bad Boys,” “Men in Black” and “Independence Day.” 

The Oscars long ago embraced his Big Willie Style before now. Smith’s first nomination came with “Ali” in 2002 – the part that should have won him best actor two decades ago. Washington’s iconic “Training Day” performance prevailed but Smith became Ali in the transformative role.

Will Smith stars as Muhammad Ali in the biopic "Ali."

He’s got a knack for that: In “King Richard,” Smith again embodied a historical sports figure – tennis coach and devoted dad to Venus and Serena – which earned him a nomination and, this time, an Academy Award. Smith showed deep emotional depth alongside his signature magnetism in his portrayal of Richard, a scrappy and dogged personality who wanted his girls to become champs in sports and life. While Richard isn’t always likable, under Smith’s watch, you respect him as a man and as a father.

The Oscar hardware was a long time coming and, as it did for other recent winners like Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, gestures toward the thespian’s entire body of work, from Smith’s Oscar-nominated effort in 2006’s “The Pursuit of Happyness” to films like “Enemy of the State,” “Concussion” and “Seven Pounds.” Sure, most actors at his level have a forgettable “Wild Wild West” or “Collateral Beauty” on a resume this wide-ranging, but do they all have an “Independence Day”? Not likely.

Hopefully Smith kept one of his victory cigars from the sci-fi classic for Sunday night. The tears flowed that night and also during his Screen Actors Guild acceptance speech, which he called “one of the greatest moments of my career.” He impressively ran the gauntlet this year, sweeping Golden Globe, SAG, Critics Choice and BAFTA awards, and his momentum as an Oscar favorite never wavered. 

The thing about Smith is he’s just a favorite, period, beloved by fellow artists as well as fans for decades. He’s weathered ups as well as downs (a la “After Earth” and “Gemini Man”), but always comes back swinging. What will happen after the Oscar Slap Heard Round the World? Probably nothing negative: It was a man sticking up for his wife, and whether that it’s in the Dolby Theatre or out in the real world, that’s a hard thing not to respect.

  • Slide 4 of 5: The Williams sisters are pictured with their on-screen counterparts Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney who play younger versions of the tennis stars.

Smith was an influencer before there was such a thing, a guy who’s spent the majority of his 53 years changing pop culture for the better across various mediums. Many have spent their lifetimes watching him, looking up to him, being entertained by him and they have not been disappointed. The Academy got around to realizing what the rest of us figured out a while ago: Smith is a living legend, worth his weight in Oscar gold and more.

Ideally it could have been a less interesting Oscar night for him to get his due but it was a cathartic scene seeing Smith take the stage. He was finally there to sit on his throne as the former prince of Bel-Air and also proclaim himself – long overdue – the champ. 

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