FX's reopening of The People v. O.J. Simpson captivated viewers who'd watched the real thing 20 years ago, along with a new generation who knew nothing of that Bronco and the glove.
They say that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
If that's true, then FX has guaranteed we'll never see the likes of the O.J. Simpson trial again. Few shows in recent years have prompted more cultural reflection than the network's 10-episode The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Grime Story, a vivid retelling of the murder trial that mesmerized the country two decades ago.
So far, the limited series is cable's most popular new show of 2016; it averaged nearly 13 million viewers a week and was probably the number-one topic at dinner parties everywhere during its run.
"I wasn't surprised," says O.J. star and producer John Travolta. "I knew with what was happening in our lives presently, this would be relevant. If the intention of a group making a project is not to resolve something but to start a conversation about it, you will have a piece of art that communicates what matters."
The Simpson trial made legal and cultural history. The People v. O.J. Simpson made TV history. The project's key players gave the backstory to emmy's Craig Tomashoff on how the series became a phenomenon.
Brad Simpson, executive producer: Nina [Jacobson] and I were shooting one of our Wimpy Kid movies in Vancouver in 2010. She and I are both interested in long-form journalism, authors who give you insight into something you thought you knew.
So when I was in a used bookstore and saw a copy of Jeffrey Toobin's The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson. I bought it because I was a fan of Jeffrey's writing. I didn't know that he'd covered the OJ. case and that was how he made his name.
I started reading it, turning page after page, and told Nina, "You have to read this! It's about the O.J. trial, but it's not about OJ. It's about these amazing characters and the centrality of race."
Nina Jacobson, executive producer: it was one of those light bulb moments. The book's larger themes of race and the relationship between the police and the African-American community just got to be more and more timely with every passing month.
It was the advent of the 24-hour news cycle and of reality TV. So as we started to think about life — pre-OJ. and post-O.J. — the idea of the trial as a watershed moment became more and more apparent.
Brad Simpson: At first, we didn't think of the book as anything beyond being a great read. Movie studios weren't making dramas like that anymore. Then in 2012, we did a production deal with FX Productions, and in one of our first meetings there, we were talking about random things and mentioned Jeffrey's book.
They said, "We'll do that." So we made our list of writers to go out to, and we admired the work of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and their wry, ironic view of the world. It turned out they had just signed with our agent and were also looking to get into TV.
Larry Karaszewski, writer-executive producer: We usually take pains to process things, but this time we just said, "We're in." We started meeting with Brad and Nina, talking about what the show could be. These were almost like salons, talking about the big issues. They shared our vision. We didn't want to just go retry OJ. and talk about the obvious things.
Scott Alexander, writer-executive producer: Those salons went on for a few months, and the four of us started latching onto ideas that hadn't really been looked at in the first go-round of the trial. There was the gender politics with Marcia Clark, which nobody was aware of in 1994. And there were random issues we started stumbling across... disparities between the salaried prosecutors and the well-paid defense attorneys.
It was an uneven playing field. Prosecutors were taking work home with them at night. Marcia is literally carrying 150 questionnaires home. Meanwhile, Robert Shapiro is going out to a nice dinner and a premiere, because he has worker bees.
Brad Simpson: By the end of 2013, we had a format and a script that people were excited about. Scott and Larry put together a writers' room for us. By July of 2014, we had two episodes and a bible, and started asking, "How do we get this thing on the air?"
John Landgraf, CEO, FX Networks: it just happened that Kevin Reilly [then chairman of Fox Broadcasting Company] wanted to do a big crime thing. I called him to say the script Larry and Scott had done was fantastic. I was the seller, not the buyer. Then Kevin left the company and the script was still there. And that script got passed to Ryan Murphy.
Meanwhile, Dana Walden and Gary Newman at Fox had already bought American Crime Story from Ryan Murphy as an idea, but they couldn't find the right piece of material for it. Dana didn't want Ryan to do OJ. as a one-off, so Ryan came up with the idea of doing it as the first installment of ACS.
I called Dana and said that FBC controls this, but FX Productions had made the deal with Brad and Nina. We'd been deeply involved in the material. I asked, "Don't you think it ought to be at FX?" She said yes, and we worked it out.
Brad Simpson: Ryan came on [as an executive producer], and we were happy to discover he wanted the same exact show we wanted. He only made our first draft deeper and more character-based.
