Before this day 19 years ago, O.J. Simpson conjured up memories of "The Juice," a Hall of Fame running back with a successful acting and broadcasting career. But on June 12, 1994, his ex-wife and her friend were found dead outside her Los Angeles home, and his name took on a life of its own.
Soon Simpson's name would become synonymous with a white Ford Bronco and celebrity acquittals. The highly-publicized trial entertained America and, oddly enough, became the launching pad for reality television's first family: the Kardashians, whose patriarch represented Simpson during the trial.
Though O.J. was found not guilty in that murder trial, the ensuing years would not be kind to him. Earlier this month, Simpson — older, greyer and larger — emerged from prison for a court appearance related to a conviction for armed robbery in 2007, for which he was sentenced for up to 33 years in prison.
Following his original acquittal, Simpson's legal troubles persisted. He was later found liable in a civil trial and ordered to pay $33.5 million in damages. Other unrelated charges have included unpaid taxes, pirating satellite television, and, most seriously, robbing at gun point a memorabilia dealer in Las Vegas. This last case has lingered, as Simpson is seeking a new trial claiming his representation in 2007 was deficient. Soon that effort too will be resolved, and Simpson the man will fade away. His name may not.
Simpson and Sudden Death
Accused of the gruesome murder of his ex-wife and her friend, a sports legend crashes down
By Steven V. Roberts; Monika Guttman; Betsy Streisand; James Popkin
Everywhere, the reaction was the same: Say it ain't so, Juice. Say you didn't do it. Say you didn't kill your ex-wife, with your two children asleep nearby. Say you didn't kill a 25-year-old waiter who was returning the sunglasses she had left in a restaurant. Say all those years — all those dazzling runs and dazzling smiles — were not a fraud. Say we still have heroes.
But by Friday, denial was harder to maintain. During a tense and tragic day of stunning surprises, Simpson fled from the house of a friend, minutes before the police arrived to arrest him on two counts of murder. For almost five hours he was missing, until police picked up the trail of a white Ford Bronco owned by his old friend Al Cowlings driving along the freeways of Orange County. Simpson was in the car, apparently threatening to shoot himself, as Cowlings drove slowly and carefully for 60 miles, trailed by police cruisers. The nation was mesmerized, united by sadness and fascination, as almost every TV station switched to live coverage of the unfolding drama. Eventually, Cowlings drove to Simpson's luxurious house in Brentwood, where fans stood outside the gates, waving signs that said, "We love the Juice." After another hour of uncertainty and negotiation, one of the most popular sports figures of his generation surrendered.
For a police department that has suffered a string of embarrassing incidents in recent years, from the beating of Rodney King to its mishandling of the 1992 riots, the episode raised disturbing questions. Authorities said Simpson was not arrested immediately because there was no eyewitness to the crime and it took time to gather the scientific evidence linking him to it. Others grumbled that police had miscalculated their suspect's agitated state of mind.
Simpson's return home came hours after his attorney, Robert Shapiro, held a news conference pleading with his client to surrender. The lawyer said Simpson seemed suicidal, and Juice's friend, Robert Kardashian, read to the press conference a letter to the public from Simpson that had all the earmarks of a suicide note: a "last wish" that his children's privacy be protected and a long list of thank-yous to his former teammates and golfing pals. Simpson denied in the note that he had killed his ex-wife, Nicole, and her waiter friend Ron Goldman. But he added: "I can't go on. No matter what the outcome, people will look and point. I can't take that." The letter concluded: "Don't feel sorry for me. I've had a great life, great friends. Please think of the real O.J. and not this lost person. Thanks for making my life special. I hope I helped yours. Peace and love. O.J."
For days, his friends and his fans had grasped at the hope expressed by Budd Thalman, former press agent for Juice's old team, the Buffalo Bills: "If he's arrested for this, I'll be stunned beyond belief." Gradually, however, the trap of evidence tightened around Orenthal James Simpson. Police sources connected him to a glove, a ski mask, blood stains at the murder scene and elsewhere, skin samples, a knife-like tool that could be the murder weapon. His alibi — that he was at home, waiting for an airport limousine, at the time of the murders — began to spring leaks. The charge he faces, murder under special circumstances, carries with it no bail and a possible death penalty. But no matter how the bizarre story turns out — even if O.J. is ultimately cleared of the crime — the Juice's life and legend have already been squeezed to pulp.
The two faces of O.J. Simpson -- the real person and the media image -- are so intertwined that it is hard to tell them apart. Is the nation mourning a man or a myth? And does it really matter? "It's so disheartening to have no heroes left," says Celinda Lake, a pollster who analyzes social trends. "It's bad for the culture, because it really feeds cynicism."
