EBBIE DOESN’T LIKE IT AT all, and she is sorry that she even came down from her apartment on Russian Hill to Front Street here in San Francisco where the police have blocked off the street in front of Harrington’s saloon. Too many people. Most of them drunk. Thousands on the street, crowded up into a single block like devout Catholics massing for a Papal audience. Except for all the crushed beer cans and broken bottles underfoot. It’s St. Patrick’s Day and Debbie doesn’t have a date. People seem hideously icky and depraved.
However! There … over there. It’s OJ Simpson, the sexy black guy in the three-piece suit who runs through airports in those Hertz rent-a-car ads. Debbie recognizes him immediately. People are packed in tight around the guy. He is surrounded by an inner circle of six, a second circle of ten or more and a third, more amorphous group of 20 or so men and women trying to push their way into the second circle like some strange game of musical chairs.
Debbie is drawn, willy-nilly, into the outer group. She wants to talk to OJ. She isn’t sure what she wants to say. She just has to be there. Here’s Debbie, forlorn in the outer circle, moving counterclockwise, looking for shoulder room, finding shoulder room — a little bump and shove and she’s in. The inner circle is a big problem. All shoulders. But there’s a way. The fellow in the corduroy sport coat seems to be with OJ. Debbie stands up on tip-toes and shouts into the back of his head.
“How do you get to talk to this guy?”
The fellow turns to her with glazed eyes. “Don’t know,” he shouts. But Debbie knows. She found a break just now, right when the guy turned. She places the back of her left hand against the guy’s groin and simultaneously throws a nudging backhand into the breasts of the woman next to him. The man and woman, both of them, step back, startled. And Debbie is into the inner circle. And here is OJ turning to talk to her, oh God. It’s just like being on TV. He’s so big and broad … those lips, the soft, gentle brown eyes, so cocky the way he moves.
Debbie is definitely turned on. Not that she’s some tacky groupie, not at all. And God knows she isn’t like one of those North Beach types — those beatniks, for chrissakes — who always have to ball black guys. Color doesn’t enter into it. …
And OJ is talking to her, smiling right at her. “Hey,” he says, especially for her, picking her, Debbie, out from all the rest, “hey, you’re looking good.” He noticed. The new $45 French jeans, the modified halter top with just an inch of tummy showing, the new $150 leather jacket, the care she had taken blowing her hair just right. “How you doing?” OJ asks Debbie, totally entranced by her, talking to her alone. “You’re looking special tonight.”
And Debbie did it. She came back with the perfect line. The first thing she said to him, and likely something he’d remember all his life. “Aren’t you the man from Avis?” she asked, putting emphasis on the word “Avis” and laughing loudly to show that she knew he was from Hertz and just kidding him. OJ chuckled appreciatively and Debbie knew that she had just cracked him up with that one, and so she threw herself on him, arms around his neck, kissing him on the mouth — she could tell how much he loved it, even though he cut the kiss sort of short. You could tell because he was smiling at her.
“You oughta meet my friend Tim,” he said, and sort of turned her into the guy in the corduroy jacket.
So Debbie kissed him, tongue and all, and threw a little hip thrust or two into it because, after all, the guy was with OJ.
But then something strange happened. Debbie was outside the second circle without really being sure how she got there. OJ was in the middle and some chubby blond with one of those dumb Farrah-Fawcett hair jobs was talking to him, actually rubbing his ass with her right hand and he was saying, “Hey, you’re looking good. You’re looking special tonight. How you doing?” Debbie could tell he didn’t mean it, not the way he had meant it with her. Some leggy black girl kissed OJ, then kissed the zombie in the sport coat. “Hey,” OJ was saying to a tall redhead, “you’re looking good tonight.” Letting her kiss him, passing her on to that jerk, Tim. Debbie could hear the redhead, shouting out an address and Tim nodded stupidly. “My roommate,” the redhead said, nodding to a flashy brunette who was just now asking OJ if he wasn’t the man from Avis, ha-ha. “We have some cocaine,” the redhead bellowed at Tim. “And I’ve got an opening if you’ve got a stiff proposition.”
Then some guy who was shouting about being an attorney was giving OJ a business card and telling him to call the next day about some fantastic deal. Tax shelters. That stuff. And OJ kissed a little Chinese girl. And some guy told OJ that his running gave him a great deal of pleasure, and OJ smiled and shook the guy’s hand, very manful and proud, but Debbie could see he was just play-acting, because all OJ actually does in the commercial is sprint through the lobby in some airport and jump over a couple of suitcases. “Hey,” OJ was saying to a pushy little Mexican girl with too much makeup, “you’re looking good tonight.”
