It’s all flooding back. Not for me alone. But for the entire nation and beyond as FX gives us another weekly hour of the very excellent The People v. O.J. Simpson. It’s appointment TV for my family. For my daughter it is a history lesson, while the War Department and I are reliving what it was like to be in Los Angeles during the entire ugly murder, trial, shocking exoneration, and re-trial by civil jury.
Sure. It was called the crime of the century and garnered coast-to-coast interest. Yet for those of us who lived here, it was a uniquely LA story complete with glitz, showbiz connections, a dark and seamy underside – some of it still unearthed – and the ever-present culture of celebrity and the worship that is nearly always included. Some of us knew O.J. Or knew people who knew O.J. Or his and/or Nicole Brown Simpson’s Brentwood neighbors. Or members of either the district attorney or defense teams. In some many ways, beyond what we knew of O.J. Simpson, his victims, or what was happening on TV, we were all involved on a strangely cellular level – as if we were all partners in the prosecution or the crime or both.
My relationship – so to speak – with O.J. began in 1967 when Simpson was a running back at my future alma mater, the University of Southern California. I was seven-years-old when my father called me from playing outside with my friends just so he could share with me the excitement of watching the USC Trojan running back cut through a college defense.
“That there might be the best football player ever,” my father said with great admiration. “His name is O.J. Simpson.”
“O.J.?” I said.
“Like Orange Juice,” my dad said. “That’s why they call him The Juice.”
Who could’ve predicted that some years later I’d end up attending USC’s film school. I may have been a movie geek but I also loved Saturdays during football season. We’d roll a borrowed shopping cart with Igloo coolers full of “magic fruit punch” from the dorms to the Los Angeles Coliseum across the street. After most games, O.J. could be found hanging around on campus with that million-dollar smile, high-fiving and shaking hands with anyone in the student body who cared to celebrate with him. Sure. In retrospect, he was probably trolling for willing coeds. But O.J. was ours, he was accessible, and was beloved.
During my showbiz career, I’d met him only once. While being waltzed around Riviera Country Club by a producer who I wished had worthy enough movie projects for me to want to bite (after all, he was a member of Riviera), we were briefly joined for a few holes of golf by his buddy O.J. The Juice zipped up in his golf cart, teed it up for an hour or so, then bid us goodbye. He was winning, gracious, and funny. Precisely whom any fan imagined him to be.
Then came Bad Boys and a sticky hot summer in Miami. We were a week or two before shooting when, around nine-thirty or ten PM, I’d returned to my Biltmore room after a day of pounding out script. I flipped on the TV and there was the famed “low-speed chase.” The white Bronco was traveling up the 405, trailed by a phalanx of CHP black-and-whites. O.J. was rumored to be riding in the back of the Bronco with a gun to his head.
I stared at the TV like I was witnessing a slow-motion car wreck. My head had been so deep in the daily obstacles of Bad Boys that I hadn’t even heard there’d been a double murder in Brentwood or that Simpson was a suspect. I talked by phone to my wife who did her best to fill me in. I still couldn’t wrap my head around any of it. Our O.J.? Really?
The following morning, rumors about O.J. and the double-homicide hit our crew like a tsunami. You couldn’t walk ten feet without someone rushing up and offering something they’d heard from somebody else who’d heard something.
My writing cubby was at the distant end of the old teleconferencing center that we’d turned into the Bad Boys production office. Soon after I’d arrived, I found myself in a huddle with producer Lucas Foster and director Michael Bay. The discussion was, of course, about O.J., when a voice penetrated from forty feet away.
“Did you hear?” cried Téa Leoni, our female lead. “She busted into the middle of our group in what could best be described as an excited whirl. “I just got off the phone with a friend!”
We didn’t need to say, “What?” because whatever she had to say was clearly wanting to bust from inside her. Téa did a slow three-sixty, wanting to be certain we were all listening.
“O.J.,” she announced breathlessly. “Cut off the guy’s dick!”
The guy about whom she spoke was murdered Ronald Goldman. His death was possibly the greater tragedy of the two victims, having acted as ultimate nice guy who’d only swung by Nicole Simpson’s to return the glasses she’d left at the restaurant where he waited tables. His part was lousy timing. And, as we all later learned, it was only Goldman’s neck which O.J. had plunged his knife into. Not until the marathon criminal trial was that penis rumor completely expunged.
Speaking of the trial, like so many, it was both background and wallpaper as I wrote my first novel. The shocking verdict, though regrettable, became more understandable as I continued to read anything concerning the case I could get my true-crime-loving mitts on. Marcia’s book. Chris Darden’s. Johnny Cochran’s. Mark Furman’s. The capper was former Manson prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi’s literary breakdown. As usual, I think Vince got it right.
Meanwhile, O.J. was still living amongst us. Before his move to Florida and the shenanigans in Las Vegas that eventually led to his present incarceration, meetings and lunches were sometimes peppered with O.J. sightings. Once Riviera Country Club gave O.J. the boot, he was left to practice his balky golf swing at a variety of public courses and driving ranges.
Weddington Golf and Tennis was down the street from my Sherman Oaks hacienda. The sixteen hard courts and driving range are affectionately known by locals as Whitsett, after the street on which it resides. As my former go-to joint for beating already beaten range balls, it was there I’d often stumble onto O.J. Simpson. He’d have no entourage or security. Just himself and the last bag of free golf clubs he’d probably ever receive from a forgotten sponsor. O.J. would be set up in a stall and, no matter how crowded the driving range was, there were usually empty spaces to either side of the man. I understood why. Golfers are pretty compulsive. They want to focus on their practice. I imagine being only feet away from a double murderer could make for difficult concentration.
So many afternoons I was there with my own bucket of balls. I imagined setting up next to O.J., starting off with a pitching wedge and, with an easy swing, spinning striped-white pellets at the center flag. How hard would it have been to have introduced myself? Or gone vigilante and buried a forged iron in his cranium?
Okay. Forget that last part. I was about to introduce myself.
“Hey Juice,” I’d say.
I’d expect he’d have turned and looked at me – most likely not remembering me from those few holes we’d played together at Riviera CC – instead appraising if I was a fan or, more likely than not, a crackpot looking to show off for friends. Once he’d seen I was hardly a threat – or glanced at my golf bag and clocked the cardinal and gold colors of our former alma mater – he might’ve acknowledged me.
“Hey man,” I’d continue. “Trojan to Trojan? You are one serious disappointment. So many of us looked up to you. So shame on you for all of it. Every evil thing you did and said. For you, hell and all that comes with it can’t happen soon enough.”
Of course, I never said it nor even had moxie enough to sidle up and smack balls alongside him. Instead, I stuck with the herd and silently shunned the SOB. Twenty-some odd years after, I wish I would’ve braved it and expressed myself. Would it have changed a thing? Not O.J., for sure. But maybe I’d feel a little different.