FX's 'The People v. O.J. Simpson': 16 Secrets From the Set

From 20 questions with John Travolta to the recreation of Simpson's famed Bronco chase.
Courtesy of Michael Becker/FX Networks
The People v. O.J. Simpson

Following heavy buzz and critical raves, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story will make its debut tonight.

The series, which had a long and circuitous three-year journey to screen, was the subject of an in-depth cover story in The Hollywood Reporter in early January. In the weeks since, the first installment of the FX anthology series from executive producers Ryan Murphy, Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson has generated stellar reviews, with The New York Times heralding it as "absorbing, infuriating and, yes, thoroughly entertaining" and TV Guide noting, "Though the verdict polarized the country, most will agree on the merits of The People v. O.J. Simpson as terrific TV." 

Much has been said of the series' top-shelf cast, which is led by Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson, John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran and David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian. Though the tales of their casting were included in the THR cover, the actors and their producers shared many other colorful stories that were left on the cutting-room floor -— until now. Here are 16 more juicy tidbits from the making of The People v. O.J. Simpson.

1) Travolta had a very specific vision for what he wanted his character (Shapiro) to look like. So much so that he insisted on doing his own makeup test, a rarity on a Ryan Murphy production since Murphy is famously involved in the visuals on his shows. “He worked with his people and I thought, ‘Ooh, I really like it. It’s really, really cool, but maybe we should change the eyebrows a millimeter?' And he was like, 'no,'” says Murphy with a chuckle. “And then I found out that he had sent this test to Spielberg and Oprah and Tom Hanks, and they were all like, ‘It’s perfect, don’t change a hair.’”

2) Many of the case's famed landmarks will appear familiar, even if the series had to take some liberties with its locations. O.J.'s Brentwood home, for instance, was razed in 1998, so the location manager found a similar-looking Tudor in Beverly Hills and production designers recreated key touches of Simpson's estate, including the life-size Simpson statue in the yard. (Flava Flav owns the real one.) A house a block away from Nicole Brown Simpson's home was used as a stand-in, while the Kardashians' original Encino home was the one used in the series. 

3) Though the series' writers leaned more heavily into themes of race post-Ferguson — initially, they believed the birth of the 24-hour news cycle and the rise of celebrity would resonate more — the plan was always to open the series with footage from the Rodney King riots. “We walked into the pitch and said, ‘Our opening shot is going to be of the Rodney King beating and then we’re going to cut to the L.A. riots,'” recalls writer/executive producer Scott Alexander. “At the time, it was a completely crazy presentation. Sadly, we are living in a different era now, but three years ago it wasn’t at the forefront of anything.”

4) Before Murphy joined the production, the series was being made by four executive producers (Brad Simpson, Nina Jacobson, Larry Karaszewski and Alexander) who had never made a TV show. The writing duo still marvel at the breakneck pace, which they acknowledge was exhausting at times. And the producers joke that they’ve learned from their mistakes and will never again have as many extras in so many scenes and, for that matter, have so many scenes and locations jammed into a single episode.

5) The producers talk often about the high-caliber and remarkable camaraderie of the cast, noting the rarity of such statements given how many of them are used to being No. 1 on the call sheet. In the case of American Crime Story, however, John Travolta was No. 1. He also was given producer status, though he acknowledges the latter was more of a title than a reflection of his role.

6) The series was initially envisioned as a single-season miniseries at Fox. But it had been stuck in limbo when then-Fox chief Kevin Reilly was ousted, leaving Jacobson and Simpson unsure about its future. Then Murphy’s agent slipped him the first two scripts, which he devoured and quickly decided he wanted to get made. Murphy had long discussed the idea of creating an American Horror Story spinoff, which would focus on American crimes, and this, he and his bosses agreed, could become that. After months of discussions, the mini morphed into an anthology series and, with Fox TV Group chief Dana Walden’s blessing, moved over to cable sibling FX, where Murphy felt he could better tell the story.

