Hollywood Flashback: Before O.J. Simpson, Fatty Arbuckle's Trial Shocked the World

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Arbuckle (second from right) with his team of attorneys at the San Francisco courthouse on Nov. 19, 1921.

"It took the wind out of everybody, much like what's happened to Bill Cosby," says TCM's Robert Osborne of the comic's fall from grace after being accused of rape.

This story first appeared in the May 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Before O.J. Simpson, you need to reach back more than 70 years — to the trials of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle — for a Hollywood legal saga as sordid and sensational. In 1921, the chubby physical comic was one of the most popular movie stars in the world. He was three years into an 18-picture deal with Paramount (it paid $3 million, or $47 million today) when he drove with two pals to San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel for an illicit Labor Day "gin party."

Arbuckle didn't actually want to go, having recently burned his rear end with acid in a freak accident, but his friends insisted. He shouldn't have listened: He was behind bars by week's end, accused of having raped and killed Virginia Rappe, a 26-year-old actress and fashion designer. The only witness was Maude Delmont, a mysterious older woman with a long rap sheet who'd brought Rappe to the party. Delmont said she heard the ingenue screaming from inside Arbuckle's room. An ill-seeming Rappe initially was diagnosed as intoxicated; she died days later from a ruptured bladder. Police concluded Arbuckle, then 34, had crushed her and arrested him.

William Randolph Hearst's newspapers had a field day. (One rumor, that she was raped with a Coke bottle, stemmed from Rappe's manager claiming Arbuckle had simulated sex on her with a piece of ice; Arbuckle countered that he was just icing her belly.) There were three trials: The first, which introduced forensic evidence in the form of bloody fingerprints, resulted in a deadlocked jury, 10-2 for innocent; the second jury voted 2-10 for guilt; the final jury exonerated him. (So lacking was the evidence, the jurors issued an apology.) "It took the wind out of everybody, much like what's happened to Bill Cosby," says TCM's Robert Osborne of Arbuckle's fall from grace. He was on the verge of a comeback at Warner Bros. when he died in 1933 at 46 from a heart attack. His manager said to THR, "Destiny had turned his back on him."