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Filming the Simpson Saga : Producer, Star Say Non-Judgmental TV Movie Will Try to Provide Insight Into the Drama

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Los Angeles has become both the backdrop and the back lot for the O.J. Simpson saga.

Downtown last week, attorneys for accused murderer Simpson were battling to persuade Judge Lance A. Ito that those who assembled evidence allegedly linking the football great’s DNA to the site at which his former wife Nicole and her friend, Ronald Goldman, were killed were more bumbling than the Keystone Kops.

Over the Hollywood Hills in Sherman Oaks, meanwhile, at a home doubling as Simpson’s Brentwood mansion, the momentous initial meeting between Simpson and attorney Robert Shapiro was being re-enacted for a Fox TV movie.

Shapiro: “You were pretty broken up about the divorce.”

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Simpson: “Yeah.”

Shapiro: “Pretty angry.”

Simpson (pauses, then sighs): “Yeah.”

Shapiro: “Did you ever threaten her?”

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Simpson: “I said a lot of stuff I didn’t mean. You’re married, right?”

Shapiro: “Sure.”

Simpson: “Then you know how it is.”

This exchange is from “The O.J. Simpson Story,” set to air soon after jury selection is completed for Simpson’s double-murder trial.

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Even though the film purports to offer a non-judgmental version of events, try telling that to the crew. At the Sherman Oaks set, the prop crew has fitted the foyer with a fake Heisman Trophy and some sympathy cards. Peek inside one of those cards, and an anonymous crew member’s sentiments come through loud and clear: “You bastard” is scrawled inside the greeting card. “The DNA proves you did it. FRY.”

But executive producer Robert Lovenheim is maintaining his equanimity. “I was in my office one Friday afternoon and started getting furious and frantic calls from some execs I knew at Fox, asking if I’d be interested in joining them in this,” says Lovenheim. “At first I said no, then I said maybe, then I said, ‘Well, if you’ve been doing research on this, send it over.’ ”

That was the same Friday that Simpson and his friend, A.C. Cowlings, made their celebrated driving tour of Southern California’s freeways, which Lovenheim caught, like the rest of the country, on TV. “After that, I was hooked.”

Bobby Hosea, the actor who is portraying Simpson, says other black actors warned him against playing the football hero-turned-suspected-murderer. “They say, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it, they won’t do it right.’

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“Another guy told me, ‘No brother in town who works with any integrity is going to touch this movie,’ ” Hosea says. “I said, ‘Why not?’ He goes, ‘Because it’s exploitative.’

“I said, ‘You don’t think the performance is going to help a brother? I’ve been on all kinds of shows, comedies, dramas, ‘China Beach,’ and no one’s been sending me any scripts. I’m auditioning right now for a Klingon.’ He says, ‘No, that’s not going to help your exposure. All that’s going to help is some producer and some network.’

“That’s the kind of input I was getting from the outside. I wanted to hear what they were saying, but I knew in my heart that what I was doing was right.”

Hosea, himself a former football player, considers Simpson a major influence in his life and says he’s doing his best to depict him honestly: “The last thing he needs is a bad movie about him. He’s got enough problems.”

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Lovenheim says that 60% of “The O.J. Simpson Story” will focus on Simpson’s life before the murders. It will open at the beginning of the week that Brown and Goldman were found dead, using flashbacks to tell Simpson’s life story, and will conclude with him sitting in the Ford Bronco in the driveway at his home later that week, preparing to surrender to the police officers surrounding him.

Lovenheim acknowledges that some of the material--such as the dialogue between Simpson and Shapiro--is based on supposition. “Our efforts are to base every scene here on actual research or attitudes,” he says.

What does he mean by “attitudes”? “With Bob Shapiro, he’s no wallflower when it comes to being able to jump forward, cross a room and grab a microphone,” explains Lovenheim, who himself bares a striking resemblance to the attorney. “The statements he’s made to the press certainly indicate enough of what his attitude is, how he sees his client, how he intends to defend him and how he’s advised him, that we can base some scenes on that. . . . We’re not quoting every line of his word for word, but if he’s expressing a certain point of view in what he’s saying, we’re saying, ‘All right, we have a little license to create dialogue that he had with O.J. about a discussion on the same topic.’ ”

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In fact, he says, “I just heard that the actor who plays A.C. Cowlings happened to run into the real A.C. and talked to him about his role and what happened during those 6 1/2 hours in the Bronco, which has always been a big question mark, and from what we’ve inferred, we were more accurate than we knew.”

(David Roberson, who plays Cowlings, confirms he met his real-life counterpart--"He was very nice"--but laughs at the suggestion that he asked about the infamous excursion.)

Lovenheim’s goal with the film, he says, “is to make something that, I hope, can be informative, create some perspective, and give people insight into something people want to know about right now. Because this is right now. If you do the research, this is a fascinating story, 30 years of a man’s life. Our story is about the rise and the slow disintegration of somebody who became an American icon. That’s a universal story.

“Our point of view is that there were events in this man’s life, starting in his mid-30s, that shook him in ways he was never prepared for. He’d never been allowed to mature, understand, or deal with (his life), and there’s been a slow unraveling of his life ever since. That’s what’s interesting.”

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Hosea, however, admits he had reservations when he read the script, particularly sequences depicting Simpson using drugs.

“Now, I’m not being naive, I know cocaine is abused in the real world,” the actor says. “But O.J. was never arrested for that. That’s hearsay, that’s gossip.” But he filmed it anyway.

“The aspect of spouse abuse, that’s recorded,” Hosea continues. “When you have nine times that we know of that the police came to your house, you know you have a problem with your relationship. Yes, it’s going to be ugly, but that’s the reality.”

Hosea also had reservations about the fact that Fox initially planned to broadcast the film on Sept. 13, only days before jury selection is to begin. Fox, after complaints from Shapiro and media critics, relented and agree to wait until a jury was impaneled.

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“When they decided to wait until the jury was sequestered, that was a burden released from my heart,” he says. “I felt we don’t have to hide behind the Constitution. Sure, we have a right to air it, but let’s be a little morally upstanding here.”

Lovenheim says he too welcomed the delay. “This movie doesn’t have to do with the trial, it doesn’t have to do with guilt or innocence, but certain people out there believe that it could be injurious, so sure, why not postpone it?” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a reprieve. I get (more time) to cut the movie.”

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Lovenheim has thought long and hard about The Meaning of O.J.

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“There’s an aspect to this case that is unsettling far beyond this case,” he observes. “It defines Los Angeles at a particular point in time, where so many things are in chaos and there is so little security in what the future might bring. . . . For African Americans, this is a case of black versus white, it’s about a man who has reached the pinnacle in a white world and has been been pushed back down. For the majority, it’s a case of rich versus poor--can justice work if you have all the money in the world the same way if you have no money? . . . For the politicians, it’s how do we prove we can control law and order when we can’t win a case? We lost Rodney King, we lost Reginald Denny, we didn’t win the Menendez brothers, and now, it’s O.J.

“And it’s about a city that’s going broke,” Lovenheim continues. “Most of the police cars are these 1986 Chevy Caprices with hundreds of thousands of miles on them. The streets are bumpy because they can’t afford to pave them. . . . How can you justify a show trial that’s going to cost millions and millions of dollars when you can’t afford to keep the city going? It’s like saying, ‘If we can’t give them bread, we’ll give them circuses.’

“Those are the questions,” Lovenheim says. Then he adds, anticlimactically, “Those aren’t the questions of this movie.”


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