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The irresistible pull of Western New York TV watchers toward ‘American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson’

O.J. Simpson was two tables away from us.

It was 1989. We were having dinner at the downtown Bijou Restaurant. The woman I was seeing at the time and I both had perfect sightlines and earshot for everything happening to O.J. and his on-air buddies from “Sunday Night Football.”

They were all in town for a Bills game. But at the Bijou that night, Bob Costas was glumly able to eat his dinner in total peace while O.J. spent the entire evening signing autographs, kibitzing, smiling broadly and showering affection on an unending line of diners passing time with and paying tribute to one of the all-time greatest local heroes – former Buffalo Bill O.J. Simpson.

He treated everyone as if they were long-lost family.

I watched in mild awe. I’ve seen celebrities greet their public before – often. But only once before – Muhammad Ali in the coffee shop of the New York Hilton a couple of years before – had I seen anything resembling the phenomenal grace of O.J. Simpson meeting Buffalo fans who loved and worshipped him back then.

It occurred to me after watching O.J. Simpson from our perfect vantage point that he ought to give lessons to other celebrities in how fame can be handled with unerring charm and grace.

So what happened in 1994, when Simpson was charged with murder in connection with the stabbing deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and waiter Ronald Goldman, happened in another way to Buffalo than it did everywhere else, including Southern California. In the place of one of our greatest local heroes – an athletic diamond gleaming in the cold, white snow – we were presented overnight with a monster accused of double murder, including the blood-drenched, near-decapitation of his beautiful ex-wife.

Now, finally, 20 years afterward, American television is going for broke in presenting the subsequent arrest and trial in a terrific 10-episode limited series of what turned out to be hyped everywhere in the mid-’90s as “The Trial of the Century.” It’s called “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” and the first episode begins at 10 p.m. Tuesday on the FX network.

Any Western New Yorker missing this entirely seems to me a bit daft. The O.J. Simpson trial was, for so many, a shock to the system – a headfirst smash into reality that produced, for them, the moral version of a concussion.

Critics were offered only six episodes out of 10 to watch but I can’t imagine anyone here completely bypassing television this good and this gripping about a onetime figure of such former local pre-eminence.

O.J.’s life and eminence began in Southern California. And it continued there when his playing days were over. But that perfect phenomenon – the gleam of football superstardom in that vast expanse of white snow – can’t help but live in Western New York memory. (And for millennials, make it that much more revealing.) It makes “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson” that much more enthralling.

I say that despite the show’s completely errant casting for O.J. Simpson – Cuba Gooding Jr.

Gooding is shorter and slighter than Simpson. His head is smaller. He isn’t as handsome. And his eruptive and outgoing personality has an entirely different cast than Simpson’s superstar jock cool. Gooding is an ex-break dancer determined to overwhelm you with energy. Simpson was a virtuoso athlete worshipped for what he could do from the time he was in his late teens.

In playing Simpson, Gooding had almost nothing going for him except the color of his skin and his acting talent. If ever there were a movie or TV show that proves forever how very much acting talent can compensate for every other deficiency, it’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson.” You never quite see that indomitable preternatural and omnidirectional charm which Simpson could turn on when hooked into his former glory, but through Gooding’s excellence as an actor, you believe him as a plausible version anyway, whether he’s angry, megalomaniacal, deluded, remorseful, scheming or doing his winning public O.J. act.

To many, this is the best Gooding has been since “Jerry Maguire.” He has been valiantly trying to get there ever since but this is the first time he has.

Woe be to those so small they can’t see how good Gooding is here.

Nor is he alone in occupying a major place in this cast’s excellence. All manner of blundering should have happened in the cast Ryan Murphy assembled but it didn’t. Almost all of it worked – Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, who resembles nothing about Clark really. The canny self-adoration of Johnnie Cochran is very different from the serpentine authority of Courtney B. Vance, but Vance is winning on his own terms.

John Travolta is getting hammered for his conveyance of attorney Robert Shapiro but I’m not sure he deserves it; the aspirant egotism of the man who assembled “the Dream Team” of defenders is very much in Travolta’s wheelhouse.

The only cast member I couldn’t accept at all was Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey. Lane is a good actor when required to be (“The Good Wife” proved that) but I simply can’t imagine a Nathan Lane terminally deficient in self-awareness, the way Bailey was when trying to engage police witness Mark Fuhrman “Marine to Marine.”

Even those too young to remember will have a sense why a whole country stood still while this surreally vivid soap opera played out.

It was sex and race that were manipulated to decide the outcome – particularly District Attorney Gil Garcetti’s baffling decision to try it in downtown Los Angeles where the jury was three-quarters black rather than the “burbs” where Simpson’s rich white “lifestyle” was.

But it was, I think, fame that the Simpson case was essentially about 20 years ago and remains about now – not least the fame conferred upon every single participant and even commentator on TV for months, morning and night.

The riveting pathology of fame is what we watch now – the monstrous entitlement of a gifted athlete for whom abject fan worship was the equivalent of “hello”; the surprise celebrity conferred upon an assistant DA who is called “frumpy” by the tabloid press and therefore feels compelled to buy clothes and a hairdo that prove otherwise.

Whatever role race played in O.J. Simpson’s life, money and legal skill turned it into the deciding factor in the trial verdict. Cochran and Co. didn’t play “the race card” they played the whole race deck.

Fame, we now see, was behind everything.

It’s why so many will watch this show who won’t necessarily watch “Madoff” on CBS the following night. It’s why so many will rejoice in acting careers making “comebacks” or establishing themselves as seldom happened before in major gigs.

It’s what happened once when American fame went horribly and hideously wrong in Brentwood. And then again in an L.A. courtroom.

And now, for 10 episodes, it’s about what can happen to fame on a very good television show when everything goes almost completely right.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com