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.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
"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.
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)
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."
Shapiro has Simpson take a lie-detector test in the pilot episode.
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.
Gooding, who plays Simpson.
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.
Paulson, who plays Clark.
Simpson's case came just two years after the Rodney King riots — footage from the unrest serves as the series' opening image — and tensions between the LAPD and African-Americans remained red hot. During the course of the eight-month criminal trial, Cochran, a longtime crusader for justice in the black community and the flashy leader of Simpson's "dream team" of attorneys, successfully transformed the case into a referendum on race. With a jury of nine blacks, two whites and one Hispanic, he got the verdict he wanted in less than four hours of deliberation. "Unlike others, who got surprised by the moment and found themselves trying to catch up, Johnnie recognized that this case was absolutely about race and not about anything else, and his whole professional life to that point had been about that," says Vance.
The ferocious anti-feminist attacks on Clark’s appearance is a key theme in the show.
It's this story of Simpson becoming the unlikely beneficiary of racial redress that inspired New Yorker legal writer Toobin to publish his book in 1996 — and Jacobson and her producing partner, Brad Simpson (hereafter referred to as Brad to avoid confusion), to option it for their maiden TV series, sold first to Fox and then to FX, nearly 20 years later. It has greater relevance than ever, they believe, given what the recent tragedies involving Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and many others have revealed about race, criminal justice and police bias. "As those things happened, we started to realize, 'Oh, we're not going to have to be telling people why the race story is important,' " says Brad, acknowledging: "It was intense to be working on a show and watching the news come out and feeling like we're not making a historical piece anymore." Toobin, a consultant, has gone so far as to describe The People v. O.J. Simpson as a "10-hour trailer for Black Lives Matter."
The anthology comes at a critical time for FX, which closed 2015 down more than 15 percent in the all-important 18-to-49 demographic, as well as for Fox 21 studio parent 20th Century Fox TV, which hasn't launched a bona fide hit since Empire. Executives involved are confident that the show can cut across multiple demos in the way other racially charged projects like Empire, with its more than 60 percent black audience, and, more recently, N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton have done. "Compton struck a chord with so many people because it voiced the frustrations that people still feel today," says Gooding. "Projects like that and like American Crime Story are important because they make people stand up and pay attention."
Travolta, who plays Shapiro.
American Crime Story will be 21st Century Fox's second attempt at tackling the Simpson drama. In 2006, the company famously spiked Simpson's bombshell book, If I Did It, and a pretaped TV interview on Fox in which the fallen star recounts, hypothetically, how he might have murdered his ex-wife (see page 104). Widespread outrage ensued, forcing Murdoch to apologize, calling it an "ill-considered project." Judith Regan, the publishing firebrand behind it, was shown the door.
Six years later, in a brainstorming meeting with FX Productions senior vp Gina Balian, Kevin Reilly, then the president of entertainment at Fox, sparked to the idea of using the Simpson case to jump-start the network's "event series" initiative. That Jacobson's producing partner came in the following day and, unprompted, told Balian how riveted he'd been by Toobin's book was sheer coincidence. "I immediately said, 'Let's do that,' " she says.
Toobin himself was caught completely off guard. Outside of the If I Did It fiasco and a controversial 2000 miniseries, American Tragedy, for CBS, Hollywood had never shown much interest in retelling the Simpson saga. The reason why, he'd come to understand, was a two-parter: "One is that everybody knows it already and two is that people are sick of it, both of which I think are false," he says. "Much of what you thought you knew about this story is either wrong or vastly oversimplified." (ESPN also is betting there are many who don't fully remember — or perhaps never knew about — the Simpson saga. In June, it will premiere a documentary-style miniseries under its 30 for 30 banner in which Clark, Det. Mark Fuhrman and Simpson attorney F. Lee Bailey are among the dozens interviewed.)
In early 2013, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, best known for the 1996 film The People vs. Larry Flynt, were hired to write a pair of scripts and a series bible. They'd hire a full-time researcher and fill out the writers room with diverse voices, including African-American scribe Joe Robert Cole, who's been tapped to pen Marvel's Black Panther, and Maya Forbes, a biracial writer whose upbringing was loosely chronicled in her indie feature Infinitely Polar Bear. Says Karaszewski, "We were very aware it couldn't just be us two [white] guys." (More than half the episodes were directed by African-Americans, with The Wire's Anthony Hemingway tackling five and John Singleton one. The rest were helmed by Murphy.)
The producers originally saw The People v. O.J. Simpson as a single-season miniseries, with race not necessarily the most important element. "The sell," says Brad, seated with Jacobson in their Los Angeles office in early December, "was going to be that this was the birth of the 24/7 news era." Then Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., sparking protests, riots and renewed debate about cops and race, this time with the added power of iPhone footage. "I remember sitting there on the couch with Brad and Nina, and I just thought, 'Oh my God, our show just became that much more important,' " says Balian. Adds Karaszewski: "Any sense that we were talking about something in the past was removed."