THE OJ SIMPSON HERTZ commercial was generated by the Ted Bates advertising agency, and Vice President mark Morris is delighted to talk about it. Seems that the Hertz people liked the Avis ads — “We’re Number Two” — as much as the rest of us, but for different reasons. Hertz and the Bates Agency felt that one subliminal message of that campaign was “Hertz Is Number One.” The challenge, as men like Morris saw it, was to demonstrate in a concrete manner the message they read into the Avis campaign.
Market research among rent-a-car customers showed that one thing most valued was speed. “Nobody,” Morris says, “likes waiting around in an airport lobby for a car. Most customers are business travelers and they usually have tight schedules.” So … what if Hertz had a spokesman — not just some guy falling out of the sky into the seat of a car, but a real flesh-and-blood spokesman. They’d want somebody who epitomized speed, somebody at the top of his or her profession, a recognized superstar, Numero Uno.
“The search,” says Morris, “began and ended with OJ Simpson.” The first “superstar in rent-a-car” commercial hit TV in September of 1975. Simpson was offered a three-year contract, with yearly options to renew. Hertz renewed. They have, in fact, signed him to a second three-year contract. The commercial has been a smashing success. Bates has the stats to prove it.
For instance: there has been a 20% increase in the number of people who name Hertz as the first rent-a-car company that comes to mind since OJ first started hurtling over suitcases for the company. There has been a 71% increase in the number of people who seem able to remember the message of the commercial and a 56% increase in the number of car renters who believe that Hertz is the best rent-a-car company. Finally, a startling 97% of the viewers understand the message. This last is an important category because commercials sometimes produce what is known in the trade as the “vampire video” effect.
Here is a researcher encountering vampire video:
“So you saw the ad?”
“Oh sure. It was terrific, what with the lady dancing on the soup can, wearing that skimpy spangled costume and all the people singing and the angel choir and all. I especially liked it when God came down and said, ‘This is my beloved soup in which I am well pleased.'”
“What kind of soup is it?”
“Dunno. Great commercial though.”
People seem to remember OJ and Hertz in equal parts. Like another hot media darling, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, OJ Simpson owes much of his fame to his work in commercials. Mark Morris doesn’t have any stats on OJ’s increased recognition factor. “I do know that in June of 1975, when we made the first commercial in the Newark airport, we didn’t have significant crowd-control problems. Recently we were filming out on Highway One near Big Sur in California, and OJ was jogging along the side of the road. We were very seriously concerned about accidents: you know, someone driving by goes, ‘Oh my God! OJ Simpson,’ turns around to get a better look and wham, right over the cliff. As for statistics on OJ’s popularity, well quite frankly we’re more interested in what he’s done for us than in what we’ve done for him.”
OJ SIMPSON WALKS LIKE A cowboy today because he honest-to-God had rickets when he was a kid. “It was calcium-deficiency,” he explains. “Your legs can’t support the weight of your body. My mother couldn’t afford braces, so they made up this contraption where I would wear my shoes on the wrong foot and — because I was very pigeon-toed and bowlegged — they had a bar across the top that straightened out my feet. At about five or six it cleared up, except for the fact that I had real skinny calves. I used to be self-conscious about them; people would call me ‘pencil legs.'” In college, OJ told his friends he had polio when he was a kid, to his mind a much classier disease than rickets. The guy over-compensates.
Orenthal James Simpson grew up on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill, a poor south-city neighborhood — less of a ghetto today than when he was born in 1947 — overlooking the bay. OJ’s parents separated when he was four and neither remarried. Mrs. Simpson and her four children lived at 906 Connecticut, a dreary, olive-drab, federally funded project apartment. A constant in the projects was sports: the older men were fans, the younger men understood that it was one way — perhaps the only way — of getting over.
Consider this story:
When OJ was ten, his mother, an orderly at San Francisco General Hospital, took her vacation just at the end of the Midget League baseball season. Mrs. Simpson drove the kids to Las Vegas to visit an aunt. There OJ told his mother that he was missing the championship game. He hadn’t told her before because he didn’t want her to stay in San Francisco just for him. Mrs. Simpson packed up OJ and the other kids and drove 600 miles back to the city, arriving half an hour before the game, which OJ’s team won, of course.
