The 20th Anniversary of when a local hero turned into a national public enemy - The Buffalo News
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The 20th Anniversary of when a local hero turned into a national public enemy

Marcia Clark sent her regrets. So did Chris Darden.

No surprise there. The prosecution wasn’t the place to be as a talking head telling the tale of how O.J. Simpson managed to win acquittal for the most famous Hollywood double murder of the past 50 years.

In this case, it was Josh Mankiewicz (the grandson of Herman, who co-wrote “Citizen Kane”) telling the story on “Dateline: NBC” in last week’s knee-jerk ceremonial observance of the 20th anniversary of the weirdest and most gripping night of breaking TV news most of us have ever seen.

To be sure, 9/11 and the Kennedy Assassination were vastly more significant and the late-morning explosion of the Challenger 73 seconds into its flight had – because of the children in the TV audience – an extra dimension of trauma, tragedy and horror.

But the slow-motion Bronco chase down Los Angeles’ Route 5 was a TV news happening nobody could have envisioned: A beloved American athlete, Hertz pitchman, football analyst, minor actor and double-murder suspect was in the backseat of a white Bronco holding a gun to his own head while his old Buffalo teammate and buddy Al Cowlings was driving him home at a speed only a little faster than a float in the Rose Parade while a caravan of police cars followed.

O.J. remained in the car 45 minutes. Then was allowed inside the house to talk to his mother. And finally, quite a while after, was taken into custody and driven to the jail that would be his home until a jury acquitted him.

And America virtually split up the middle in reaction along racial lines.

Is it any wonder that prosecutors Clark and Darden didn’t feel like chatting it up with Josh Mankiewicz on “Dateline: NBC” on the occasion of the commemoration of the “trial of the century” they lost?

It was race that is said to have acquitted him – the jury makeup and the narrative they believed, i.e. another black man was being railroaded by racist L. A. cops. But I’ve always believed in retrospect that the Simpson trial was equally about fame.

Put a defendant in front of jurors who may have loved him in a movie, a TV show or commercial or who they have followed, in their living rooms, down a football stadium sideline into the end zone and you’re going to need a prosecution doing a lot better and smarter job than L.A.’s D.A.’s office did at the time.

It was the city that, arguably, lost most of all in the Simpson trial, especially after Judge Lance Ito decided it would be televised.

Phil Spector, among Hollywood defendants, was beloved by almost no one. Robert Blake was a hugely popular TV actor (“Baretta”), especially among members of the TV press who could always count on Blake’s hipster outsider act to be a colorful quote machine. He had his own patois full of comic street poetry. It was the ideal verbal style for a man who liked to wear an unlit cigarette behind his ear.

But until the moment he was accused of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, O.J. Simpson was, I submit, as close to a perfect celebrity as most of us is ever likely to see.

His fame began with real accomplishment, unlike the children of his late good friend Robert Kardashian. He had a brilliant football career in college which led to greatness with the Buffalo Bills. (I still remember the headline-writing panache of our then graphics editor, Dave White, whose full page commemoration of Simpson setting the single-season record for yardage showed the snow-slogged historic run and the line “2003 – A Space Odyssey.”)

But it was O.J.’s jovial personality you couldn’t resist.

I’ve written a couple of times before of the time at the downtown Bijou restaurant when a friend and I accidentally sat a couple of tables away from Simpson and the rest of what was then the “Monday Night Football” announcing team. She and I watched as Simpson alone at that table was the focus of a continuing, unremitting line of autograph seekers, kibitzers, supplicants and gushing admirers.

“Do you remember that time I met you at that banquet in.?” Or “I watched that game against the Raiders with my brother Ralph who said you were…” Or “I used to hang out with your friend Casey and he’d tell me that you…” On and on and on, all during dinner, which meant he had to stop after almost every single bite of food and smile and laugh for some new person or couple at the table begging for a crumb of recognition from the biggest sports celebrity the city will ever have.

Aside from a cup of tea I watched in similar close-up as Muhammad Ali tried to drink it in a coffee shop in a New York hotel, it was the most amazing exhibition of celebrity grace I’ve ever seen. Simpson had an almost magical way of making even the most oafish and foolish fans trying to get close feel as if what they were doing was not only natural but expected and completely welcome, as if he wanted nothing more than their search for his legendary good cheer.

And, in a way, perhaps it really was that pleasing to him. It’s quite possible that O. J. Simpson enjoyed celebrity as much as anyone who ever lived. If he’d actually been a real actor, he might not have. But he was a pretend actor – a good-looking football hero people put into a movie for a goof or a casting stunt to get attention. He was just name candy on the cast credit rollout and he always knew it. So, in a way, he was, with every fan, always solidifying his “brand” in the most charming possible way.

None of which was in the slightest antithetical to a charge of almost-decapitating his ex-wife outside her house, along with killing the waiter from early in the evening who was, we’re told, returning her mother’s glasses.

It was, in fact, O.J.’s almost unearthly perfection and comfort in the role of celebrity that might have filled him with more conviction of entitlement than any one man could sanely handle – especially not a third-rate actor who had been on movie sets with stunt men who were ex-military and who knew all about knifely maraudings on dark nights.

So during the trial, you could still sometimes run into people in this city who, despite the mountain of evidence, had terminal trouble believing that their O.J. could be THAT O.J.

As many of us always knew, he was.

For a lot of people in this town, people’s own private walls of fame have never quite looked the same.


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