New Again: O.J. Simpson

By
Photography Christopher Makos

Published March 23, 2016

In 1995, the most publicized criminal trial of all time forever changed the way the world saw one football star and rising on-screen talent: O.J. Simpson. Even though the verdict came back “not guilty” for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Robert Goldman, most people believe Simpson got away with murder, and from the white Bronco to the bloody glove to the final verdict, America was engrossed by the story. Now, Season One of Ryan Murphy’s the anthology series American Crime, The People v. O.J. Simpson, is reenacting the infamous trial on FX with Cuba Gooding Jr., John Travolta, and Courtney B. Vancein key roles.

In 1978, Interview magazine contributor and Factory member Tinkerbelle met Simpson on the set of the movie Firepower on the Caribbean island of Curacao. Simpson was still playing football, but would retire a year later to jump into acting full time. In this article he discusses the differences between performing on the field and on screen, and what he anticipated for his future. —Wil Barlow

OJ Simpson: Tinkerbelle Keeps “The Juice” Cool in CuracaoOnce you’ve visited Curacao, you’ll no longer think of it as an orange liqueur poured over roast duck. You’ll remember it as a Caribbean Island surrounded by those incredible shades of turquoise for which only nature can take credit. As Caribbean Islands go, Curacao is one of the loveliest, but windiest. Anyone who disagrees with me is invited to there in search of my straw hat which must be somewhere in Barbados by now. Tourists chronically complain that the winds are driving them insane, but the gusts beat being able to beat a turkey in the palm of their hand, for without the winds Curacao would be like the Sahara Desert on the Fourth of July—clean, but warm.

The average rainfall in Curacao is a measly 22 inches, and many English people are lured there to dry off and give their umbrellas a rest. In addition to the English, Hollanders find it a Dutch treat, especially since the island is owned by the Netherlands.

For amusement, the natives prefer to offer outdoor sports such as diving and beaching, and indoor sports such as gambling and drinking. So enchanting is the island with its diving, beaching, gambling and drinking that film folk such as Michael Winner like to film there. In the process of shooting Firepower on Curacao, Winner spruced up his sets with the likes of Sophia Loren, O.J. Simpson, and James Coburn, who all slept under the same roof at the Curacao Hilton, but in separate rooms.

Although Hilton hotels usually give the impression of tourists in polyester with Amy Carter-ish children, the Curacao Hilton surprisingly has an aura of sophistication and calm. Few occupants displayed polyester wardrobes or blatant enthusiasm about sharing residence with the Pontis, riding the same glass-enclosed elevator as O.J. Simpson, or floating in the same star-shaped swimming pool as James Coburn. Either these people are very cool or they just couldn’t care less. It’s enough to make you wonder if being a movie star isn’t just another job after all.

Temporarily departing from his “other job,” football, O.J. Simpson, while tackling yet another film role, amiably granted an interview on Firepower set in sunny downtown Curacao. Of the entire cast, O.J. was the most outwardly relaxed and comfortable in the restricting island setting where it is virtually impossible to avoid public exposure. On and off the set, “The Juice” could be seen and heard hanging loose.“Well I like hangin’ loose. And because I’m an athlete, I find it an advantage to be around and with the people. You get the vibe that way.”Firepower director Michael Winner called Simpson “insatiably jolly” while Simpson retorted: “Hey, what’s there to get uptight about?”

Possibly O.J. has a lot less to be uptight about than Michael Winner, who hasn’t lived up to his last name with his three latest flops: The Nightcomers, The Sentinel, and The Big Sleep. He has yet to prove that there is life after Death Wish. Winner has a curious reputation for doing half the job of a director by relying on performers to fend for themselves before the cameras, and this has resulted in some half-baked performances and lacerating reviews. Though Winner is also known to be extremely arrogant and touchy, he is defended by some who work for him as having a “sense of humor.” On this particular day, however, he apparently left his “sense of humor” back in the hotel room. His wet noodle handshakes with the press and general public were neither amusing nor receptive.

On the last few days of shooting in the Caribbean, cast and crew were also becoming testy and touchy. It was rather commonplace to hear words against Winner. Simpson defended his decision to make this particular film, but admitted that he had firsthand experience that confirmed Winner’s unpopular reputation as a director and a person.

“I can see where he gets that reputation from, especially when you stand away from him and listen to him and observe him dealing with people. He’s always blurting out orders. But I found it entertaining. Michael can take a joke as well as he can crack one. But he does walk around here like a tyrant. I’ve seen him get pretty tough. He’s not all bark and no bite. He has a certain bite. I think he’s 60 percent bark and 40 percent bite.” 

O.J. did not, however, spot any fleas.

While Simpson does not fear Winner, he’ll occasionally fear failure. He has yet to become a movie critic’s delight. He is cautious about accepting more demanding roles without some dramatic training, yet finds smaller roles such as playing a “good-guy robber” in Firepower not so swift either. Sometimes you’re darned if you do, and you’re darned if you don’t.