Larry Karaszewski: One of the things early on that gave us confidence was writing the episode with the Bronco chase. It stuck with Scott and me that that was the biggest day in pizza-delivery history. Nobody left where they were. So we had that in the script, but the production manager kept trying to keep the budget down.
We were asked, "Why do we need to show a pizza place?" Ryan just said that was the best part and it stayed in. So we figured, if he gets the pizza reference, we're going to be fine.
Nina Jacobson: With Ryan, you have this crazy experience where you make your way through your wish list of actors. It's like bowling and you just keep getting strikes. He has such vision and ambition when it comes to casting.
Brad Simpson: We had a casting meeting right after Ryan came on. Two names came out of it. The first was Sarah Paulson. Ryan asked if we'd thought of her for Marcia Clark. But of course he'd already shown her the script. The other person was David Schwimmer. Ryan thought he'd be genius as Robert Kardashian.
Sarah Paulson, actor (Marcia Clark): We were shooting the first episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show in New Orleans. Ryan and I were in the hair and makeup trailer and he said, "I don't know what I'm doing for season five [of AHS], but I do know I'm going to do this OJ. thing. Would you ever want to play Marcia Clark?"
I tried to temper my reaction because I didn't want to seem overly excited. Sometimes people say things and they don't come to pass. So I just said, "Yeah, sure, I'd love to." I didn't hear anything for another five months. That's when I got the call from Ryan, saying he was sending me the first two scripts. He said, "I don't know whether you still want to or not, but you're doing this."
David Schwimmer, actor (Robert Kardashian): My agent called me and said Ryan had reached out. He wanted me to play Robert Kardashian in this project of his. I was hugely flattered, because I'm a huge fan of his and always wanted to work with him.
I remember thinking, "Oh, my goodness, that is a great idea. What an incredible idea if it's done right and well. It could be incredibly timely and relevant. This could contribute to the conversation we're having in this country right now in a way nothing else could."
Nina Jacobson: I did notice when this project was announced, there was a lot of public skepticism and reaction from people not knowing if our intentions were going to be thoughtful. People had reached their saturation point after the trial, and upon first hearing about this show, those old feelings were probably the first ones conjured up.
John Landgraf: The perception was that this case was tawdry and tabloid-y. People reacted with an enormous skepticism, but they didn't have the benefit of seeing the script like I had. They couldn't see this was dramatically different from what we'd seen on news channels. It was deep and often touching and sometimes funny — a very humanistic and plot-driven look at this thing.
John Travolta, actor (Robert Shapiro): I was concerned it'd be too tempting for the writing to go in that direction, but they were really concentrating on the many messages that came from truth, unbeknownst to most of us at that point.
Nina Jacobson: John took longest to convince. He hadn't done TV in 30-plus years. But he and I had a long-standing relationship, and he wanted to work with Ryan.
John Travolta: I got a call from my manager saying I had an offer to play Robert Shapiro in an 0 J. miniseries based on Jeffrey Toobin's book. At first I said no. That sort of piece would lead to being a guilty pleasure, and after 40 years of no television, I wasn't going to do that.
There was another call, trying again. And after a third call, as a favor to my old friend Nina and to Ryan — I was a huge fan — I agreed to just meet and hear what they had to say.
We met at a restaurant for three hours and they explained that they were dealing with messages like the birth of the 24-hour news cycle, what fame does to a person, the pitfalls of the judicial system, how nothing had changed in our race scenario after 20 years.
So I read the first episode script and looked at their bible. They were excellent. I surreptitiously went to the four biggest powers in the industry, and each of them unabashedly said I had to do this.
Brad Simpson: We figured it was a fool's errand to get John. He'd dip a toe in, then a leg. There was never a moment of, "He's in!" It was more, "Let's have one more conversation." Right up until his deal closed, I kept thinking we'd get the phone call saying he just couldn't do it.
Luckily, that call never came. Meanwhile, we all realized it was apparent Cuba Gooding, Jr., was the only guy to play 0 J. They're both so charismatic, someone you would never believe could kill anyone.
Cuba Gooding Jr., actor (O.J. Simpson): My agents had called to say they'd been pitched a script for me. It was 170 pages long, from a billionaire financier out of Australia, and based on what he believed was 0 J.'s innocence. I read it and asked who was directing. They said, "Whoever you want," and I passed.
A week to the day later, the agents called back and said Ryan Murphy wants to meet you. He wants you to be OJ. Simpson. I laughed out loud! I went to his office and he explained, "Everybody loved 0J. and everybody loves you. Take it from there and watch things deteriorate."