It would be impossible to overemphasize the importance of sports in the projects. Everybody crowded around the radio for the World Series. Later, when there were television sets on Connecticut Street, OJ watched football and he remembers to this day the goose flesh on his back when he first saw the University of Southern California mascot, Tommy Trojan, ride onto the field on a white horse with all the bugles blowing. “Man,” he thought, “that’s the school I’m going to.”
Only a few blocks from 906 Connecticut, at the very top of the hill, is the Potrero Hill Recreation Center, a fine, city-run facility which consists of a well-groomed football field, two baseball diamonds and a mammoth airplane-hangar-shaped building with a full basketball court, trampolines, Ping-Pong tables and wrestling mats. The Center offered age-group programs in all major sports and, as soon as OJ could cross the street by himself, he started hanging out there. “It was those years,” Simpson says, “between 8 and 16, where I developed what athletic skill I had. I think I spent more time at the Center than I did at home or at school.” He hasn’t forgotten it: Simpson makes yearly donations which the Center uses to buy awards for all its teams.
Early on, OJ figured that he would be a professional baseball player. In center field he was partial to full-speed-over-the-shoulder Willie Mays-type catches. Willie, in his prime and playing for the San Francisco Giants, was the greatest player of his era. He was — it is the only word — beloved by the San Francisco fans. And he was OJ Simpson’s hero: an idol and a model. “Willie,” OJ says, “always put out good vibes. He was my man.”
It was inevitable, on the hill, that OJ would join one of several gangs operating there. These gangs — which all had names like expensive prophylactics: the Sheiks, the Gladiators, the Roman Gents, the Persian Warriors, the Superiors — were basically social clubs with an allied interest in stomping members of rival gangs. At 13, OJ joined and became president of the Gladiators. A year or two later, OJ and the Persian Warriors kicked a lot of ass at the YMCA, Rec Center dances, local playgrounds and outside Market Street theaters where you could watch action-horror-adventure films and your shoes made sticky sounds on the concrete floor. In high school, OJ joined the Superiors, a collection of elite Potrero Hill jocks. The Superiors threw moneymaking dances in rented ballrooms in local hotels and Simpson was twice president of the club.
Simpson was arrested three times during the years he ran with gangs. “One time,” he says, “it was for loitering. We were in front of some theater showing a film called Blood Feast, a scary flick, right, and you couldn’t get in unless you were 18. We were giving the guy a little static for not letting us in and the cops came. They asked our age and we all said 16. Problem was, I used to look old for my age and they thought I was 18 and took me to jail. Finally my mother showed up about midnight with my birth certificate.
“Another time I was arrested for fighting on a street outside of a dance. I mean, if your boys got into it, you had to protect them. Sometimes a fight just broke out between two individuals and once they started everyone would push in and it was a big fight. We were out in the street and the paddy wagons came and caught just about everybody.”
When OJ talks about his fighting days, it is with a mixture of pride — I never did get to hear about a fight that he lost — and gently mocking humor. He seems to consider all those brawls a dumb kid thing that’s fun to talk about, like getting your tongue stuck to the runner of a sled in the middle of a blizzard. He can, however, get sociological about it. “Fighting was just a part of living. Whenever you get an area where people are in a lower-income area, you’re dealing with people who are suffering from identity problems. You can hurt a guy’s feelings easy. So there are going to be a lot of fights. My childhood wasn’t any different from anybody else’s in that respect: a project area, fighting was just … listen, every day somebody had a fight.”
Earl Massoni, a former director of the Rec Center, remembers the dances and the fights that occasionally erupted. “OJ was in his share of fights, and he could take care of himself. He wasn’t a mean kid though, and he didn’t go looking for trouble.”
“Hey,” OJ says, “I was the Lone Ranger. I only beat up on the bad guys.”
Simpson’s last arrest took place just after football season ended in 1964 — his senior year at Galileo High School. It was for stealing and “it really pissed me off. The Superiors were throwing a dance and we robbed some wine for the party. I’m telling the dudes, ‘Hey, we got enough money to buy the wine.’ My partner, Joe, talked the guys into going. He was the only one who didn’t get caught. Then again, the minute Joe turned 18 he got busted for something and spent a couple of years in the Big House.”
Just after that arrest something happened that changed OJ’s life. He still doesn’t know who arranged it. “I was home from the child guidance center maybe ten minutes and this guy shows up and says, ‘Hey, Willie wants to see you.’
