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2 Decades After O.J.'s Trial, FX Debuts 'The People V. O.J. Simpson'


Beginning with a low-speed chase, watched by millions, the saga of O.J. Simpson became a cultural event in America, an event that continues to fascinate. In Simpson was 1994, Simpson was arrested and charged with murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. Tonight, FX show, begins a new show, "American Crime Story." And its first season focuses on the trial, "The People Versus O.J. Simpson." NPR's Mandalit del Barco and I covered all of this at the time, and she joined me in the studio. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Mandalit, we were part of a press corps dubbed Camp O.J, months in court covering that criminal trial. And one moment that really stands out in many people's minds all over the country was the televised event that kicked off that coverage, the slow-speed chase.

DEL BARCO: That's right, Unit Renee. You know, that day, everyone was expecting himself and O.J. Simpson to turn himself in to face charges of a double homicide. And he was supposed to go downtown to surrender. But he slipped away, and he was driven across the LA freeways in a white bronco. Ninety-five million people watched that slow-speed car chase on TV. You remember, Renee?

MONTAGNE: Well, yeah, I do indeed. And that chased passed by not far from our NPR bureau in West LA. It is hard to overstate now how shocking this was at the time. O.J. Simpson was an authentic American hero - not just a football star but a household name, a good guy, handsome some and strong, a real role model. And that he might have slashed his wife and her friend to death - unthinkable. And I was among the international press gathered at police headquarters downtown when it was announced that he was a fugitive armed and dangerous. And when those words came out of the police spokesperson's mouth, there was this dramatic communal gasp, something, you know, out of a movie. And then the slow-speed chase, strange and unreal.

DEL BARCO: Yeah, a lot of people remember that day. You know, here in LA, small crowds gathered on that the freeway overpasses, remember, cheering on O.J. Simpson as he drove by. I was sent to his mansion in Brentwood, which is where he was headed. You know, fans were already there, some with kids on their shoulders. And O.J. Simpson was in his Bronco with a gun to his head. That's what we see in this new show.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) O.J.'s in the back seat with a gun to his head.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Can I speak with Mr. Simpson?

CUBA JR.: (As O.J. Simpson) No, no, I ain't speaking to nobody.

LARRY KARASZEWSKI: Nobody knew what was going to happen. And O.J. was so beloved, you know, was it going to end in tragedy? Everybody just kind of stood glued to TV whatever little TV they had found for hours.

DEL BARCO: Larry Karaszewski and and Scott Alexander are writers and executive producers of the new series. They recall how for nearly a year, audiences sat through the so-called trial of the century. A hundred-and-fifty-million people tuned in for the not guilty verdict, making it one of the most watched events in television history. By then, the real-life principals had become familiar TV characters. There was Judge Lance Ito, who allowed TV cameras into the courtroom. There was the wannabe actor actor, houseguest Kato Kaelin. There were the prosecutors, the underappreciated Christopher and Marcia Clark, a working mother in the midst of a bitter divorce. In "American Crime Story," she's played by Sarah Paulson.


SARAH PAULSON: (As Marcia Clark) The O.J. Simpson you have never met - the face of a batterer, the abuser, the murderer.

DEL BARCO: While Clark argues topless Simpson's guilt, tabloids and TV shows obsess over her appearance.


PAULSON: (As Marcia Clark) Oh, Jesus.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) What we see with Marcia Clark is frump incarnate - guilty as charged.

DEL BARCO: Simpson's so-called dream team included high-profile lawyer Robert Shapiro, played by John Travolta. Simpson's loyal friend Robert Kardashian is played by David Schwimmer, and flamboyant attorney Johnnie Cochran is played by Courtney Vance.


COURTNEY VANCE: (As Johnnie Cochran) The evidence collected by the LAPD was contaminated, compromised and corrupted.

KEESHA SHARP: (As Dale Cochran, laughter) Baby.

VANCE: (As Johnnie Cochran) What? That is it.

SHARP: (As Dale Cochran) That's it. That is it.

VANCE: (As Johnnie Cochran) Nice alliteration, three C's.

SHARP: (As Dale Cochran) It has a flow, honey. It's perfect. You got it. I'm glad you're on this.

VANCE: (As Johnnie Cochran) It's like it's my destiny, baby.

DEL BARCO: The man at the center of it all, O.J. Simpson, is portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr.


GOODING JR.: (As O.J. Simpson) Absolutely 100 percent not guilty.

DEL BARCO: At an early screening, the actor said his director asked him to play the part ambiguously.


GOODING JR.: Each take, he would say, all right, do it this way, like he did it. Now this time, I want you to do it like he's frustrated because maybe his son did it, and he's trying to - you know, it was my job to give them all I those colors. I can't ever judge my character. I can't say this is an evil man. I can't do that. I have to keep that neutral balance. And it's funny because I would be looking through research materials, and there would be something I would go, oh, no - oh, no.

DEL BARCO: Karaszewski and Alexander did their own research but based most of their story on Jeffrey Toobin's best-selling book "The Run Of His Life." Toobin covered both criminal and civil trials for the New Yorker before writing what's considered the definitive O.J. Simpson book.

JEFFREY TOOBIN: This case combined everything that obsesses the American people. It had sex. It had race. It had violence. It had celebrity, sports, Hollywood. And the only eyewitness was a dog. So you - you know, you could see why people captivated. But what makes the story so resonant in 2016 is that we live in the post-Ferguson world. And this is a story fundamentally about African-Americans and the police.

DEL BARCO: The new TV series also fleshes out details that are not necessarily known at the time. Before the jurors and lawyers visited Simpson's mansion during the trial, Johnnie Cochran apparently staged his home with African art and swapped out photos output of his white friends and family for black relatives. Writer Alexander says it was all there in the book.

SCOTT ALEXANDER: Jeff Toobin's book spoke was so great just for the weird, eccentric detail that illuminates character and illuminates plot. So we just wanted to pack in as much weird stuff that people do not know, where they go what?

DEL BARCO: The series also winks at today's audiences. One scene shows O.J. Simpson hiding out in Robert Kardashian's house in his daughter Kim's bedroom - the Kim Kardashian, now a reality TV star.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Kardashian, Kardashian...

DEL BARCO: Kim Kardashian and her now famous siblings are seen basking in the celebrity of their father, who's not having it.


DAVID SCHWIMMER: (As Robert Kardashian) We are Kardashians. And in this family, being a good person and a loyal friend is more important than being famous. Fame is fleeting. It's hollow.

DEL BARCO: Some scenes in "American Crime Story" are shot in Robert Kardashian's actual house. He and Johnnie Cochran are no longer alive. Marcia Clark is now a novelist and legal analyst on TV. Former LAPD detective Mark Furman, who found the infamous bloody glove at the crime scene and was convicted for perjury, he's also an author and TV analyst. Kato Kaelin hosts a TV show, and O.J. Simpson, acquitted for the double murder, remains behind bars for kidnapping and armed robbery. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.
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