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Throwback Thursday: O.J. Simpson

By Rich Heldenfels Published: June 5, 2014

A week from now we will mark the 20th anniversary of the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, and the beginning of the horrible, ongoing saga of O.J. Simpson. The crime happened as I was joining the Beacon Journal, and one of the earliest pieces I wrote for this paper was about Simpson. Here's that text, from June 23, 1994:

Less than two weeks ago, O.J. Simpson was known for generally positive roles: football hero, airport sprinter, TV commentator, fall guy in the Naked Gun movies.

Now he has weightier labels. Wife beater. Accused murderer. Former fugitive. Disturbed, depressed, suicidal.

In the public theater, O.J. Simpson has gone from light comedy to sordid drama in a blink. Instead of being talked about in the context of Leslie Nielsen, he is linked with Othello (by Pat Robertson on The 700 Club), Albert Camus (courtesy of Anne Taylor Fleming on The McNeil/Lehrer News Hour) and silent-movie star Fatty Arbuckle (by everyone searching for the last time a great celebrity was accused of a grisly crime).

The Arbuckle parallel is especially instructive for reasons that people alluding to the case apparently have forgotten. Accused of manslaughter in the death of actress Virginia Rappe during a wild party, Arbuckle was never convicted of the charge despite three trials (two hung juries and an acquittal). But he was convicted on the charges of degeneracy and decadence in the court of public opinion long before, and his career was done.

No one watching what is being heaped on Simpson in recent days can doubt that his days as an appealing public personality are over. Regardless of the outcome of his trial, he is, by court record and now vast public knowledge, a wife beater. Not even a televised religious conversion is likely to remove that deserved stain from his reputation.

Beyond that, he has become what parents everywhere call a bad example, and like bad examples throughout history he has to bear burdens he never imagined.
He is being held up as a poor model for athletes, for people generally and for African-Americans. He is a football hero but not an American hero, as columnist Mike Lupica often said; an idol but not a hero, in Frank Deford's thoughtful distinction. He is being lumped with Mike Tyson as an example of a black athlete gone wrong. A talk-show host suggested on CNN that young black people should look for inspiration not to Simpson but to Clarence Thomas. He is now an example of the spoiled celebrity who was for a time above the law, and of the national celebrity fixation gone rampant.

Simpson had become a bad guy after a career built on aiming to please. Finding success in the turbulent racial climate of the '60s and '70s, Simpson provided a comforting sense of grace, charm and racial harmony -- too much of one for some tastes. Critic Donald Bogle has dismissed Simpson's self-produced Goldie and the Boxer movies, pairing the black athlete with a white orphan, as "the kind of heart-tugging kiddie flick that Shirley Temple and Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson might have appeared in together ... (with) O.J. cast in the noble Negro role."

The oddity in this matter is not that people were so surprised by a hero's fall. It is that we were surprised at all. Simpson is hardly the first media hero to provide a glimpse of an off-camera image very different from the one he worked so hard to convey.

Does the name Rock Hudson strike a familiar note? Jimmy Swaggart? John F. Kennedy? The idea of a hero with feet of clay dates back to the Book of Daniel, where a king dreams of a figure "mighty and of exceeding brightness ... its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay."

And people have long fed on clay. Hedda Hopper, once the queen of Hollywood gossip columnists, said in her memoirs that she nearly failed because "I set out to write about my fellows in terms of sweetness and light, not reality."

She was "sinking slowly in an ocean of kind words for everybody" before she discovered what people really wanted -- the clay, or more generally the dirt on their supposedly squeaky-clean idols. Today mainstream news organizations, supermarket rags and the Hard Copy crowd follow the same credo, wooing an audience willing to plunk down their dimes or their time in exchange for the promise to learn what a star is really like.

But we all know that "really like" often translates into "really flawed." And that there are three basic forms of that story: the overcoming of tribulation, the long foreshadowed disaster, and the unexpected fall from grace.

Triumph does not concern us here, if only because every story sounds the same: Unprepared for success, I fell in with bad companions, took up chemicals, was fired from a movie, checked into Betty Ford, cleaned up, and sold my life story, in which I hope to star.

As for anticipated tragedies, they simply provide a conclusion so obvious you begin to wish the stars had a bit more O. Henry in them. More troubling to the public imagination is that for every Kurt Cobain or Marilyn Monroe capping a life of public excess, there is a River Phoenix, whose drug-related death defied a reported distaste for hedonism.

But we have often been presented with contradictions.

Ted Danson, the epitome of TV nice guys in his long run on Cheers, has had a hard time maintaining that image since the show's rowdy farewell, the collapse of his marriage and his once-blackened face's placement on permanent file with news organizations around the country. (And spinning the contradictions out even further, Danson suggested to Entertainment Weekly that his folly may have helped his career, since his Cheers image was "too nice.")

Roseanne Arnold, America's most popular television housewife, is bound into a stable and loving marriage on her series which changes only in terms of the regular cosmetic surgeries the star visits upon herself and accordingly her alter ego. Out of character she has created another image, of a shrieking, vulgar, tattooed, blame-spreading, invective-faxing virago filling the tabloids (both print and televised).

Our surprise, then, at the fall of heroes, is not really a function of the image the media have created for us. We've seen positive pictures fracture and fade often enough not to be surprised by another fall. The Simpson shock stems less from our belief than our suspension of disbelief -- our willingness to accept a myth because the myth entertains and comforts us.

As people argued about Simpson's rightful place in our culture -- hero or villain, role model or bad example -- the argument was not about what Simpson was, but about what we wanted him to be. All the hours of coverage came only partly because it was a bizarre drama of one human being; they also provided a chance to talk about our favorite subject, ourselves.

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