“‘Willie who, man?’
“I was 17, at the age where I was very impressionable. So I went over to Willie’s house and it was amazing. Willie Mays! He says, ‘Hey, OJ, how’s it going?’ So we talked and he was doing quite a lot of things and we spent the day together. Just hung out. I remember looking at this winding staircase which I couldn’t believe. I was coming from the projects and here I was standing on white rugs and looking at this winding staircase right in the middle of the floor, like fantasyland. I couldn’t believe somebody could live there.
“People were coming and going but I was there for the day. It wasn’t any heavy sit-down rap about don’t get in trouble. It was just about ability, man. I was All-City halfback at Galileo and into all sorts of sports. He’d say, ‘You got so much ability.’ And I really wanted to be a professional baseball or football player. The point that came through to me was: hey man, Willie was from Alabama where he had nothing. And he told me, ‘Just your ability can get you over. You got the ability. Don’t screw it up, man.’
“I was riding home to the projects and I was still mesmerized by the whole thing. You know how something happens and you can’t believe it happened? It was hard to believe. I’d seen Willie play ball I don’t know how many times. And, man, to see him get into that big Chrysler that he used to drive … I was saying to myself, ‘I’m going to be like him.'”
F OR A GUY WHO ALWAYS wanted to be a professional athlete, OJ didn’t plan his high school career too well. He was a get-by student and the classes he chose — “Foods and crap” — weren’t likely to get him into any college, All-City halfback or no. Arizona State made a limp scholarship offer and never followed up. OJ planned on the Army, but a childhood friend returned from Vietnam missing a leg and, “bingo, right then and there, I didn’t want to join the Army.” With a day left to register, OJ enrolled at City College of San Francisco.
There were two pretty fair halfbacks at City that year and OJ didn’t start on offense. Worse: the team couldn’t find a helmet to fit him. OJ has an outsize bone structure and his head is enormous. Kids on the hill used to call him “Headquarters” and “Waterhead” — and he was self-conscious in his specially ordered white helmet. Everyone else had a red helmet. OJ started as halfback the second game of the season after one of the first-team backs suffered minor injuries in an automobile accident.
In that game, against Foothill College, the previous year’s champion, Simpson gained over 200 yards and broke the conference record. “From that point on,” he says, “it was the old storybook thing. Each week I’d break a new record.” He never did get a proper red helmet and local writers began referring to him as “the Ghost.”
In the championship game against San Jose City, the Ghost scored six touchdowns and rambled for a phenomenal 304 yards, a junior college record. City College was invited to the Prune Bowl, where OJ scored three touchdowns, caught half a dozen passes, intercepted others and was named “Player of the Game” after his team demolished Long Beach State.
OJ was walking off the field after the game when “this guy hands me a card. Says, ‘I know you’re busy now, but I’m a coach for the University of Southern California. How’d you like to be a Trojan?’ I mean, bingo! The bugles went off, and that white horse was riding.” USC had some stiff competition. “Arizona came back on the scene, Utah, you name a school and they were recruiting me. We had moved out of the projects by that time and were living in the attic of a lady’s house, a fixed-up attic with two bedrooms and a kitchen. Recruiters were parking their Cadillacs out in front of the house, phoning at all hours.”
Simpson was 18, and it was his first taste of the big time, and big-time high pressure. USC wanted more college-level courses and wouldn’t take him for another year. He was in love with Marguerite, his wife-to-be — they were married two years later — and didn’t want to leave her. On the other hand, he figured that he had already broken all the junior-college records and that he was ready for a four-year school.
At one point he had actually packed his bags and was sitting in the airport, waiting for the plane to Arizona. Marguerite was there, and his mother as well. OJ kissed them both, and all of them were crying while the recruiter from Arizona tactfully read a magazine. Enter a recruiter for Utah.
“Hey, OJ, I just came down to talk to you. Where you going?”
“Well, you can’t do that until you see our school.”
The recruiter from Arizona started shouting at the guy from Utah. Nobody was very happy. Simpson eventually flew to Utah, signed a letter of intent and was bullied into appearing on TV to announce his decision. He flew back to San Francisco to say goodbye again, and while he was there, got another call from USC. “The cat said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m flying up from L.A.’ I don’t know how he did it, but he was up there in an hour and five minutes. He sat us down and we talked about the pressures, and he said, ‘What is it you really want?'”
