CRIME: O.J. Simpson: End of the Run

As America watched, O.J. Simpson was transformed from hero to suicidal fugitive to accused murderer

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All week long the clues and rumors leaked out, often from cops who were angry that the prosecutors were treating their celebrity suspect so delicately. First there were the bloody gloves -- one at the murder scene, one at O.J.'s mansion. Then there were the bloody clothes in his washing machine, and the ski mask, and the stains on his driveway and in his car. The weapon was an antique samurai sword, then a sharp-edged military entrenching tool, the newspapers revealed, before the district attorney announced that no weapon & had been found. He's killed himself, the Wall Street trading floors buzzed on Wednesday morning, before he appeared that afternoon at his ex-wife's wake.

Pundits trotted out Shakespeare for references; talk-radio hosts searched for Larger Meanings, about the destruction of black male role models, the special treatment of celebrities by police, the danger women face from the men who profess to love them. But by the end of the week, with the last astounding twists to the case, it seemed that there were no larger meanings -- just a howling, monstrous tragedy.

Americans honor the principle of the presumption of innocence, especially when they want it to be true. And through the days of promiscuous speculation, in the sports bars and on the radio shows and in the endless conversations over dinner, O.J. Simpson's many admirers refused to suspend their disbelief. The most publicly shocking crime in years was received like a private death in the family. Before it was all over, millions of fans were already passing through the stages of their grief -- mourning not only two victims they had never known, but the hero they thought they did.

He had smiled at them for years -- first as one of the rare, great sportsmen, unruined by his gifts or his fame, warm, grateful, ready to sign one more autograph when he was dog tired and overstretched. He ripened into the affable ABC commentator, the smooth corporate pitchman, even a plausible movie star. The legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg helped him learn the craft, but the art was innate. "He already is an actor, an excellent one," Strasberg said. "A natural one."

By last week that comment might have been taken as a clue. Friends who knew Simpson well understood that he was a creature of careful intention, the natural ease a measure of his discipline. He did not so much change, from the days of his raw, painful childhood, as add layers, coats of polish that only occasionally peeled. One day he was making a television commercial in Oakland, California, and fell into his first language, the street-corner argot of his gang years. Furious with himself, he stopped the shooting, regrouped and then said he wanted to do it again. The second try went perfectly. "That's what happens when I spend too much time with my boys," he said. "I forget how to talk white."

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