Trial of the century is just one part of TV documentary of the year

Simpson returns to Rich Stadium in Buffalo, N.Y., for his induction into the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame in 1980.
Simpson returns to Rich Stadium in Buffalo, N.Y., for his induction into the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame in 1980. ESPN archives

When Ezra Edelman was a kid, he used to pretend he was O.J. Simpson.

But the Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning documentary filmmaker didn’t fantasize about evading tacklers on the football field.

In his case, “I would run through the airport trying to dodge people as if I were O.J. in the Hertz TV commercials.”

Those spots — with Simpson, in a business suit and carrying a briefcase, dashing through a busy airport to the rental car gate — helped make him one of the most successful TV pitchmen in advertising history.

“Go, O.J., go!”

The reason for referencing this chapter in Simpson’s life is to remind everyone about the magnitude of his fame before his name became permanently linked to the murder trial of the 20th century.

Simpson’s story isn’t just about a fallen football hero, because he was more than that. He was an iconic celebrity whose popularity in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s transcended sports, entertainment, even race.

To fully understand why the O.J. Simpson double murder trial of 1995 became a national obsession, it’s important first to remember who he was, to remember the charismatic qualities that brought him legions of fans, and then to reveal a darker side of his personality that ultimately led to his undoing.

That’s why O.J.: Made in America, Edelman’s binge-worthy five-night, 10-hour documentary, devotes its first two parts to reacquainting viewers with Simpson, the Juice, No. 32, as he was before everything changed for him. It premieres at 8 p.m. Saturday on ABC and continues on ESPN.

Yes, the events of June 12, 1994, when Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman were brutally slain, are dutifully covered. So is the circus-atmosphere trial, which ended Oct. 3, 1995, with O.J. and his “Dream Team” of defense lawyers winning a hard-fought acquittal.

“If you’re going to do an O.J. Simpson film, you’re going to cover June of 1994 to October of 1995,” says Connor Schell, senior vice president of ESPN Films. “It’s unavoidable in the tale.

“But we were also interested in what preceded and what came after.”

And that’s what separates this O.J. story from all others that have been told, even FX’s superlative courtroom drama American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, which aired this year.

By putting the “Trial of the Century” in context and making it part of an even larger story, it transforms from a lurid crime and courtroom drama into a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

After part one on Saturday, the rest of the documentary, two years in the making, airs in two-hour installments on ESPN at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and June 18.

ESPN approached Edelman to direct what it hoped would be the ultimate O.J. Simpson documentary because of his reputation and track record for making smart, compelling films that use sports as a way to examine larger issues.

His 2007 film, Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush, won an Emmy; his 2010 film, Magic and Bird: A Courtship of Rivals, received a Peabody Award and three Emmy nominations. In 2013, he co-produced the documentary Cutie and the Boxer, which was nominated for an Academy Award.

“When we started making this, it was going to be five hours,” says Caroline Waterlow, producer of O.J.: Made in America. “By the time we had our first really solid working rough cut, it was eight hours.

“We were like, ‘OK, what three can we cut out?’ But ESPN, to their credit, felt that it deserved more time and a bigger canvas, because ESPN felt that Ezra had hit on something that really did resonate and was important to tell, something more than just a sensational reductionist version of the story.”

Part one lays the groundwork, showing Simpson’s prowess on the football field as a record-setting running back for the USC Trojans and Buffalo Bills. Then he parlays that success into careers off the playing field as an actor, a commercial pitchman, a sports commentator and a businessman.

It also shows how Simpson, an African-American man who grew up poor, quickly distanced himself from the black community and from civil rights causes in his desire to become a player in mainstream white America. At one point, he is quoted as saying, “I’m not black … I’m O.J.”

Meanwhile, a parallel story unfolds about decades of turmoil in Los Angeles involving a police department often accused of excessive force and racism when dealing with African-Americans.

Part two then explores Simpson’s demons, including a history of domestic violence that friends and acquaintances enabled by repeatedly looking the other way, while the racial tension in L.A. continues to boil, thanks to shocking incidents involving Eula Mae Love in 1979 to Rodney King in 1991.

“Even with people who know this story well, the events in the decades that preceded the murder and the trial have for many faded to the background,” Schell says. “What Ezra does brilliantly here is show how these seemingly disparate events are interrelated and equally important to the full context of the story.”

Then, in parts three and four, comes the crime and trial that captured everyone’s attention.

It was a real-life mystery and conspiracy thriller (not so much a whodunit as a “did-he-really-do-it?” and a “can-they-prove-it?”). It was riveting courtroom drama, with more twists and turns than a John Grisham bestseller. It was an intoxicating mixture of showbiz glitz and tabloid sleaze.

All of the tent-pole moments are there: the white Ford Bronco chase; O.J. declaring to the judge that he was “absolutely 100 percent not guilty”; prosecutors accusing Cochran of playing “the race card”; the gloves that didn’t fit, which inspired Cochran’s “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” catchphrase.

Finally, in part five, we get the polarizing “not guilty” verdicts. (Surveys showed that the majority of white observers believed O.J. was guilty; African-Americans, when polled, tended to believe that Simpson had been railroaded by a racist criminal justice system.)

But that’s not the end of the story, just the beginning of a slow spiral.

There is O.J.’s awkward existence in “celebrity purgatory” after being set free; the wrongful-death suit filed in civil court by the victims’ families (who were awarded $33.5 million in damages); Simpson’s in-poor-taste attempt to raise money with a proposed If I Did It book that would offer a “hypothetical confession”; and his 2007 arrest in Las Vegas on robbery charges involving his own sports memorabilia.

As a result of that last incident, No. 32 now has a different number: He is inmate ID number 1027820 in the Lovelock Correctional Center in Pershing County, Nev., serving a 33-year sentence.

His has been a long, strange journey — a riveting true-life drama that no writer could possibly make up.

O.J.: Made in America

  • Part one at 8 p.m. Saturday on ABC
  • Parts two-five at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and June 18 on ESPN