OJ said that he had always wanted USC. The guy asked him if it wasn’t worth waiting for, wouldn’t he always wonder if he hadn’t cheated himself somehow? The argument made sense to OJ.
AN UNPLEASANT THING happened to OJ Simpson on the basketball court just after his first year of football at City. It was a pickup game, Simpson was playing, and one of the guys on the bench, fellow we’ll call Donald, figured it was time he got to play. OJ demurred. An argument erupted into a fight. OJ’s style was to go for the head, bust the nose, and he hooked with his left just as Donald stepped into him. OJ caught him on the back of the head and dislocated his left thumb. It hurt like hell, and even today OJ doesn’t have a lot of strength in his left hand. Note: he almost always carries the ball on his right.
That altercation was as dumb as anything OJ could have done. He managed to win the fight and it is the winner who usually gets an assault rap laid on him. Charges like that tend to sour college recruiters on the hottest of prospects. Also, he might have hurt his hand worse, might have ended his football career for good. OJ says that that fight marked the end of his rowdy days. The operation on his hand seems to have knocked a lot of good sense into OJ’s big head.
Take the decision to go to USC. It wasn’t all bugles and Tommy Trojan on a white horse. OJ reasoned that USC was a championship team and that they would be in more televised games than any other school he could choose. That would give more pro scouts a chance to watch him strut his stuff. “Also,” he points out, “this was ’65, ’66 and it was still a very black-white world. Which it is now, to an extent, but not nearly what it was then. We had just finished our riots and the whole black thing was just turning around. And I noticed that at USC, hey man, Mike Garrett was the Heisman Trophy winner [as the outstanding college player of the year]. You see a black guy like Mike Garrett winning a Heisman Trophy, a school pushing a black guy, you think, hey, wait a minute. …”
In his two years at USC, OJ Simpson led his school to one national championship, broke all existing rushing records, stunned audiences on television and won the Heisman Trophy by the largest margin of votes ever.
THE WORST PRO TEAM IN football gets first choice in the college draft and, in 1969, OJ Simpson was the number one pick for the Buffalo Bills. His first three years as a pro were the toughest, and OJ, the hot-shot West Coast prima donna, collected a lot of boos. He blames coach John Rauch for his early problems.
“Rauch, his whole thing, obviously, was that it was going to be a passing team. Now, I’ll play whatever system. The thing was: we were losing. I’m saying, ‘Why don’t we go to more ball control on offense, run more.’ I’m carrying the ball 11, 12 times a game and of those times, maybe the first six are third-and-one situations, short yardage. And I’m getting tagged in the backfield. The runs were relief to the pass, not an integral part of making the offense go.”
Aside from his disappointing performance on the field, OJ irritated the fans in other ways. He declared that Buffalo, New York, was a “dreary” town. This is the kind of indisputable fact that nobody likes to hear. It is like asking someone if he is aware that he has a big, ugly wart on the end of his nose.
Things started happening for OJ when Bills owner Ralph Wilson replaced Rauch with Lou Saban in mid-1971. “With Saban,” OJ says, “bingo, the running plays were the key to the offense. You stop the run, we pass on you.” Under Saban and offensive line coach Jim Ringo, the former great Green Bay center, the Bills built a crushing front line whose function was to break the backs free. Simpson, who had been Pencil Legs and Waterhead and the Ghost and OJ for Orange Juice, became simply The Juice. The Bills’ offensive line was the Electric Company: they turned on the Juice.
In 1973 they turned the Juice on to a season rushing total of 2003 yards, 140 yards more than the record set by Jim Brown.
Simpson may have been the first pro back to line up a long seven yards behind the ball. It complements his jerky, stutter-step moves to the line of scrimmage. Fully 60% of the time, he won’t hit the hole called in the huddle. He will step twice, jerk, step, sight some daylight and rush into the secondary with a burst of 9.6 speed. He may cover 20 lateral yards on an eight-yard gain and every ten steps you think, they’ve gotta nail him this time. For defensive backs, OJ is a nightmare. His playing weight is 212, but because he carries such a massive bone structure, he appears to weigh 185 or 190. Corner backs and free safeties playing Buffalo spend a lot of time flat on their backs, contemplating those extra 20 pounds they didn’t think were there.
