The first time I saw O.J. Simpson was running through the airport. Me, not him. It was back in the late '70s and instead of lunching with my fellow teachers, where the conversation ranged from crappy kids to crappy pay, I would take a jog through the neighborhood, which included LaGuardia Airport. That's when I spotted him, the most famous football player in the world and star of the Hertz rental car commercials where he ran through airports. "Hey O.J.," I shouted when I realized who it was. He gave me a wave, flashed a smile and then entered the terminal. I ran back to the school building at Mach speed to tell everyone I had just seen "The Juice."
A few years later, I saw him again in Westwood, California. Disenchanted with teaching, I had started writing television scripts and struck gold when the late, great producer Garry Marshall plucked me from the New York City school system and deposited me on the Paramount Studios lot to write on the hit sitcom "Laverne & Shirley." This, of course, necessitated a move west for my wife Karyn and our little special-needs daughter, Jacklyn. One day, while waiting to pay the cashier in a parking structure, I realized that O.J. Simpson was standing right next to us. As the valet pulled up his Ferrari, he smiled down at Jacklyn and said, "That's a beautiful little girl you got there." I found this moment especially poignant, as he had recently lost his own little daughter in a tragic swimming pool drowning.
In 1984, I became the head writer and showrunner of the HBO football series "1st & Ten." Shortly after, O.J. Simpson was added to the cast in the role of an aging running back in the twilight of his career. I guess you could say the playing field had been equaled. I was now his associate. Soon, our working relationship evolved into friendship. Dinners, golf and Monday nights at his Brentwood home to watch football with one eye on the game and the other on his Heisman Trophy, just a few feet away.
When I decided to write an episode of "1st & Ten" that took place entirely on the flight to and from a game, O.J. arranged for us to fly on the Los Angeles Raiders' team plane, bound for a Sunday showdown against the Kansas City Chiefs. On Friday, O.J. commandeered a taxi for the evening and took me bar-hopping till the sun rose. As the night progressed, he got drunker and drunker, culminating at a discotheque where he performed a wildly gyrating, inebriated dance with 30 women at the same time! Fortunately for him, no cell phones back then. TMZ would've had a field day.
In his defense, getting sloshed and acting stupid on occasion happens to a lot of imbibers, myself included. But it is what he earnestly said to me after his night of indulgence that in hindsight might have raised the first red flag: "Why did you let me make a fool out of myself like that?" "Me?" I replied, and in that moment, I realized that this was a man who might not take responsibility for his actions.
Another sign came during a round of golf at Mountaingate Country Club situated high above the San Diego Freeway. O.J. hit a shot that went so far out of bounds, the ball might still be bouncing on the 405. There were three of us playing with him and we all witnessed the ill-fated snap hook. But instead of dropping another ball and taking a penalty stroke, O.J. announced that he had found his original ball, thus escaping the penalty. He had to have known we knew. Evidently, he didn't care. Again, many a golfer has miraculously "found" their errant ball. But why him? Why was the compulsion to cheat in a meaningless golf game so overwhelming?
After the success of our HBO football series, O.J. asked if I wanted to write a similar show featuring baseball players and, after pitching the idea to MGM, we were given the green light to do the pilot. Before the deal could be finalized, I got a call from O.J.'s attorney telling me O.J. wanted to "co-write" the pilot script with me. This was surprising, as he had never expressed any desire to write, so I told the lawyer that O.J. would only have to write for about two hours a day and I would do the brunt of it.
"You don't understand," he said. "He doesn't want to actually do any writing, he just wants co-writing credit on the pilot."
"But why?" I answered incredulously.
"Because it would make his mother proud if he got in the Writers Guild."
"Proud? He's already in the Football Hall of Fame! Isn't she proud of that?" I wailed.
"Look," said the attorney, playing hardball on the baseball project. "You either agree or this deal will not happen." I thought for a moment then replied. "OK, you tell O.J. I will give him half credit on the pilot I write, if he will tell the people at the Football Hall of Fame that half his yardage is mine." The lawyer chuckled and said he'd get back to me.
I later received a call from O.J., asking me to meet him at an Italian restaurant. During dinner, he told me that he and his wife Nicole had gotten into a "heated argument" on New Year's Eve and the police were summoned to their Brentwood home. He assured me that everything was blown way out of proportion; that Nicole wanted to drop the charges but a female police representative would not allow it. OK, he cheated at golf. And yes, he wanted to take credit for writing a script he never wrote, "to make his mother proud." And he sure couldn't hold his liquor. But this was something else. I guess I just didn't want to believe that he was capable of domestic violence. So, I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
As did NBC. A short time later, they hired him to be their NFL commentator, necessitating his moving to New York City and thereby ending our possible pilot. I bought a small painting of him in action from back in his USC days and gave it to him as a going-away present. It was the last time we ever spoke.
Despite what appeared to be overwhelming evidence against him, O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of the brutal slaying of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. He vowed to find the "real killer," then went off to Florida for a life of leisure. In 2007, he was arrested in Las Vegas for armed robbery and kidnapping. The crime was ridiculous: He stole back his own memorabilia. Once again, he was unable to resist his own impulses. Now, after serving nine years of a 33-year sentence for that crime, he will be a free man in October.
O.J. Simpson was a beloved American icon. And I knew him. At least, I thought I did.