Brad Simpson: Cuba understood what we were trying to do, and he said it validated everything for him.
Courtney B. Vance, actor (Johnnie Cochran): I knew from my two conversations with Ryan and the producers that they were going to get underneath the material and be different. They weren't just giving us the TV movie version of what the trial was.
So once I got the part of Johnnie Cochran, I decided it would help me to not watch any footage of the trial. I didn't want to get into the whole imitation thing. I did feel if I read anything I could, I'd catch a nugget about the sense and spirit of the man that would allow me to carry through.
Brad Simpson: Once we had Courtney to play Johnnie, the toughest role to cast was Christopher Darden. That actor had to be someone charismatic but who would still pale in comparison to Johnnie.
Nina Jacobson: When we first saw Sterling Brown's audition, he seemed strong but nerdy. So we went and looked at his other stuff, and then we looked at his headshot — and we couldn't believe that was also him. He was this very charismatic and handsome guy who transformed himself for his audition. It wasn't just the glasses he wore. It was his whole demeanor.
Sterling K. Brown, actor (Christopher Darden): As soon as I got the audition, I shaved my head and got glasses with no lenses. I bored my wife going over my lines again and again, but I felt like I did something good when I went in to audition. Then I didn't hear anything for months.
I knew they'd had a lot of guys in, but when I got called back, I realized I was the only guy they brought back in. I was at my three-year-old's basketball practice, watching him try to make layups, when I took a call saying I'd gotten the role.
Brad Simpson: Once we started production, we had these amazing experiences with camera tests. A week before shooting, everyone arrived for a test, in hair and makeup. We sat there and watched these amazing actors walk onto the stage transformed. John Travolta transformed into Robert Shapiro. Sarah Paulson became Marcia Clark. That was one of our most thrilling days.
Larry Karaszewski: That first day when every lawyer assembled was brain-melting.
Sterling K. Brown: Courtney was first out of the trailer, with his wig and mustache and glasses. And I thought, "Okay, this is what we're trying to do."
Courtney B. Vance: The visual of seeing everyone as these other people was nothing short of miraculous and stunning. Sometimes I was so caught up in it, I had to think, "Oh, let me get back into the scene."
John Travolta: Seeing everyone in character was cathartic for me. It was proof that this was living up to my personal hopes. There was relief to see that everyone was taking it so seriously with their interpretations of each character. Sarah really looked like Marcia.
Sarah Paulson: I remember so clearly the test where I saw myself as Marcia for the first time. It was scary, because I hoped they wouldn't look at me and say, "Oh, no! What have we done?" I took a photo of myself on my phone, which I still have on there to this day. I sent it to five of my friends and said they couldn't show it to anyone. Their reaction was, "Holy shit!" It was a huge boon to my confidence.
Larry Karaszewski: John Travolta not only looked amazing as Robert Shapiro, he was always there, hanging out. And whenever anyone brought a guest to visit, he would instantly recognize there was a new person there and spend a moment with them.
Scott Alexander: That was great, except that the hammer of God had come down from Fox, and there was a social-media blackout going on. No images of the cast in their makeup could get out. So there were probably hundreds of great photos of grinning people next to John Travolta that never got seen.
David Schwimmer: For me, it wasn't about trying to mimic someone, but more about getting a read on Robert Kardashian's rhythm and vocal quality. I looked for anything in which he was quoted or referred to. The single greatest bit of help was talking to [his ex-wife] Kris Jenner for a couple hours. She was really generous with her time and revealed a lot about what a man of great faith he was.
Cuba Gooding Jr.: It's all still close and personal to me. Re-creating all the behavioral stuff was the most difficult thing to get past for me. I spent two weekends shooting in the back of that Bronco, which was very brutal.
And we had a videographer on the set every day to help me with 0 J.'s mannerisms. I'd ask her a question like, "Remember that day in the courtroom when he talked to Shapiro? Let me watch what he did with his hands."
Nina Jacobson: I have to say: watching Cuba try on the glove was a particularly crazy thing because I remembered that moment so well from the trial. You couldn't help but feel strange seeing that replicated.
John Landgraf: One of the eeriest things to me was how much you felt you were actually in the L.A. County courthouse building when you were on our courtroom set. There was no sense it wasn't real.
