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The Saga of O.J.'s Last, Lost Pilot

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Each year around this time, television networks conclude their long and frenetic scramble to discover the next hit show. But one program to emerge from this process has never been broadcast--even though executives were certain it would have rivaled the Super Bowl as a prime-time attraction, out-rating “Friends” and “ER” combined.

The program is “Frogmen,” and in a business desperate for hits it remains an anomaly--the blockbuster no one saw. Today, in fact, the 1994 production is merely remembered as a footnote to the O.J. Simpson murder trial, because it starred none other than Simpson himself.

“Frogmen” has been the subject of considerable myth and legend. Its fate provides a unique display of self-restraint in an industry that seldom exercises it.

The show was discussed, but never introduced as evidence, during Simpson’s criminal trial for the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman. In a chilling echo of those killings, a scene in the two-hour movie meant to launch the action-drama series features Simpson’s character grabbing what he believes to be an intruder (the young woman turns out to be his daughter) and momentarily holding a knife to her throat.

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The prosecution also investigated reports that Simpson received military training, including use of a knife, in preparing for the role. Defense attorneys sought to block the “Frogmen” videotape’s admissibility by accusing the police of misconduct by watching the pilot in the former football star’s living room as they searched his house.

Yet for all its notoriety, “Frogmen” has been kept locked in vaults at Warner Bros. Few have seen the final product, including many of those involved, who found themselves caught in the center of a media storm even as they watched a lucrative career opportunity ride into the sunset, hitched to Simpson’s Ford Bronco.

Recently, a source near the project allowed The Times to view a 25-minute presentation tape, assembled by Warner Bros. in 1994 as a sales tool for convincing NBC executives to order the series. The tape consists of various scenes culled from the two-hour prototype.

In most instances, when the network orders a two-hour pilot, the plan is to at least broadcast it as a movie to help defray some of the network’s production costs, even if a series isn’t ordered.

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Although “Frogmen” was completed, it has never aired. NBC’s rights have reverted back to the studio, which says it has no intention of exhibiting the show, having bought out the rights of a German company that helped finance the project. Tapes, photos and virtually any other material tied to the project were rounded up by Warner Bros. attorneys.

“We believed on many levels, for many reasons, broadcasting the program in whole or in part was inappropriate,” said studio spokeswoman Barbara Brogliatti. “All those reasons seem as valid today as they were then.”

All this, despite the fact that Warner Bros. estimated in the mid-1990s that a video release would generate more than $14 million in profit. Network and studio sources also estimated a TV showing in the aftermath of Simpson’s criminal trial would have garnered more than 60% of the available audience--roughly the percentage that tunes in annually for the Super Bowl, invariably TV’s most-watched event.

“The buzz was, ‘Do you realize we’re sitting on a 60 share?’ ” said one executive with ties to the production, who was comfortable speaking about the project only if it was not attributable to him.

The Bronco Chase, Beginning of the End

Most of those associated with “Frogmen” were similarly reluctant to speak on the record. Yet the experience remains etched in their minds--their own personal connection to one of the few unopened chapters related to the frenzy that surrounded the Simpson trial.

The presentation tape of “Frogmen” was screened for NBC in advance of the annual schedule-setting process that occurs each May. Though principal photography in Los Angeles and Puerto Rico had been completed, work was still being done on the show when Simpson became a suspect in the slayings in June, an event made staggeringly public June 17 by the televised slow-speed Bronco chase as he fled from police.

For those even peripherally involved with “Frogmen,” that televised event--which an estimated 90 million people watched and prompted the local NBC-owned station, KNBC-TV, to split the screen during a National Basketball Assn. championship game--has become a moment akin to John F. Kennedy’s assassination: Everyone can remember exactly where they were when it happened.

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NBC executives, for example, were returning from a programming retreat in Newport Beach. “I remember there was practically no traffic,” said one. “I didn’t know why until I got home.”

“Frogmen” was NBC’s attempt to recapture some of the fun-loving spirit of “The A-Team"--an action show with ample comedy set against an exotic blue-skies background.

The premise centers on a team of Navy SEALs who, as described in the pilot, “take on special assignments for the government and private sector.”

Simpson plays their leader, John “Bullfrog” Burke, who goes to Costa Rica with four fellow ex-SEALs seeking to rescue a former friend who married Burke’s ex-wife. Burke’s crack team includes a ladies’ man, a master of disguise and a skilled con man. Burke, meanwhile, fronts his operation out of a dive shop in Malibu. The final shot features the group having returned triumphant from their mission--grabbing surfboards and plunging into the surf.