A ghetto child. O.J. the man was shaped by Connecticut Street in Potrero Hill, a poor neighborhood in San Francisco he once described as "your average black ghetto." His father Jimmy, a custodian and cook, left home when O.J. was 5; his mother, Eunice, worked long hours as a hospital orderly to support her four children. As a youth he joined gangs, stole hubcaps, picked fights, crashed dances, shot craps, snubbed school. The world of the streets was a world without a moral compass, without guidance or standards. "I was in a lot of street fights," he recalled. "Maybe because I usually won. I was proud I was a tough scrapper. We had our gangs. They were full of guys who didn't know right from wrong and couldn't have cared less... We didn't care about anything good. We didn't know about anything good."
Even then, though, Juice showed a flair for slipping tackles and ingratiating himself with others. Childhood friend Joe Bell was quoted in a 1984 book, The Heisman: "There were guys who could have taken O.J., but he had a way of manipulating people, of making them like him, of getting them to do what he wanted. He was a natural leader." But Bell added an ominous postscript: "He's a great guy but he wasn't an angel. If circumstances had been slightly tilted, instead of a football star he could have been public enemy No. 1."
"A lot of hatred." His first wife, Marguerite, who knew him in high school, told Juice's biographer Bill Libby: "He was a terrible person in those days. Just awful. I sensed something good in him, but I don't think it really showed. He lived on the brink of disaster." Simpson himself agreed with her account in Libby's book, O.J., published in 1974: "I had a lot of hatred and defiance in me. I could easily have come to a bad end if I hadn't gotten a break."
Several breaks, actually. One was his mother, an indomitable woman who kept the family together. "There were always three meals on the table," remembers boyhood friend Jon Greenberg. "The house was kept up, and he always had a mother at home he could go to." When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Simpson singled her out: "You just don't know what it is to be 8 years old and all your friends think you have the best mother in the world."
The second break came in 1962, when he was 15. Lefty Gordon, the supervisor of the local recreational center, saw the same spark of goodness Marguerite noticed. After a gang fight landed O.J. briefly in jail, Gordon arranged for the local sports hero, Willie Mays, to take the young man in tow. It was an ordinary day, filled with errands like picking up the laundry, but it left a lasting impression on Simpson: "To have that hero pay attention to me, it made me feel that I must be special, too. He made me realize that we all have it in ourselves to be heroes."
The third break came when the coaches at Galileo High realized that they had an exceptional sports talent on their hands -- with an exceptionally bad attitude. Coach Jack McBride remembers O.J. as "a very lazy student" but worth redeeming. When Simpson and two friends were caught shooting dice before a big game, McBride delivered a tongue lashing that O.J. never forgot: "Even though I felt bad about it at the time, and I was a little mad at him, he told me that no one was going to give me anything in the world. He said, 'If you want something, you'll have to work for it and act like you deserve it. You know, if you want respect you're going to have to act respectable.'"
O.J. went to work on football. After Galileo, he didn't have the grades for a four-year school, but after two record-setting years at City College of San Francisco he was wooed by the University of Southern California. As a player and as a person he was still raw. He once said that he went to USC so he could learn which fork to use at dinner. But he had one overwhelming advantage: He could run with a football better than just about anybody. O.J. led USC to two Rose Bowls and in his senior year won the Heisman trophy, given annually to the best player in college football.
"My image." Even then, Simpson was worrying about, and working on, his public image. The natural runner was also a natural politician. "I became very aware of my image," O.J. recalled in a book of his own, O.J.: The Education of a Rich Rookie. "After taking so long to find out who I was, I didn't want anyone else to misunderstand me. I didn't want to be O.J. Simpson, running back. I wanted to be O.J. Simpson, a good guy. I'm happy to admit it: I really enjoyed being liked. I loved it when kids stopped me for autographs, I loved it when people recognized me on the street. I loved it, I think, because I could at last recognize myself."
There is a poignancy to those words now. Despite his enormous success, Simpson always needed the constant reassurance of others, the validation of cheering crowds and fawning fans. He could recognize himself only in the mirror held up by others. He once told the late writer Pete Axthelm about a vacation trip to France: "Over there I was just another tourist who didn't speak the language. Nobody knew me and I felt alone and lost."
After the triumphs of USC, he moved into the pro ranks, and in 1973 broke the single-season rushing record held by Jim Brown. Soon, he was far more than just a professional football player. He became a professional "good guy," an actor always playing a character: the warmhearted, ever-smiling Juice.
O.J. the myth was shaped not by Connecticut Street in Potrero Hill, but by Madison Avenue in Manhattan. He came along at just the right time, when the civil rights battles of the '60s had created a new level of racial tolerance. He had the right look, the right smile, the right nickname -- all benign and nonthreatening. Says sports columnist Ron Rapoport of the Los Angeles Daily News: "Madison Avenue was looking for a breakthrough black man and he was it."
