Arriving on the San Francisco set of The Towering Inferno—the downtown Bank of America building was standing in for the film’s fiery skyscraper—there was no one around.
In the Bank of America lobby I found extras dressed to look like survivors of, well, a towering inferno, clothes disheveled, faces smudged. There was no sign of Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Fred Astaire, or Robert Wagner, the stars who were the excuse for coming up to San Francisco in the first place.
As I turned to leave, I bumped into a guy in a green security guard’s uniform, realizing with a start that it was O.J. Simpson, the former Buffalo Bills football superstar turned actor. He was, in fact, playing a security guard in the movie. He wandered through the crowded lobby. No one paid any attention to him.
I thought to myself, if nothing else worked out tonight, at least I could say I encountered one movie star. Sort of a movie star.
That was the last I saw of O.J. The other, much bigger stars of The Towering Inferno soon arrived and in the course of a night watching Newman and McQueen at work, I forgot all about O.J. Simpson.
The ensuing trial roiled America in ways few other criminal cases ever have. In the U.S. and the rest of the world this was a national and international event. In L.A. it was a local story. Twenty-two years after the infamous Bronco chase along the San Diego Freeway, much to my amazement, the drama continues to fascinate and perplex.
Earlier this year the FX network presented The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, a ten-part drama about the trial. Instead of being an exploitive rip-off, as it might well have been, the limited series wound up being one of television’s best dramas.
This week ESPN (in Canada, it’s showing on the CTV network) is presenting an exhaustive eight-hour documentary, O.J.: Made In America, directed by Ezra Edelman. The film sets the Simpson story into a larger cultural context, focusing on L.A.’s racial divide and, more tellingly, the troubled relationship between the city’s police department and its African American citizens.
If you could not believe Simpson got away with two murders, you certainly better understand how it happened after viewing Edelman’s riveting film. The documentary and the earlier FX drama both draw heavily on New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin’s detailed account of the case, The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson (apparently there is no such thing as a short title where O.J. is concerned).
I watched the real life version of the story unfold from an apartment at 320 North Palm Drive in Beverly Hills, about a fifteen minute drive from the Brentwood murder scene. At the time—and I have no reason to believe anything has changed—Beverly Hills was said to be the safest town in the United States (the cops were young, chiseled, and camera-ready for the TV series I suspected they all wanted to star in).
The street where I lived was lined with jacaranda trees that flowered every spring to form a lavender archway over the road. Walking along North Palm at that time of the year was magical. I really did feel as though I was in Lotus land.
Except I wasn’t, not really.
Los Angeles, as you might imagine, was transfixed by the televised drama being played out in a downtown courtroom. Everyone was watching, a daily soap opera you could not ignore—even if you tried.
I sat in front of my TV one bright afternoon thinking that I’m wasting my life watching this day after day.
I forced myself to turn off the television set. From around the courtyard outside my window I could hear the blare of dozens of neighboring televisions, all tuned to the trial. There was no escape.
Through it all, I can’t remember hearing anyone say Simpson was innocent. But then I was moving in a pretty narrow white bread enclave. I won’t say I never saw anyone of color, but it was rare. Not so far away, but largely unseen by us Westside residents, was an entirely different—and much larger—universe of African Americans and Latinos. I must be honest and say I seldom saw this L.A.—usually only when a group of us ventured south to historic Dodger Stadium for a baseball game.
In my little jacaranda-scented world, there was no doubt about Simpson’s guilt. The grandstanding antics of defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran were just that, antics. Nobody would ever take him seriously. The photographs of the interior of the bloodstained Bronco alone were enough to warrant conviction.
The first time I truly understood there was a much different view of all this was on the day Simpson won acquittal in October 1995. No one around my neighborhood could believe it. I walked over to Beverly Drive in the late afternoon after the verdict was announced. I’ve never seen such astonishment, anger, and confusion as there was on that street. Not far away, however, people were cheering and dancing in the streets.
Two decades later, viewing O.J. Simpson: Made In America, the verdict remains hard to fathom. You can’t help but think that despite the racial divide, any empathy the jury might have had for the accused, the evidence was so devastating, how could there not have been a conviction?
Edelman’s documentary doesn’t take sides, but it leaves little doubt as to Simpson’s guilt. Is there anyone nowadays who truly believes he was innocent (according to Toobin’s book, even Johnnie Cochran privately thought he was guilty)? The answer to that question is, as it was twenty years ago: depends on who you talk to.
I look back on that time in Los Angeles with a mixture of nostalgia and guilt. This was also the time when I met my wife Kathy and fell in love, the constant chatter of the Simpson trial playing in the background.
But still, I regret that I was so caught up in my sense of the mythic Los Angeles, the city of my simplistic childhood dreams of Hollywood and the movies, that I largely missed the bigger, more complex, much more diverse picture of the city.
I saw the jacaranda trees flowering on a lovely street in Beverly Hills, but I should have seen a lot more.