Several lines of dialogue in the pilot take on an ironic twist in light of subsequent events and the allegations against Simpson. Upon entering Costa Rica, Burke’s elite unit is surrounded by armed police.

“How are the jails in Costa Rica?” one of the group asks him. Simpson would later spend more than 15 months in a Los Angeles jail.

In another scene, Burke talks to his daughter about the estranged relationship with his ex-wife. “She made a mistake,” he says. “I forgave her a long time ago.” During his 1997 civil trial, Simpson would testify: “On June 12, I didn’t think there was any animosity between me and Nicole. None at all. . . . [But] I can’t say everything was hunky-dory. My attitude was still some concern about her, and I was trying to avoid her.”

The 25-minute “Frogmen” presentation does not contain the scene of Simpson holding the knife to his daughter’s throat, but his co-stars acknowledge they did receive, as Todd Allen put it, “a fair amount of training” as preparation for the shoot.

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“That’s part of the fun of doing a show like that,” Allen said. “No one took it very seriously.”

Some were convinced the program would have become a series. Others say NBC was relatively cool on the project. Before the controversy erupted, reaction within the network and studio was split.

“It wasn’t particularly good, but it wasn’t terrible,” says one executive, who suspects NBC would have ordered a series only if the movie had performed unexpectedly well ratings-wise.

Industry handicappers figured the program might have an edge in getting on the prime-time schedule because of Simpson’s longtime friendship with Don Ohlmeyer, then president of NBC’s West Coast operations. Though Ohlmeyer was said to be instrumental in the decision to cast Simpson--and expressed support for him during and after the trial--sources say the executive made clear he wouldn’t allow that relationship to influence whether the show made NBC’s lineup.

Arnold Kopelson, the producer of such films as “The Fugitive” and “Platoon,” was one of the executive producers of “Frogmen,” which represented his first foray into producing for television. “It was such a bad experience, I hadn’t done anything since until recently,” he said.

Kopelson maintains that even he has never seen the completed project. All he remembers is “a very, very rough assembly” of footage put together for the purpose of selling NBC on the concept.

In 1995, Kopelson told syndicated columnist Liz Smith he hoped “Frogmen” would never be broadcast, and that if anyone went ahead with the series he would insist profits be donated to shelters for abused and battered women.

“I think the public had had enough of O.J.,” he noted recently. “Because of the stigma attached to whatever he was [involved in], it would not have been well-received.”

That provided small comfort to the other actors, however, who instead of a weekly prime-time paycheck found themselves inundated with calls from the tabloid press--caught in an almost surreal swirl of publicity.

“I got offered a lot of money to say my piece,” recalled Louis Mandylor, who played one of the members of Burke’s team and felt the series was a lock for NBC’s schedule--that is, until the murders and their aftermath.

“I was having dinner, watching TV and I saw the whole thing with the white Bronco going down the highway, and I freaked,” said Mandylor, who went on to co-star in the CBS series “Martial Law” and “Can’t Hurry Love.”

Allen, who has started writing and producing and subsequently appeared in such films as “The Apostle” and “The Postman,” had auditioned on the same day for two pilots: “Frogmen” and “ER.” Both were produced by Warner Bros., which instituted a rule that year to keep the studio from competing with itself for talent. Because Allen read for “Frogmen” first, he was pulled out of consideration for “ER,” which went on to turn its stars into millionaires several times over.

“I was just unbelievably shocked,” Allen said upon hearing Simpson was a suspect in the killings. “I was actually in the hospital, and I got a phone call in the hospital room from my wife saying, ‘Turn on the TV.’ ”

The phone rang a lot after that as well, mostly from tabloid reporters and TV newsmagazines. Allen was an especially attractive target, since he had been with his famous co-star when, during a break in the filming downtown, Simpson visited Ross Cutlery, the store where he later allegedly purchased a knife authorities felt might have been the never-discovered murder weapon.

“I finally changed my phone number,” Allen said.

The day of the Bronco chase, Allen was contacted about coming in to “loop” (that is, rerecord lines of dialogue) for the final two-hour program, which he has never seen.

‘There’s the Guy Who I Had Just Worked With’

Evan Handler, who provided some of the comic relief in “Frogmen” playing a reluctant member of the squad, remembers hearing about the killings five weeks after production wrapped. He had flown from New York to Los Angeles the day of the Bronco chase and was unaware it was happening.

