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[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Part 1 of ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America.]
You might think you know everything there is to know about O.J. Simpson. But ESPN’s staggering new five-part documentary O.J.: Made in America, which lays out in painstaking detail the social and cultural factors that led up to Simpson’s infamous murder trial, proves there’s so much more to the story.
A part of ESPN’s award-winning 30 for 30 documentary series (Part 1 aired on ABC; the next four parts will air on ESPN), Made in America is packed with revealing vintage footage and fascinating nuggets that even the most seasoned O.J. scholar might not know. Saturday’s Part 1 chronicled not only Simpson’s early years — his childhood in the San Francisco housing projects, his subsequent fame as a college and pro-football star — but also the swirling social change all around him that set the stage for his explosive “Trial of the Century.”
Here are eight key things we learned about O.J. from Part 1 of Made in America.
1. O.J. was a living legend in Los Angeles.
For those who only know O.J. Simpson as a murder defendant, it’s a revelation to see him here in his prime: a strikingly handsome big man on campus at USC, shattering collegiate rushing records and winning the Heisman Trophy. His 64-yard run to beat crosstown rival UCLA in 1967 is so legendary, it’s known to fans simply as “The Run.” Observers marveled at how effortlessly he glided away from tacklers; as sociologist Harry Edwards colorfully puts it, “He ran through them like foreign water through a tourist.” And considering how seriously L.A. residents take USC football, it’s easy to see how Simpson’s status as a football idol could influence local opinion about his innocence decades later.
2. O.J. didn’t want to get political.
Simpson went to college in the late 1960s, while student protests were bubbling up across the nation. But USC, predominantly white at the time, was mostly insulated from that — and Simpson himself didn’t want to get involved. While Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown pushed for political change and African-American leaders proposed a boycott of the 1968 Olympics, O.J. just shrugged. “I’m not too well enlightened on the situation,” he says in a vintage interview. “I don’t know exactly what they’re trying to do.” Later, when Edwards implored him to take a stand along with his fellow black athletes, he declared: “I’m not black. I’m O.J.”
3. O.J. could always talk his way out of trouble.
Made in America flashes all the way back to Simpson’s childhood growing up in the housing projects of San Francisco. While his mom worked the graveyard shift at the hospital, O.J. and his friends would go out looking for trouble — but Simpson always seemed to get away unscathed. Childhood friend Joe Bell recalls him and Simpson getting caught shooting dice at school and getting sent to the principal’s office; Simpson threw his friends under the bus and escaped without punishment. He even stole his friend Al Cowlings’ girlfriend Marguerite — and later married her! As Cowlings says in a videotaped deposition related to the 1994 murders, “I’ve seen O.J. talk his way out of a lot of situations.”
4. O.J. was almost a bust in the NFL.
Simpson first gained fame as a college superstar, but his pro-football career started out very rough. After being drafted first overall by the Buffalo Bills in 1969, Simpson struggled to fit in with a blue-collar fan base and a head coach who tried to force him into being a receiver. (“O.J. hated Buffalo,” a teammate remembers. “He hated the weather.”) But a new head coach revived his career, leading to a record-breaking 2,000-yard rushing season in 1973. In the final game that season, Simpson looked to break the record against the New York Jets, and author Jeffrey Toobin remembers that even Jets fans were rooting for him: “Everybody loved O.J.”
5. O.J.’s Hertz ads were a racial milestone … to a point.
Simpson made his mark off the football field as well, lining up endorsements with Chevrolet, RC Cola and most famously Hertz Rent-A-Car — which put Simpson in TV ads where he used his trademark speed to run through an airport. Novelist Walter Mosley remembers how monumental that was for black kids and families, to see a black man starring in commercials. But as the documentary points out, the ads made sure to include white people cheering O.J. on to reassure white audiences. And commercial director Fred Levinson adds: “He’s African, but he’s a good-looking man. … He almost has white features.” (Yikes.)
6. O.J.’s dad was gay?!?
This was quite a bombshell: Childhood friend Calvin Tennyson recalls walking in on O.J.’s father, Jimmy Lee Simpson, and another man, both in bathrobes. Of course back then being gay was highly stigmatized — especially in the black community. “Back in our day, that was the worst thing in the world that you could ever think about,” Bell says. He adds that he never talked to O.J. about his father’s sexuality. Jimmy Lee later came out as gay and died from AIDS-related complications in 1986.
7. O.J. wasn’t always the best actor.
As his playing days wound down, O.J. Simpson turned his attention to Hollywood, pursuing a career in movies. One of his first big roles was in the 1977 sci-fi film Capricorn One — but that film’s director, Peter Hyams, admits he didn’t consider O.J. much of a thespian: “I didn’t think he would frighten Daniel Day-Lewis.” (A clip of Simpson’s wooden performance in 1974’s The Towering Inferno backs him up.) For a crucial scene in which Simpson’s character was stranded in the desert and desperate for water, Hyams resorted to putting appliances on Simpson’s face, making it difficult for O.J. to talk and getting the performance he needed.
8. Nicole Brown got an early taste of life with O.J. Simpson.
Part 1 of Made in America ends on an ominous milestone: the first meeting between Simpson and future wife Nicole Brown at The Daisy, a hot L.A. disco. That night, a friend remembers, O.J. said of Nicole, “I’m gonna marry that girl.” Which was odd, because O.J. was still married at the time. And also because Nicole was only 18. But they did go out on a date … and it wasn’t exactly romantic. Nicole’s friend David LeBon remembers her coming home with ripped jeans and looking shaken up; when he asked what happened, she said O.J. had been “a little forceful” with her. Still, they continued their whirlwind romance. “They had a real love affair, these two,” Nicole’s sister Tanya Brown says. “And that’s what makes this thing so sad.”
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