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regular-article-logo Friday, 24 May 2024

Before he was infamous, O.J. Simpson’s acting helped make him famous

Some of Simpson’s most memorable roles came during his football career, including appearances in the miniseries 'Roots'

Julia Jacobs Published 12.04.24, 10:58 AM
O.J. Simpson

O.J. Simpson File picture

Before O.J. Simpson became synonymous with the sensational murder trial that riveted the nation in the mid-1990s, he was a football star turned Hollywood fixture who played roles as varied as an astronaut, a comic detective and a fake priest.

His acting career began while he was still a star running back. As Simpson, who died Wednesday, told it, he was waiting out the best deal he could get in the NFL when producers reached out to him asking if he could act. “Sure, I can try to act,” he replied.

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He scored bit parts in a medical series and a Western, but the allure of an on-screen career didn’t grab him until his first major film, “The Klansman” (1974), in which he appeared alongside Richard Burton and Lee Marvin, playing a man seeking to avenge his friend’s death at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan.

Simpson told Johnny Carson in an interview in 1979 on “The Tonight Show” that during the production, the actors were casually chatting about food when Elizabeth Taylor said the best chili she’d had was at a restaurant called Chasen’s in West Hollywood.

“Somebody made a call, and in an hour and a half they had a private jet bring a pot of chili from Chasen’s to Oroville, California,” Simpson said in the interview. “Two hours later we’re eating chili and I’m saying, ‘I like this life.’ ”

Simpson became part of a tradition of professional football players who forged second careers in Hollywood: Famed fullback Jim Brown began acting in the 1960s, and Carl Weathers appeared in “Rocky” shortly after retiring from the sport.

Some of Simpson’s most memorable roles came during his football career, including appearances in the miniseries “Roots,” the disaster movie “The Towering Inferno” and the space-program thriller “Capricorn One.”

He acknowledged that he was a less-than-seasoned actor, and filmmakers weren’t always thrilled to have him on board.

“My reaction was less than enthusiastic,” Peter Hyams, the director of “Capricorn One,” said in the 2016 documentary series “O.J.: Made in America,” explaining that he thought there were other more experienced actors who would have been better for the role.

As Simpson’s football career wound down at the end of the 1970s, he doubled down on acting. He formed his own production company, Orenthal Productions, which was involved in a number of made-for-television movies starring Simpson — including as a boxer who becomes a kind of guardian for the daughter of a dead heavyweight (“Goldie and the Boxer”), a private investigator who becomes embroiled in a smuggling operation (“Cocaine and Blue Eyes”), and the driver of a tour bus that gets hijacked by kidnappers (“Detour to Terror”).

In “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” (1988) and its sequels, he starred opposite Leslie Nielsen as a comically unlucky, oft-injured detective. The films gave Simpson plenty of opportunities for physical comedy, in one instance launching him from a wheelchair onto a baseball field.

And yet the glamour of Hollywood, where he was far from a top-tier player, did not always match up to his high-flying NFL career, in which he was unquestionably A-list.

In an interview in the 1980s, Simpson said that football had a clarity and an immediate satisfaction that film work lacked, saying, “There was a winner and a loser right when the game was over.”

“When it’s over, you did a good job or you didn’t do a good job,” he went on. “Now, you know what, all this work I’m doing today in this heat and this wind, I got to wait for some schmuck to review the show and tell me if I was good or not.”

He seemed to recognize his limits, once saying, “No matter how many acting lessons I took, the public just wouldn’t buy me as Othello.”

Simpson had recently filmed a television pilot for NBC called “Frogmen,” about a team of Navy SEALs, when his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald L. Goldman, were found brutally murdered in 1994 in Los Angeles, transforming Simpson from a star to a murder suspect whose televised trial would reach a wider audience than his network shows or films.

“Frogmen” never aired, but it became a topic of discussion in the trial. One of the detectives who investigated the case testified that while searching Simpson’s home, he seized videotape from the TV pilot because the police had information that Simpson had been trained during that performance to use a knife “as a stabbing or killing instrument.”

The trial effectively ended his Hollywood career. Simpson was acquitted on murder charges, but was later found civilly liable for the deaths of Brown Simpson and Goldman.

Nearly a decade after the civil verdict in 1997, Simpson appeared in a more obscure, more bizarre role: as the host of a prank show called “Juiced,” in which he would work at a fast-food drive-in or dress up as a homeless man, employing the catchphrase, “You’ve been juiced!” It was broadcast on Pay Per View and ended up on DVD.

The New York Times News Service

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