SI: Are you surprised that your celebrity has lasted as long as it has, that you can still make money by being who you are?
O.J.: To an extent, yes. But understand this—I've always made more money away from football, though football opened the doors. I actually signed with Chevrolet and RC Cola before I signed with the Buffalo Bills [in 1969]. I was one of the first athletes to be a major spokesman for a company during his career. Hertz told me that in all their surveys I was colorless. The American public didn't categorize me as black or white, just that O.J. was O.J., which I liked.
I have an aversion to being referred to as an ex-football player. I'm O.J., which means I'm somebody today and the highlight of my life isn't behind me.
SI: What's the oddest place that you've ever been recognized in?
O.J.: Lee Strasberg [the late method acting coach] and I had gotten to be pretty good friends, and we were doing a movie together in Europe in the 1970s called The Cassandra Crossing. We were near the Spanish Steps in Rome, in an antique-book store, and we got into a debate about recognition. I remember him saying that I was recognized all over the world, and I said, "In America I'm recognized, but your name is better known around the world." Just then a group of Japanese came up to me and said, " O.J. Simpson. O.J. Simpson." I was in shock, and Lee was smiling. I thought it was a trick, that somebody had gone out and gotten those people to do this, but it was only Lee and I in the bookstore, so there was no one else to go and do this.
SI: Was there ever a time when you were uncomfortable being a celebrity?
O.J.: I think it has been more uncomfortable for people who live with me over a period of time. I prepared for it [being a celebrity] my whole life. As a kid I wanted to be Willie Mays, so when celebrity came, it was easy to take. The only time it becomes uncomfortable is when you have some crisis in your family. The press brings the public into it. Normally, by that time, you've already dealt with the trauma, and when the press gets involved, it opens sores again. That's the element I don't like.
In L.A. celebrities are looked at differently. I go months without signing an autograph in L.A., but I can't walk down the street in any other city. I look at [the pop music group] Wilson Phillips. Those girls were all around my house, at my pool. Now they're big stars. I used to throw footballs to Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen. Sophia Loren's kids used to sit on my knee. Parents' Day at my kids' school was celebrity day.
SI: Jim Brown, who has been known to say outrageous things, said that he quit making movies because "I think Hollywood just got tired of a big old black negro kissing all their women." Is it just as hard for you in Hollywood?
O.J.: I never considered it hard. I don't consider myself an actor. I'm a personality. When I get hired for a part, it's more for my personality than my acting prowess. In the Naked Gun movies, I go in like a stunt man. I think a lot of my success in that role, especially in the first movie, had to do with the stupid things happening to me, because people still relate to me as O.J.