In the months that followed, the producers would lean more heavily into that discussion. The first material change was to elevate the part of Cochran. The plan had been to give an early glimpse of Cochran as the purple-suited showman and then gradually reveal the sincere, beating heart at his core. But as real-world events began to unfold, the writers recognized they could no longer play the latter as a reveal. "We had to come in guns blazing and say, 'This is who Johnny Cochran is,' " says Alexander. He and Karaszewski found a case that Cochran had been working on around that time centered on Sonji Taylor, a black woman who'd been killed by the LAPD, and wove that into the script. They added a scene to episode one in which Cochran and prosecutor Christopher Darden discuss the Taylor case, with the former blasting the latter for allowing the police to get off. "They shot her in the back," Cochran roars. "It's remarkable to me how many black folks get shot in the backside while they 'attack' — it's like they're going backward and forward at the same time!"
Schwimmer, who plays Kardashian.
But by then, bad luck had struck the project. Reilly was ousted from Fox in spring 2014, and The People v. O.J. Simpson was left in limbo. It was around that time that Murphy, fresh off adapting The Normal Heart for HBO, asked his agent, CAA's Joe Cohen, to pass along any other strong script that was having trouble getting made. Cohen, who reps nearly everyone involved in producing the series, messengered the first two scripts to Murphy's Beverly Hills home. "I was just going to read the first page, and then next thing I knew I'd finished both scripts," says Murphy, who for years had been talking with FX about an American Horror Story spinoff centered on a true crime each season. O.J. felt like the perfect subject.
Adding Murphy meant that the series would jump to FX and the cast would grow considerably more impressive. His biggest coup was landing two-time Oscar nominee John Travolta, who hadn't done series TV since Welcome Back, Kotter 40 years earlier. "I really thought Ryan and Nina were off on a fool's errand," Brad says of the day Murphy and Jacobson, who'd worked with Travolta on Wild Hogs and Ladder 49, set out to woo him over lunch at Amici's in Brentwood. Murphy jokes now that he wasn't going to let anything — including an allergic reaction that sent his husband to the ER that morning — keep him from that meeting, during which he lathered Travolta with praise.
"I told him how much he meant to me as a kid and the quiet gems that he had done that I was obsessed with like Perfect," recalls Murphy. "Later on he told me what Marlon Brando had once told him, which was that if you're going to work on a project, the director has to be in love with you in a talent way." He pauses. "I think John felt that from me." Four months and a few of Murphy's backend points later, Travolta signed on — but only after the actor sought advice from famous friends like Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey, all of whom encouraged him to take the part.
Vance, who plays Cochran.
"I was worried at first that, wittingly or unwittingly, it would be sensational," Travolta says. "But [Ryan and Nina] assured me that it was about much more than just the sensation of what happened; and when I read the scripts, I saw that they were right." The other four stars proved easier sells; each were Murphy's top picks, and all were the only actors to be given offers for their respective roles.
Toobin's book became required reading for everyone involved with the series, and many found themselves poring over old trial clips on YouTube between takes. What proved more challenging was tuning out all the first-, second- and even third-hand accounts being lobbed at them. "[We heard from] all the O.J. hangers-on," Brad says. "The tabloid reporters who covered the trial, the people who were like, 'Oh, I was O.J.'s golfing caddy …' "
Ryan Murphy, Paulson, Travolta, Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson at a tastemaker screening event at Manhattan’s Monkey Bar.
Alexander and Karaszewski like to joke that this series, their first for TV, has ruined every dinner party they've been to in the past three years. "You're like, 'Oh, I'm writing this show about the O.J. Simpson trial,' and then the entire party shuts down and people start grilling you about O.J.: 'Did you know that I lived on Bundy?' or 'My sister lived on Bundy,' " says Karaszewski before Alexander chimes in: "Oh my God, everybody lived on Bundy!"
From the beginning, the actors were discouraged from contacting the people whom they were portraying. "Our official position was that we had source material and we weren't basing it on any particular person's point of view," explains Brad, with Jacobson adding: "When you're playing a person, it's very easy to feel that you owe a certain portrayal to them." The request came easier to some than others.
Gooding, for instance, had no desire to contact Simpson, who is now serving a 33-year sentence in Nevada for felonies including kidnapping and armed robbery. "I have a lot of friends and family who are incarcerated, and I know what that jail cell does to your psyche. I didn't want him to take me into that frame of mind," says the actor, noting that the Simpson that he'd been cast to play was at a very different stage of his life. "He was the O.J. Simpson whom everyone loved — not just an athlete but a movie star — and in that cage, he's a broken man. Now, if I did a movie about O.J. Simpson in jail, I would do everything I could to sit with him and get into his mindset today, but I wanted to understand who he was when this crime happened."