Before Michael, before Shaq, before Magic, there was Juice, selling athletic shoes and orange drinks and, above all, Hertz. Today, almost 20 years later, the image of O.J. sprinting from an airplane to his Hertz rental car is still embedded in the popular culture. Simpson was chosen for the role because he embodied two ideas Hertz wanted to identify with, speed and believability. But he had something else, says Mark Morris, who helped create the Hertz ads: "He has a certain magnetic quality as an individual that I think enriched the advertising to make it go beyond the celebrity endorsement."
For all the "hatred and defiance" suppressed inside him, Simpson's warmth came naturally. Both sides of his contradictory personality were true at the same time: the affable and the angry, the decent and the deceptive. "O.J. is the quintessential good guy," insists Thalman. "Everything about him was positive, exciting, inspirational. When he came into a room, it's like you plugged in an electric socket." The result, says Los Angeles Times columnist Peter King, was that TV viewers came to think of him as "Uncle Juice — likeable, honest and, more than anything, familiar." That helps explain why this case is so shocking to so many. It's as if a member of the family has been charged with murder.
Leaving football was hard for O.J., who never masked his vast appetite for money and glory. Even before his retirement, he started acting in movies and on TV, and when he finally called it quits after 11 seasons, he admitted to tormenting fears: "What would I do with my time? What was I going to do to feed my ego now?" He might well have added: Who will I be without the crowds? The cheers? How will I know the score, how will I know who's winning, in a game with no rules? "Football is such an absolute," he said at the time. "The clarity of the whole thing — it's something I'll miss quite a bit."
His dream was clear: to be the same kind of star on the movie screen he had been on the football field. He dreamed of emulating Dustin Hoffman, playing rich roles and winning Oscars. But as Tom Callahan, a U.S. News contributing editor who interviewed him regularly, recalls, O.J.'s Hollywood fantasies revealed how "naive and sheltered" he really was. He was always a limited actor, able to play only one part: himself. "The 30-second commercial format was perfect to capture O.J.Simpson," points out Mark Morris, the ad executive. In longer formats, he lacked the necessary depth. He still did some movies — ainly the Naked Gun series in recent years — but his acting career had clearly stalled. He still did some broadcasting, primarily the NFL pre-game show on NBC, but he had lost his cherished berth on the game's top showcase, ABC's "Monday Night Football." He still made personal appearances, mainly for Hertz, and still made a lot of money. He was still phenomenally recognizable and well liked. But he was no longer a superstar and no longer young.
Stormy side with women. The hatred he tried so hard to overcome as a youth seemed to seep back into his life, mainly in his relations with women. While still in college, he had married Marguerite and fathered three children, but his family stayed behind in Los Angeles while he spent the football season in Buffalo. In an interview with People magazine, he talked about being "lonely and bored" without his family and falling into depression: "I often wondered why so many rich people commit suicide. Money sure isn't a cure-all." But when he sought out other companionship, his marriage collapsed. "We have practically lost our private life," Marguerite complained. "I have been shoved out of the way, pushed and stepped on by more than one beautiful woman." A few months after the divorce, their youngest child, 23-month-old Aaren, accidentally drowned.
One of Juice's loveliest young companions was Nicole Brown, a teenage beauty from suburban L.A. By the time she was 19, they were "living together most of the time," she recalled years later in court documents. Eventually they married, had two children and lived a glamorous life in their West Los Angeles mansion, entertaining often and filling their house with friends and games.
But there was a hole at the center of their lives. At least eight times, police were called to their home to settle domestic fights. In 1989, after one particularly brutal fight, witnesses said O.J. had screamed repeatedly: "I'll kill you." The Los Angeles city attorney filed charges against Simpson for wife beating and he pleaded no contest. Alana Bowman, the head of the city's domestic violence unit, says now he was let off too easily.
In 1992, the year Nicole and O.J. were finally divorced, she consulted a therapist named Susan Forward, who has written about obsessive love. Forward now says: "He beat her all through their marriage, and after they were separated, he would stalk her." To Forward, Nicole was a classic battered wife: blaming herself, overly dependent, unable to break away. Even after the divorce was final, they continued to see each other. The last time was at a dance recital with their children on the day Nicole was killed.
Only a month ago, Simpson was telling friends that he still hoped to reconcile with Nicole, that they might even get married again. He dated many other women, some as young as his daughter from his first marriage. But he still seemed to crave Nicole's affection. Just recently, friends say, she had shattered him with the decision that there would be no reconciliation. Police now think that he finally made good on the threat he had voiced so many times. That he killed her, and Ron Goldman, as their children slept nearby. That sadly, so sadly, it is so.