Larry Karaszewski: Our art crew was really diligent about trying to get everything right. They had gleefully gone around the county courthouse with cameras, trying to get every piece of fabric correct. There was a day when they grabbed us and said, "You have to come over to the courtroom." The Court TV footage was so burned into our memories from the trial that seeing our re-creation of it was a real ta-da! moment.
Scott Alexander: A lot of times when you're working on a movie, you feel like you're on a soundstage. But this courtroom set had a ceiling. That little detail really made it feel like you were in a downtown courthouse.
Larry Karaszewski: That feeling was dictated by Ryan. When you're in an institutional workspace, the fluorescent lights beating you down are a part of the working conditions. So he had ceilings put in to create that feeling. I can't remember ever working on a movie where we had ceilings.
Sarah Paulson: Once we all came together in that courtroom, it was like one of those surreal moments where you feel you've entered a time capsule. Walking in that first time almost knocked the breath out of me. And every actor wasn't [just] a player on stage, but also an audience member watching each other. Courtney would give everyone a fist bump and a little "Here we go!" before [they said] "Action!" and I mean everyone.
Courtney B. Vance: When we were in between setups, everyone was just being silly, especially once we were in the courtroom for such long periods of time. It was important to do anything but focus on what was at hand unless you'd be driving that scene. The material was so heavy, with so much pressure, that you had to release it.
Cuba Gooding Jr.: Every day was like a roundtable discussion. It was a stage, a play on Broadway being in that courtroom. Between takes you needed release from those emotions. There were 200 extras in the audience. So we performed. Sometimes it was a song and dance.
Sterling K. Brown: They'd play music. Courtney was constantly taking pictures. John would get up and start dancing and everyone in the gallery would get so excited. Cuba would take down his pants and show part of his butt cheek. I was so thankful for all those guys.
Courtney B. Vance: There were a lot of people in that courtroom every day for months. They had to be respectful and quiet most of the time, but during breaks our director, Anthony Hemingway, would put some music on and get everyone dancing to Stevie Wonder, the Stones.... It didn't happen often, but sometimes Cuba would start taking off his pants.
John Travolta: We were living in a tragedy for five months, and that creates a heavy space. You have to find balance in order to get through. So at least three times a day, some kind of silliness would go on to rejuvenate us. Someone would play some music, and Cuba would invite anyone who wanted to get up and move.
Sarah Paulson: I saw far more of Cuba's butt than I think I should ever see again.
Brad Simpson: The day of the verdict episode, though, there was no humor. You could feel the tension rising, just like it had in the real trial. The actors were so invested. In Sarah's eyes, you could see such contempt for the defense team. That was an exhausting and wrenching day.
David Schwimmer: That day of the verdict, we were all remembering the video of everyone receiving the news. Robert Kardashian's expression when he heard it... reliving that so late in the shoot, with us so entrenched in these characters... it was understandably one of my most profound days.
Brad Simpson: We felt good about what we'd done, but then we had an event in New York, where we invited a lot of journalists and cultural figures. It was our first time experiencing it with an audience.
John Landgraf: I flew out specifically for that. I was thinking that on a scale of one to five, this is a four star, minimum. I have no doubt. But that screening was when I knew that everything we set out to do, we'd done. People profoundly understood what we were trying to do and why. And this became a very buzzy show, even though it was about something that took place 20 years ago.
John Travolta: I can't tell you the amount of conversations and texts and emails [I got], people wanting to give me their own story related to the trial. And they tell me how cathartic the series was for them. If you can achieve that with your work, you've really achieved something. You've done something bigger than the people you're portraying.
It's tricky business when you're dealing with a personal tragedy. I've suffered my own tragedies, and I didn't like the idea of exploiting others’. But the writers really solved that.
Larry Karaszewski: We'd anticipated that people would be into the drama, but the level of discourse people seem to want to engage in beyond the show, discussing the issues we raised, is astounding.
John Landgraf: We had a screening of the first episode in Los Angeles after the New York screening, and one of the things I most wanted to focus on there was to see how the African-American community would feel about the material. At that screening, I had a long conversation with the creator of the BET series Being Mary Jane [Mara Brock Akil].
She expressed relief after seeing what we'd done, sensing there was a truthfulness and a balance. She said she felt it was broadly humanistic to all its characters, and that was very meaningful to me. I wanted black and white Americans to have the same experience with the OJ. Simpson trial — as opposed to 20 years ago, when it was something radically different.
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December 06, 2019
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