By contrast, Paulson couldn't shake her hankering to meet Clark, though she waited until the end of production to send the prosecutor a note. "I just said, 'I want you to know how much I revere your mind and the sacrifices you made for your family,' " says the actress, revealing that they share a mutual friend who'd relayed early on that Clark was complimentary of Paulson's casting. "The amount of scrutiny that Marcia had to endure based on her physical appearance was horrifying, and I told her I thought she handled it with such grace. Then I asked if she'd be open to having dinner or a drink with me." Clark responded the same day and the two met for dinner the following night. They've remained in touch, though not once have they discussed whether Clark will tune in.
Travolta never contacted Shapiro, but the producers received a supportive note from him and, at his request, have donated to his foundation for drug and alcohol awareness, which honors the memory of the lawyer's late son. Sterling K. Brown is said to have reached out to Darden, whom he plays, but Murphy suggests the prosecutor "wanted nothing to do with the project." Cochran died in 2005, though Vance did meet him once years earlier at the attorney's home. And Schwimmer spent two-plus hours on the phone with the late Robert Kadarshian's ex-wife, Kris Jenner, from whom he says he learned "how much a man of faith Robert was, how he prayed at every meal and before every big business meeting and how he was this very compassionate, generous guy." Then Schwimmer adds with a chuckle: "The producers of [Keeping Up With the Kardashians] had asked me if I wanted to talk to the daughters, too, but I didn't feel that was necessary. And they wanted to do it on camera." (Selma Blair, who plays Jenner in the series, also has worked with the Kardashian matriarch.)
JeffreyToobin (left) with his Harvard classmate Vance.
The Kardashian daughters, then just children, do pop up periodically in the series. The most memorable if somewhat cringe-worthy scene comes in episode three when they're seated with their father at L.A. fixture Chin Chin being lectured about fame. "We are Kardashians, and in this family, being a good person and a loyal friend is more important than being famous," he tells them. "Fame is fleeting. It's hollow. It means nothing at all without a virtuous heart." Though the family did go to the Chinese restaurant, Karaszewski and Alexander acknowledge taking creative liberties with this conversation. They did the same during episode two, when the daughters turn on the TV, see their father reading Simpson's suicide note and begin chanting, "Kar-dash-i-an!"
"Larry and I love irony, and we thought what if we just heightened this idea that by watching him on the TV that one day inadvertently creates the Kardashian empire," says Alexander. "[Robert] would be rolling over in his grave."
With American Crime Story's premiere looming, an ambitious promotional campaign is underway. Taking a page out of the Empire playbook, the studio and network have staged influencer screenings in New York and Los Angeles with multiple demographics in mind. The East Coast guest list included African-American tastemakers (Gayle King), politicos (former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani) and the literati (Gay Talese); out west, writers for The Game, The Affair and Empire turned up. "It's a story that everyone can look at and relate to," says Fox TV Group chairman Dana Walden, "and it has the opportunity to be explosive." The president and first lady were sent the first six episodes before the holidays; and come mid-January, screenings will begin at historically black colleges around the country.
FX's Landgraf, for his part, isn't waiting around for critics to validate the series — he has declared it the best project his network has done. "It has that perfect Venn diagram between good popular entertainment and really smart, relevant social commentary," he says. Already, the producers have turned at least some of their attention to the series' second season, which hasn't received a formal green light but is all but inevitable given the investment and pedigree. They've decided to broaden their definition of American crime, opting not to focus on trial-of-the-week fare but rather other watershed moments in American culture. "Ones where there are before and after moments, and they change the way we look at the subject at hand," says Jacobson.
Now, The Hollywood Reporter can reveal that the second installment will center on Hurricane Katrina and its devastating aftermath. Though Balian's team was still in negotiations for source material at press time, the producers are hoping to start production in the fall and have begun talking to writers. (Alexander and Karaszewski will not be involved; the pair is adapting Toobin's next book, about kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, as a film.) Murphy says the working plan is to follow a group of six to eight people in an attempt to examine all sides of the tragedy, from the Superdome in New Orleans to the hospital to those who were put on buses and dropped off with babies who had to wear trash bags for multiple days. "I want this show to be a socially conscious, socially aware examination of different types of crime around the world," he says on a rare quiet afternoon in his L.A. office in mid-December. "And in my opinion, Katrina was a f—ing crime — a crime against a lot of people who didn't have a strong voice, and we're going to treat it as a crime. That's what this show is all about."
The People v. O.J. Simpson will be a crucial first test of whether a fictionalized TV series has the power to contribute meaningfully to these discussions. "You make something like this and you pray it raises our consciousness and helps us heal," says Hemingway, an African-American filmmaker who suggests the process of retelling Simpson's story with both hindsight and insight was eye-opening. Landgraf, a white male in his early 50s, acknowledges that making the series opened his eyes, too, in ways that he hopes it will for his viewers.
"My point of view at the time was very much a white person's point of view: I was really focused on the evidence, and I was upset, outraged even, at the verdict," says Landgraf. "But now 20 years wiser and not only familiar with names like Rodney King but also Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald and many others, I can see both versions of this story with much greater clarity." Then he adds: "My hope is that both sides might be able to see each other's point of view better through the prism of an event that took place 20 years ago."