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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Michael Carlson

OJ Simpson obituary

OJ Simpson sitting in the Los Angeles superior court in December 1994.
OJ Simpson sitting in the Los Angeles superior court in December 1994. Photograph: AFP/Getty

On the American football field, OJ Simpson ran around, past and through defenders with almost unmatched success. “The Juice” had legendary status, as both a collegian and a pro.

Undeniably handsome and charismatic, he appeared in films and on TV, and was known in the US for a Hertz television commercial in which he sprinted through an airport, hurdling all obstacles.

But the most enduring memory of Simpson, who has died aged 76 of cancer, will be a race he did not win, the slow-motion chase on 17 June 1994 during which he was a passenger in a white Ford Bronco, armed with a gun and threatening to kill himself, followed through empty Los Angeles freeways by a small fleet of police cars and swarming television helicopters broadcasting live to the world.

Simpson had agreed to surrender to authorities and be charged with the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman, who had been found stabbed to death five days earlier outside her home in LA. Instead, he ran. The huge audience drawn by the Bronco chase would soon be dwarfed by the worldwide attention given to the trial. Coinciding with the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and specialist television channels such as Court-TV, it became a three-ring circus for electronic tabloid celebrity journalism.

The ringmaster was Judge Lance Ito, preening for the cameras, starstruck and deferential to Simpson’s “dream team” of big-name lawyers. They included national figures such as Melvin Belli, Alan Dershowitz and Robert Shapiro, but the dominant presence was the flamboyant local lawyer Johnnie Cochran, who had built his reputation filing suits against the Los Angeles police department.

Just as important may have been Simpson’s friend and former personal lawyer Robert Kardashian. After the murders, Simpson stayed at Kardashian’s house; when police arrived, Kardashian carried away a garment bag and some have speculated that it contained evidence of Simpson’s guilt. By returning to practise law as part of Simpson’s defence team, Kardashian was shielded against having to testify as to the contents of the luggage.

The trial lasted more than eight months, with Simpson’s team burying the prosecutors Marcia Clark and Chris Darden under a landslide of discovery (supplying and requesting vast quantities of material) and challenges to every piece of evidence.

Even Simpson’s cell-phone conversations during the Bronco chase, heard around the world, were ruled inadmissible. Clark’s decision to focus on Simpson’s 1989 charge of domestic abuse against his former wife backfired when the trial turned on the testimony of an LAPD detective, Mark Fuhrman, whose reliability was called into question when he was found to have lied about having used the N-word. This allowed the defence to recast the trial as a referendum on racism, positing that Simpson had been framed because he was black.

The climax came when Simpson tried on a glove, found at the crime scene, that was a key piece of evidence. Ignoring that it had been blood-soaked and repeatedly frozen and thawed, Cochrane seized upon Simpson’s inability to squeeze his hand into the glove. Incanting “If it does not fit, you must acquit”, he had found the visual metaphor to proclaim his client’s innocence. The jury took less than four hours to find Simpson not guilty, although Ito postponed the announcement until the next day to get maximum television exposure.

It seemed that all of the US, and much of the world, watched the verdict. Reaction was divided on racial lines: even sympathetic white people were convinced of his guilt, black people were sure he had been framed. Simpson announced publicly he would not rest until the “real killer” was brought to justice.

Within a year, Kardashian was publicly voicing his “doubt” about his friend’s innocence, while the Goldman and Brown families filed a wrongful death suit in civil court. With new evidence, and a lesser burden of proof than in criminal trials, Simpson was found guilty, and ordered to pay $33.5m in damages.

Born Orenthal James in San Francisco, he developed rickets and wore leg braces until he was five years old, by which point his parents, Eunice (nee Durden), a hospital administrator, and Jimmy (James) Lee Simpson, a janitor and cook, had divorced. He was raised by his mother in the Potrero Hill projects, where he ran with a gang called the Persian Warriors. His father left the family when OJ was four. It was not until later in his childhood, when he went to visit Jimmy unannounced, that he discovered his father was gay. Jimmy performed as a drag queen in San Francisco and died in 1989.

OJ turned to sports at Galileo high school, becoming a star of football and track. By the time he had played his second year of football at San Francisco City College he was being hotly pursued by major universities keen on his talent as a running back. He chose the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

His rickets had left him bow-legged, which helped him make quick cuts (sudden changes of direction), and accelerate out of them. At 6ft 2in and 15st 2lb (96kg), he was powerful enough to knock tacklers over, and with a speed of 9.4sec over 100 yards, fast enough to outrun them. Indeed, soon after entering USC, he was part of a 4 x 110-yard relay team that set a world record of 38.6 seconds, which still stands, as the 440-yard distance was soon afterwards discontinued.