7) Paulson, one of Murphy’s many muses, was the first actor approached about a role on ACS. After signing on, which she did without reading the scripts, she shot ACS and American Horror Story simultaneously — often shooting one by day and the other by night — and went months without a day off. When she finally got one, she used it to meet the real Marcia Clark for drinks. "I just couldn’t shake the desire to meet her," says Paulson. "I had come to feel incredibly powerful feelings of connection to her from all that I’d been reading and all I’d been playing."

8) For Paulson, playing the part of Clark required four wigs, a mole and hours upon hours devoted to reading about and watching footage of the trial. Almost everyone in the cast read Jeffrey Toobin’s book on which the series was based as well as the ones that their characters wrote. "Everyone wrote a book," jokes Simpson, who with Murphy and Jacobson discouraged the actors from reaching out to the people they were playing until their characters were fully formed. (Paulson's drinks with Clark didn't occur until filming was almost wrapped.)

9) Toobin, who served as a consultant on the series, was on set the day Chris Conner, the actor cast to play a younger version of him, gets the big scoop from Simpson attorney Shapiro that this case would come down to race. To add authenticity, Toobin gave the Conner the reporter's notebook that he had with him. When the series wrapped, the producers framed the call sheet from that day and gave it to Toobin as a memento. Fittingly, the writers of ACS have been tapped to adapt Toobin's next book about Patty Hearst into a film.

10) Murphy is famous for playing games on his sets, and 20 questions is among the go-tos. Travolta quickly became one of his favorite subjects, which meant the actor was peppered with questions that he was game to answer. "I'd be, like, tell me about the hot tub scene with Lily Tomlin in Moment by Moment, and he'd be like, 'Oh my God, let me think. Okay,'" recalls Murphy. "When John Travolta waltzed into town in 1976, within a month, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly called him up and said, 'I want to take you out. You're the new me.' And then he was best friends with Barbara Stanwyck." The prolific producer adds with a laugh: "John has been around and, in me, he has found somebody who wanted to talk about it all."

11) Travolta hadn’t done series TV in 40 years (his last show: Welcome Back, Kotter). Now? He’s got the bug, insisting he’d sign on for whatever Murphy project comes next. Murphy says he's already thinking about another collaboration.

12) Every one involved in the series has their own distinct memories of where they were during the infamous Bronco chase and subsequent trial. Vance, for instance, was filming the TV movie The Boys Next Door with Tony Goldwyn at the time. Director Anthony Hemingway was in Philadelphia shooting the Oksana Baiul TV movie. As for Schwimmer, the trial coincided with the first year of Friends, which was shooting in Los Angeles. 

13) Vance was the only star who'd actually spent time with the character he was hired to portray (though Gooding did bump into O.J. at some L.A. nightclubs many years ago). He remembers going to a party at Cochran’s home with his wife, Angela Bassett. "We have some good friends who knew the Cochrans, so we went to a housewarming thing at their home," the actor recalls. "We talked about life, and I just remember the warmth I felt."

14) The writers often joke that this project has ruined every dinner party they’ve been to in recent years, since all anyone seems to want to share with them is an O.J. story — and it turns out it didn't stop at social events. While they were working on the project, a man who worked in an office across the hall stopped by and revealed he had been Simpson’s bodyguard during that period. “We wound up opening a book and sure enough, there he was 20 years younger coming out of the courthouse,” says Karaszewski. Asked if they ended up talking to him about his experiences, Alexander noted, “No, because, of course, he had an unpublished manuscript."

15) The five stars (Travolta, Paulson, Vance, Gooding and Schwimmer) were each the first choice of the producers, and were the only ones to field offers. According to insiders, other actors including Kelsey Grammer, Stephen Fry and Bill Irwin were names floated at one point for other roles in the cast.

16)  Commuters on the 405 were spared another O.J. Simpson Bronco chase. Instead, ACS producers recreated the sequence on a mile-long stretch of the 710 South in Alhambra, Calif., over a couple of days. Says Brad Simpson, "It was worth the money to get inside that car and feel like you're there." 

Additional reporting by Rebecca Sun.

 

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