The story was uniquely Californian, beginning with the discovery shortly after midnight on Monday, June 13, of two bodies on a blood-soaked sidewalk in affluent Brentwood and ending surreally four days later with the celebrity suspect traveling slowly along Los Angeles freeways, pointing a gun at his own head, as the police trailed in stately pursuit. Only in California can crime conform so neatly to cinema. As millions watched the drama unfold on television, brought into their homes by an Apocalypse Now formation of news helicopters, images from any number of other movies were evoked. The story started with The Fugitive—a popular and upstanding citizen is accused of savagely murdering his wife—and evolved into The Sugarland Express or Vanishing Point when, during L.A.'s evening rush hour last Friday, thousands of cheering people materialized along freeway barriers and on overpasses, some of them with adoring signs, to celebrate this outlaw in the Ford Bronco, trotting toward his own personal border.
And then the saga veered into Sunset Boulevard, as one of America's most familiar personalities sat in the Bronco, now parked just outside the door of his Brentwood house, not even a half mile from the real Sunset Boulevard. Camera crews jostled for angles in the waning light as police, including a member of a SWAT team dressed as a bush, drew a bead on him and negotiated his arrest. Then O.J. Simpson, finally ready for his close-up, emerged from the vehicle in which he had been a passenger, leaving the gun behind but carrying two framed family photographs with him into custody.
But even when edited into a whole, the film clips of this startling mix of fame and blood explained little. There was some thing here that didn't play. Between the beginning and the end, two funerals had been held, and police had alleged that two children had been made motherless by their father's knife-wielding hand. When it was all over, a former sports hero, whose colossal likability had fueled a career in TV, movies and endorsements—who had acquired wealth and important friends and who moved through life with an effortless grace—was in jail, charged with first-degree murder in the slaying of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. "O.J.," said a TV industry source, "made a career out of being a nice guy." Yet there was his mug shot on the evening news, a man staring blankly into the distance, suspected of slashing two other human beings to death.
Last week many of Simpson's friends admitted his faults and acknowledged his indulgences—"He was a rogue when it came to women," said one—but all of them deemed it inconceivable that Simpson could have committed murder. Referring to him as "the single most popular employee we have," an NBC executive said, "We could call him at home at 9:30 p.m. and tell him we needed him to do an interview at 9 a.m. tomorrow, and he'd be on a plane a half hour later. He never complained. Of all the superstars, he was absolutely the freest of pretension. He was genuine."
Interviews acquired the force of eulogies. Simpson was a Heisman Trophy winner at USC, a Hall of Famer with the Buffalo Bills and the San Francisco 49ers, and a durable broadcaster for ABC and NBC, as well as an actor who appeared most recently in three Naked Gun movies and the HBO series First and Ten. He never spiked a ball. He was among the first running backs to bestow gifts and recognition upon his blockers. He once jokingly called himself the Angel of Death for his frequent visits to terminally ill children in Buffalo hospitals. Nobody signed more autographs with as much good humor. Approached in a hotel lobby on the morning of a game by a shy youngster, Simpson would sign and then would carry the autograph book onto the team bus for other players to sign. "The Juice has always left a sweet taste in these parts," says Buffalo News sportswriter Vic Carucci.
But no endorsement from friends, former teammates or broadcasting colleagues could shift the monstrosity of this crime from Simpson's famous name. It was impossible to ignore the ocean of blood on the steps and the pathway outside Nicole Simpson's condominium, the tremendous arterial spray that the killer had produced in his violence. The cruelty of the murders, the fury it must have taken to perform them, was otherworldly. If O.J. Simpson was that killer, a lot of what we think we know about human behavior must be reconsidered.
Last weekend, as he sat alone in a nine-by-seven-foot cell at the Men's Central Jail, a cell stripped of any object that he might be able to use to harm himself, we were forced to ask ourselves what we actually knew about Simpson, a man whose genial blandness was a large part of his appeal. Raised in the tough Potrero Hill district of San Francisco, he had long since buffed his rough edges, a process that began when no less a hero than Willie Mays had stepped in to interrupt Simpson's troubled young life. Arrested for robbing a liquor store, the 14-year-old Simpson spent a weekend in juvenile hall and was greeted upon his release by the San Francisco Giant superstar, who persuaded the youth not to waste his already apparent talent. Remade by athletic success at Galileo High, City College of San Francisco, Southern Cal and then the NFL, Simpson was so self-effacing and eager to please that he was deemed unthreatening to whites and thus became the first black athlete to be embraced as an endorser of products not marketed solely to blacks. Exposed to the good life, he belonged to the best country clubs and moved in the best social circles. He lived a seemingly lucky life.
And yet, as Los Angeles police and prosecutors realigned our bias, there was a need to reconcile the person and his alleged deed. Could Simpson, who declared his innocence at his arraignment on Monday, have committed this horrible crime, one carried out as his and Nicole's two children, Sydney, 8, and Justin, 5, slept in their beds yards away? Well, in 1989, O.J. pleaded no contest to a charge that he beat Nicole in the wee hours of New Year's Day, and there was an undercurrent of rage and obsession that ran through their seven-year marriage, their divorce in 1992 and even their attempt at reconciliation earlier this year. There were hints of a dark side, if you look back, but hardly anything that would prepare you for Simpson's arrest in this case.
For the public that watched him hurtling through airports for Hertz or chatting up NFL players on the sidelines for NBC, the spectacular, weeklong disintegration of this man was inconceivable. Any previous ugliness just never stuck, although maybe it should have. "It was perplexing," says a former NBC Sports employee, a woman. "People at NBC Sports used to always remark about the beating, shaking their heads and saying, 'Here's a man who used to beat his wife, and none of America cares or remembers.' People refused to believe it because they thought he was such a nice guy."
"I knew he beat her," says a prominent agent who was in the same social loop as Simpson. "It was common knowledge. A lot of his friends knew it—not just the 1989 incident, but all the beatings. They all tried to keep it quiet, just like Magic's womanizing. In the small circle these athletes socialized in, people just didn't ever go public with this information. They protected him."