That autumn on the gridiron, he led the nation in rushing (running rather than passing or kicking), the highlight being a late 64-yard touchdown run to help USC defeat its arch-rival UCLA. In 1968, he won the Heisman trophy, awarded to the top college player, by the largest ever margin.

He was picked first in the NFL draft, by the lowly Buffalo Bills, but his transition to pro football was not smooth. The coach, John Rauch, believed in a downfield passing game, which did not suit Simpson. But when Lou Saban took over as coach in 1972, Simpson became the focus of the Bills’ offence. Saban believed in power running, and built a powerful young line to clear Simpson’s way. They became known as “the Electric Company”, because they “turned on the Juice”.

In 1973, Simpson became the first player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season, as the Bills made the playoffs. He was a first-team all-league pick (best in the league) every year between 1972 and 1976, but seven games into the 1977 season he suffered a severe knee injury. In the off-season, Buffalo sent him home, trading him to the 49ers. Simpson played two seasons in San Francisco, but after the knee surgery he was a shadow of his former self. He retired after the 1979 season, and returned to acting.

While still at USC Simpson had appeared in uncredited bit parts in TV series such as Dragnet, Ironside and It Takes a Thief; he received his first credit in 1969 on Medical Center. In 1974 he appeared in his first films, The Klansman and the disaster epic The Towering Inferno.

He had a profitable sideline in endorsements, and his series of Hertz car-rental ads ran from 1975. His career peaked in 1977, with a role in the first episode of the hit TV miniseries Roots, and a decent part in Capricorn One, a film about the faking of a landing on Mars. But his next film was ill-chosen – Michael Winner’s thriller Firepower (1979) was a bomb – and for the next few years most of his film work was done for his own production company.

In 1983 he joined the commentary team for ABC’s Monday Night Football, the highest profile sports programme in the US. Though he lasted for only three seasons, he moved on to a starring role in an early HBO comedy series, 1st and Ten, set in the world of pro football, which ran from 1986 until 1990. This tapping of comedy beneath his image led to his being cast as the incongruously named detective Nordberg in The Naked Gun (1988).

In that movie and two sequels, Simpson played the dull-witted slapstick foil to Leslie Nielsen, the butt of countless jokes playing on racial stereotypes and his sports celebrity.

At the time of the murders, Simpson had starred in the pilot film for a TV series, Frogmen, about an A-Team-like group of Navy Seals. Because of knife combat shown in the film, it was confiscated by the LAPD as evidence and has never been seen. His endorsement work dried up immediately, and, in the wake of the civil decision against him, he moved to Florida, where more of his assets, including his football pension, could be protected.

He did not participate in the 1995 TV movie The OJ Simpson Story, which starred Bobby Hosea, but more than 20 years later, two shows about the trial drew large audiences, showing the public fascination with the case: The People v OJ Simpson, a dramatisation starring Cuba Gooding Jr, and OJ: Made in America, a true crime documentary series.

In 2001 his house in Miami was raided by the FBI, searching for evidence of drug running and money laundering. Five years later it was announced that a book by Simpson, to be titled If I Did It, was to be published, with an accompanying special on Fox TV.

The book and programme were soon cancelled and, after lawsuits, a Florida bankruptcy court awarded the rights to the book to the Goldman family, who published it in 2007 with the “If” of the title in extremely small print, and added the subtitle Confessions of the Killer.

Simpson maintained some income from selling his autograph at sports memorabilia shows, although he had been legally stopped from copyrighting his name or nicknames for commercial benefit.

In September 2007 he and a group of friends burst into a hotel room in Las Vegas and retrieved from two dealers in sports memorabilia items that Simpson alleged had been stolen from him. He was arrested and charged with armed robbery and kidnapping. The following year he was found guilty, and sentenced to nine to 33 years in prison, one for each million dollars he owed the Brown and Goldman families. Amid reports of his failing health, Simpson was released on parole in 2017.

In 1967 Simpson had married Marguerite Whitley. They had two daughters, Arnelle and Aaren, and a son, Jason. Aaren drowned in the family swimming pool in 1979, the same year that the couple divorced. In 1985 he married Nicole Brown. They had a daughter, Sydney, and son, Justin, and divorced in 1992.

He is survived by his children and three grandchildren.

• Orenthal James Simpson, footballer, actor and convicted criminal, born 9 July 1947; died 10 April 2024

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