The O.J. Simpson Retrial: Race, Redress and Robert’s Kids

From left: Courtney B. Vance (Johnnie Cochran), Cuba Gooding Jr. (O.J. Simpson), Sarah Paulson (Marcia Clark), John Travolta (Robert Shapiro) and David Schwimmer (Robert Kardashian)
From left: Courtney B. Vance (Johnnie Cochran), Cuba Gooding Jr. (O.J. Simpson), Sarah Paulson (Marcia Clark), John Travolta (Robert Shapiro) and David Schwimmer (Robert Kardashian)

Twenty years after the football player’s acquittal, John Travolta, Cuba Gooding Jr and the players behind FX’s ‘American Crime Story’ reveal for the first time how their very 2016 rearview examination of the case reveals a whole other reality. Plus: Season 2’s topic (Katrina) revealed.

“It’s a big day, huh O.J.?” says a guard, peering through the bars of O.J. Simpson’s jail cell.

“The biggest,” he responds, his voice shaky.

“I’m just so nervous,” he adds, running a razor over his stubbly cheek. The football icon, charged with the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, is on this day awaiting the verdict in the most high-profile criminal trial in U.S. history. A worldwide audience of roughly 100 million will be watching live and then exhaustively dissecting and analyzing the outcome, as they have every other detail of the case.

“You know,” the guard tells him, “I don’t think you gotta be nervous.” He pauses and leans in, “I’ve been talking to my buddies over at the hotel where they’re keeping the jurors and, let’s just say, I don’t think you gotta be nervous.”

“Good!” shouts executive producer Ryan Murphy as he emerges from behind a pair of monitors on the Los Angeles soundstage where he’s directing The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, premiering Feb. 2 on FX. It’s surprising, little-known details like this, culled from Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run of his Life, that convinced Murphy, along with producer Nina Jacobson, to dive headfirst into one of the most well-worn, polarizing stories in modern America where, of course, everyone knows the ending. The 10-episode series, which makes no overt argument for guilt or innocence, is unlikely to change anyone’s view of Simpson’s culpability (he was, as the guard predicted, acquitted of all charges on Oct. 3, 1995); instead, it’s a meticulous blow-by-blow of the case, illuminating all the ways it inflamed racial politics, presaged the reign of reality TV, set the gold standard for saturation news coverage and tainted everyone involved as a tabloid caricature.

At the highest levels of 21st Century Fox, The People v. O.J. Simpson — the first installment in an anthology that will take on a different real-life crime story each season (more on that later) — has become a top priority. In July, Rupert Murdoch turned up to screen the first cut of the pilot episode with his sons, 21st Century Fox CEO James and executive co-chairman Lachlan, and when it was over flashed a thumbs-up at Murphy. “I was so nervous because we’re all so different politically and that was the first time anybody was seeing it,” says the 51-year-old producer, “but they loved it.”By August, a private screening had been arranged for the company’s board of directors. “The only question we got coming out of it was, ‘When can we see the next one?’ ” recalls FX Networks CEO John Landgraf, who says such events only are organized for the company’s highest-profile projects. He rattles off past examples — Avatar, The Martian — and then stops himself: “Basically when we have something that we think is extraordinary.”

In typical Murphy fashion, he’s larded the cast with a mix of old favorites, talented newcomers and stunt hires, including John Travolta (as Simpson attorney Robert Shapiro), Courtney B. Vance (Johnnie Cochran), David Schwimmer (Robert Kardashian) and Sarah Paulson (prosecutor Marcia Clark). The toughest part, however, belongs to Cuba Gooding Jr., whom he hired to play O.J. By outside appearances, the ex-football star was living a dream life at the time of the murders — he was 46 and had parlayed his good looks, gregarious personality and heroic on-field accomplishments into a lucrative career as corporate pitchman, football commentator, occasional actor (the Naked Gun films) and all-purpose celebrity for hire. With a membership to the exclusive Riviera Country Club, a 6,200-square-foot mansion in Brentwood and a coterie of rich and famous white friends, Simpson once famously told the media: “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” But that life imploded on the evening of June 12, 1994, when the Los Angeles Police Department found overwhelming evidence — Bruno Magli shoe prints, an Isotoner glove and drops of blood in the infamous white Bronco — that linked Simpson, the father of two young children with Brown, to the bloodied bodies found outside her condo on Bundy Drive.

The L.A.-reared Gooding, who once rooted for Simpson’s acquittal, admits he had early reservations about taking on the role. And his monthslong process of becoming Simpson took a toll: “There was one day after filming that I went to my trailer and I couldn’t stop crying because I realized I never [even considered the loss] for the Goldman or Brown family,” says the Oscar winner, now 48. “Back then, I was just so relieved that another black man got away from the injustice that was the LAPD. I was just so relieved that they didn’t screw us over again.” Gooding was hardly alone. Simpson became a cultural Rorschach; according to a Washington Post poll taken at the time of the verdict, 72 percent of whites thought Simpson was guilty, while 71 percent of African-Americans believed him innocent.

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Source: The Hollywood Reporter | Lacey Rose