O.J. Simpson, capturing the camera’s attention, in high times and low

Wil Haygood Wil Haygood | 04-15 10:46

He soon started making appearances on episodic TV at a time when there were not many Black performers showing up in prime time, even though the dam was starting to break a little. His timing was wonderful. There was an appearance on “Medical Center” in 1969, on “Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law” in 1973. There was a TV movie in 1977, “A Killing Affair,” alongside Elizabeth Montgomery. They played two police officers who had an interracial affair and were seen lying in bed together, the great taboo. When it came to race and sex, America had a savage history and television and motion pictures moved very slowly into that arena. One TV station in the South received a bomb threat following the showing of the Montgomery-Simpson film.

But O.J. was surely on his way. The camera adored him and that innocent smile. That smile would age into something altogether different — innocence becoming an altogether different keyword — for Simpson, who died Wednesday at 76 of cancer. But back then, it was his leading asset, of which he had many.

Plenty other Black athletes across the years chased TV and film roles — Sugar Ray Robinson, Bernie Casey and Woody Strode among them. It was never an easy transition. The trained actors always seemed to show up the athlete turned character, quietly proving that acting was a serious craft and intense training was beneficial. O.J. just showed up. He was ready to go. He told friends that he knew all about drama from his upbringing, poor and Black in San Francisco.

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When it came to Blacks, Madison Avenue had a thing about skin color. The mind-set was: The lighter the better. With his caramel-colored skin working in his favor, O.J. intentionally adopted his own strategy: He was going to build a brand. He aimed to make White America comfortable around him. In that ’60s-’70s era of “Black is beautiful,” Simpson would go his own way. There would be no Black Power balled fist thrown at the TV cameras. There would be no noisy pronouncements about racism such as those made by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the basketball star, and John Carlos and Tommie Smith, the two track stars who raised their balled fists in a Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics and drew the wrath of some Olympic officials.

More than anything, Simpson wanted the perceived magic of having crossover appeal, the gentle phrase used for playing to White America. The Negro press, generous toward all Black celebrity, gave him plenty of coverage, as did the mainstream media, which was still marveling at his athletic feats.

When his football career ended, Simpson seesawed between the broadcast booth and TV and film roles. And he became a pitchman for various products. He famously was seen running through airports as a pitchman for Hertz, the car rental company. The joke around Black America at the time was that any Black person seen running through an airport — like O.J. — would be stopped if not outright tackled.

The Simpson-Montgomery police drama aired 18 years before the notorious 1995 world-watching murder trial, where Simpson, having been accused of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson, his White ex-wife, and her friend Ron Goldman, had suddenly gone beyond TV fame and through the portal of TV infamy.

He was acquitted in a trial without heroes that would go down in American history as an exploration of race, police incompetence and Black lawyering the likes of which had rarely been seen in American life.

It was a trial that flipped “To Kill A Mockingbird” on its head: Johnnie Cochran Jr., the Black lawyer (he had a team of lawyers), defending a Black man who certainly seemed guilty from all the circumstantial evidence. If Cochran could win this trial, he would be spoken of like an Atticus Finch and Perry Mason rolled into one. The TV audience could not look away, particularly at the star himself, O.J. Simpson, the shining hero turned antihero, but not giving up the fight. No writers room or screenplay master could have constructed the outcome, that unforgettable, final scene: not guilty.

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Justice caught up to the legend anyhow, in circumstances that seemed pathetically banal: He would spend years behind bars in Nevada for breaking into a hotel room and stealing items he said had been stolen from him. The word karma was mentioned quite a lot. And yet, any kid coming out of low-income San Francisco as Simpson did would have envied his life’s arc. Low grades put him at a junior college before all those Saturday afternoon highlights at USC, which were followed by a Hall of Fame NFL football career. The motion-picture screen appearances added to his allure.

America does not forget its gridiron heroes. It is a difficult and brutal profession. There goes O.J. galloping down the sideline, through the rain, the snowflakes. All so graceful. There will certainly always be those who remember those autumn afternoons. But there will be many more who remember the awful tragedy of two murdered bodies lying on the Brentwood pavement, a scene that forever twisted the legacy of the football hero into a realm of logic-defying darkness.

Wil Haygood, a former Washington Post reporter and visiting scholar at Miami University in Ohio, is author most recently of “Colorization: One Hundred Years of Black Films in a White World.”

O.J. Simpson died of cancer on April 10, his family announced on X. (Video: Reuters)

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