“I gotta do stuff like this movie I’m doin’ now. Every actor does. Look at Paul Newman in The Towering Inferno. I think you have to get into commercial movies to make yourself more bankable. This one’s about a Vesco-type character who, like Hughes, travels with a convey of people. It’s an action-adventure without any social message. What I do mostly is shoot guns, drive cars and boats and save Sophia. Nothin’ really heavy. My guy is basically a good guy who robs safe deposit boxes. You don’t have to get too psyched up to play my role. When I get a deeper part, I know I’ll be better. But I think I’ve reached the point where I can’t go any further without some dramatic training. And even with these fly-by-night parts, I know I have to learn technique because I have a minimal amount of time to give maximum effect. I think that in this coming year as I ease out of football, I’m going to look for a way to exercise as an actor. It’s just like athletics. You gotta practice. I’m weak when it takes me 10 seconds to get a mood across when I’ve only got 5 seconds on the screen to do it. That’s when I need instruction. And that’s why I’m waitin’ to be a big star, so I can take my time.”

O.J.’s favorite, and what he considers to be his best performance, was a television show called The Killing Affair in which he starred opposite Elizabeth Montgomery.

“I like to feel that we opened a few doors with Elizabeth bein’ a well-known actress and with me bein’ black. We were lovers on the screen, and there were scenes with us in bed together and scenes with us kissing, and you don’t see that on television much. The movie got good reviews and hardly any adverse reaction, and that shows how far our country has come in 10 years. I remember 10 years ago when Petula Clark touched Harry Belafonte’s arm at the end of a television special, and the network was besieged with calls. Anyway, that’s the type of stuff I’m looking for. It’s challenging.”

Rather than follow the same path from the football field to the movie screen taken by Joe Namath and Jim Brown, O.J. prefers compromising a lead role for the opportunity to work with the greats.

“I’ve watched Joe’s and Jim’s careers when they came off the football field and used their football careers to be top leads in the movies. They were all right, but they just couldn’t carry it. They weren’t trained enough to carry it. I’ve avoided all those opportunities to pimp my football popularity. I turned down some very nice offers to do a bit part as a security guard in The Towering Inferno. But that was cool because I had a chance to observe and work directly with Paul Newman and Steve McQueen so I could check them out. And Sophia? She’s too good. There should be a law against bein’ so good. She would say things to me like “Watch your eyebrows,” because I telegraph my lines sometimes with my eyebrows. And she’ll remind me to always look straight toward the camera. As an athlete, I’m always lookin’ to the side because I don’t want to give nothin’ away. So I have a habit of lookin’ out for some guy approachin’ the side so that when he goes to tackle me, I can sidestep him or something. Well, that’s something I do on the football field, but on the screen it’s not cool, and Sophia will tell me so. Hell, I could have eight lessons and not learn that. And Coburn’s cool, too. He hangs loose. He doesn’t get too uptight about any of it.”

For O.J., footballs started rolling long before movie cameras and before that were dreams. The dream of O.J. Simpson’s that his fans love most is the one that came true after he first saw the USC Trojan horse.

“I was watchin’ the big game on New Year’s—Wisconsin vs. the University of Southern California. And I’m sittin’ there cheering the California team, naturally, bein’ from San Francisco. And when Southern California scored, this white horse came out on the field with a warrior on it carryin’ a sword. Everybody was cheering and going: Hey, hey! And BAM—I was lookin’ at that horse. I was 14, and I said: ‘Hey, what is this, man? Here’s this school playin’ football and they got this horse runnin’ out and rearin’ up whenever they score a touchdown. I mean, that’s too cool. I wanna go to THAT school.’ And that’s how great decisions are made.”

The rest is a history compromised of football stardom, movie parts, Hertz commercials and injuries. Halfway into last year’s football season, O.J. received his first serious injury that required an operation on his left knee. Glad that he hasn’t scarred his face, O.J. accepts the fate of potential injuries like a true athlete and copes with the risks of contact sports by hanging as loose as he can, which, when you think about it, is really the only way to hang.

“Fortunately I don’t have too many scars on my face, but I’ve broken my fingers time and time again. I’ve got bumps and bruises. I know that when I retire from ball they’re gonna come back to haunt me, but that’s the price you pay. If you’re not willing to pay the price, then you’re gonna bellyache, and that ain’t gonna get you nothin’. As far as being physically fit? Athletes drink and smoke more than anybody. As much as rock singers or anybody. So don’t let anyone tell you they don’t. Why? Because my game is based totally on competition, so let’s face it, the harder you work under a pressure situation, the harder you’re gonna play when you’re not under pressure. You gotta let it all out in order to live. Christ, when the game’s over and you see the cats, they go out and put away Scotches and beer and, hey, you gotta have sex, too. Ha. That’s one of the benefits of bein’ in the condition you’re in. And the better shape you’re in, the more you crave it.Also my idea of a good time is bein’ with my buddies. Bein’ with my friends in a totally spontaneous situation. I like to go to New York and leave the hotel with a friend or two and have no plans. We just drop in here and we drop in there and whatever happens, happens. To me that’s a good time. It used to be gion’ to Disneyland with my kids was a good time, but I can’t go to Disneyland anymore because I got all the kids hasslin’ me for autographs, and I can’t say, “No” to all of ’em ’cause they’re lookin’ sad and their mothers are tellin’ me that they got my picture on their wall, and then I get down. And like I said, I like to hang loose.”

Ask “The Juice” what his all time favorite movies are and he’ll run the gamut from The Wizard of Oz to Jaws. Was he afraid to go swimming after seeing Jaws?

“I’ll tell ya. My speed has always been my best weapon. My speed afoot. So if I can’t run away from whatever it is, I don’t need to be there. I don’t go swimming under any circumstances anyway. I don’t swim. Blacks don’t float.” 

THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY RAN IN THE AUGUST 1987 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.

New Again runs every Wednesday. For more, click here.