“I got to the Four Seasons [hotel], and my girlfriend had been glued to the TV set all day, and there’s the guy who I had just worked with,” said Handler, who co-starred in the sitcom “It’s like, you know . . . " as well as the recent biographical Three Stooges movie, both for ABC.

Handler was also contacted about coming in to do looping, which, considering the pilot’s prospects at that point, struck him as a waste of time.

“They were saying it doesn’t matter what happens, we have to fulfill our contract,” he said. “My fear along the way was what if he’s acquitted, and they do pick it up, then would I have to go work with him?”

In the months that followed, the tape generated considerable debate in the evidentiary phase of the criminal trial. Simpson’s housekeeper, Josephine Guarin, testified that a group of about 10 police officers watched the tape in Simpson’s family room during the June 28 search of his house.

“I know they watched ‘Frogmen,’ ” she told the court.

Detectives and the district attorney’s office denied any such viewing took place, but they did take a “Frogmen” presentation tape. Defense attorneys argued that, because the tape was not in plain sight, investigators had overstepped their bounds and should have obtained a separate warrant to watch it.

Ito Allowed Tape, but Prosecution Didn’t Use It

On Sept. 23, 1994, Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito, presiding over Simpson’s criminal trial, denied a defense motion to prevent the tape from being admitted on grounds it was seized illegally. Despite that ruling, however, “Frogmen” was not submitted by prosecutors. A source involved in the investigation maintained police never found the tape showing Simpson wielding a knife, and it would not have been admissible in any event.

Rikki Klieman, a Court TV anchor and legal analyst who followed the criminal trial, said what might be on the videotape was “always one of those things we used to talk about at Camp O.J."--the venue where the media camped out during the proceedings.

Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark and defense attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. declined comment, and Simpson’s current lawyer, Leroy “Skip” Taft, didn’t return phone calls seeking comment from him or his client.

For all the talk about the knife, sources involved with the show insist speculation about Simpson’s training was overstated--scoffing at a 1994 news service report saying, “Simpson portrays a character skilled at knife combat.”

“All he did was hold it for the camera,” said one source. “There was a lot of misinformation that got reported.”

Still, because of the enormous publicity surrounding the trial, questions lingered as to what would be done to exploit the tape commercially. Ohlmeyer, NBC President Robert Wright and senior officials at Warner Bros. agreed the project should not be aired and that no effort should be made to cash in on the tragedy.

Ohlmeyer declined comment, but he has told friends his relationship with Simpson played no role in that decision; rather, it came down to a judgment that seeking to profit from what happened would have been tasteless and insensitive to the families.

At the time, the appetite for all things O.J. appeared insatiable. Coverage of the trial glutted the networks’ prime-time newsmagazine programs and significantly boosted ratings.

Yet airing “Frogmen” was never seriously discussed, though there was a degree of gallows humor surrounding the project, which everyone knew--whatever the public might think of NBC for airing it--would be a major ratings draw.

NBC executives joked internally about the pilot being their ace in the hole--something they could throw on at a moment’s notice and obliterate ratings-wise anything the other networks could offer. Given that an estimated 74 million people watched at least part of Monica Lewinsky’s two-hour Barbara Walters interview, there is little doubt “Frogmen” would have been a ratings smash.

When set against media excesses in the last decade, those involved remain surprised the project has never surfaced.

“That is about the only proof you have that there is some dignity in the advertising and television business,” Handler said.

Indeed, desperation to capture the attention of TV viewers has never seemed more out of control, from coverage of the deaths of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Princess Diana to the stunts now staged and presented in the name of prime-time entertainment--such as Fox’s “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” special or CBS’ upcoming exercises in voyeurism, “Survivor” and “Big Brother,” which isolate groups of ordinary people and turn footage of their interaction into prime-time series.

“When you compare [airing ‘Frogmen’] to the kind of things Fox has done, it would have qualified as a public service,” one executive noted wryly.

With or without “Frogmen,” the Simpson case’s allure to programmers isn’t over. Simpson’s story provided fodder for a Fox made-for-TV movie in 1995, and CBS is currently preparing “American Tragedy,” a miniseries based on Lawrence Schiller and James Willwerth’s bestseller about the inner workings of Simpson’s defense team.

As for the “Frogmen” cast members, they have sought to put the furor and calls from the National Enquirer behind them. In short, they are back to the lot of most actors, waiting for the phone to ring and bring them the opportunity to participate in a hit TV series--this time, one that can actually be put on the air.

“I’ve tried to forget about this show,” Allen said. “It’s not on my resume.”


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