Simpson is one of the fastest backs ever to play the game, and there is some speculation among writers and fans that had he played, say, 15 years ago, he might have compiled an even more impressive rushing record. It was during that time that Vince Lombardi was first popularizing the concept of pursuit. Freely translated, this means gang or swarm tackles. Lombardi noticed that if a big, strong but slow-footed defensive back missed the big hit, as often as not the ball carrier was gone for six. The solution, Lombardi reasoned, was to play smaller-but faster defensive backs. Even if they couldn’t bring Jimmy Brown down clean, they could slow him up enough for two or three teammates to streak in and sting him good.
Today’s coaches regard Lombardi’s defensive concepts with Biblical reverence, and they have special relevance to OJ. Miami coach Don Shula advises his defense never to go for the big hit on Simpson. “Just get a piece of him, hang on and wait for help,” he says.
There is something about the way OJ runs that compels you to laugh and applaud simultaneously: his best moves summon up images of Charlie Chaplin putting the boot into some beefy cop’s butt. There he goes … look out…holy God, they’ve got him now … no, Jesus, did you see that? … OJ weaves, ducks, bolts, drops a shoulder and shoots on through heavy traffic. The ball is in the right hand, the body is leaning right — the entire upper torso is pitched to the right like a broken pencil — but he is running left. Carrying the ball 20, 25 times a game and generally making the other guys look like acid crawlbacks on parade.
Football, the way OJ plays it, is a Zen game. The conscious part starts early in the week. He’ll study films, maybe notice that one of the defensive backs he’ll face on Sunday tends to tackle low. That means OJ will want to run the ropes a few extra times, keeping the knees high. The Bills’ basic run is an off-tackle power slant, with fullback Bubbie Braxton through the hole first, clearing a way for OJ. Now maybe one of the defensive cornerbacks doesn’t use his hands particularly well. If OJ sees that on the films, he’s going to tell Bubbie about it, because at the moment of impact that back can’t cover his outside responsibility. OJ is going to want to bounce to the outside and burn up the sidelines. So maybe he’ll spend a lot of extra time during the week on that one special move.
On Wednesday before a game, OJ will take a laxative to clear his system. He gets temperamental, introspective, solitary. Game day, he says, “My biggest thing is to clear my mind.” The concept is similar to the one in Zen golf or tennis: forget about the mechanics of the stroke, think only of the ball and where you want it to go. “I just try to clear myself and relax my body and get into my breathing pace, my own pace. I can’t be thinking about one element of it. I’m not thinking about anything, so hopefully I’m thinking about everything. Pulling in what I need to pull in. You just react instead of consciously thinking about it.”
That system earned OJ 1503 yards last year and 9626 yards in eight seasons. He needs 2687 yards to break Jim Brown’s career total of 12,312 yards.
Last year OJ announced that he would retire if the Bills didn’t trade him to a West Coast team. He was tired of playing for a losing team — the Bills don’t have much on defense — and tired of being separated from his wife and two children, who live in Los Angeles during the season. The Bills didn’t trade him and the day before the season opener, OJ signed a three-year contract for a reported $2.5 million. That contract takes him through two more years and, barring injury, gives him a good crack at Brown’s record. It also makes him the highest-paid player in the history of the game. Still, he says matter-of-factly, “I used to dream about football, about making long runs and all. I don’t dream about it anymore.”
THE OFFICE IS TASTEFULLY furnished in wood and suede; the colors are brown and rust. The name plaque on the door reads “Orenthal James Simpson.” It is a short drive by Rolls Royce from the house in L.A.’s exclusive Brentwood district. Simpson handles his financial affairs out of this office. It is conveniently located above a bank.
“The first money I ever made,” OJ says, “was as a kid hustling Coke bottles in the projects. As I got older, I’d sell fish in the projects. Go down to Pier 90, catch perch, clean them, keep half and sell the other half. You could make a lot of money.
“The first time I got into understanding business was scalping tickets and hustling programs and tickets at Kezar Stadium. I learned salesmanship. Street salesmanship. I’d get a stake from my mother, maybe three dollars. At the stadium I’d see a guy standing around, waiting. Maybe somebody didn’t show up. ‘Sir, do you have any extra tickets?’
“‘Yeah. They’re $3.50 apiece.’
“‘Ahh, gee, I just gotta see the 49ers.’
“The guy’s wife or date would always say, ‘Ohh, just give him the tickets.’ The guy’d say, ‘Let’s see what you got in your pocket.’ I’d have some in my pocket and the rest tucked away in my sock. ‘Gosh, this is all I got.’
“You get the tickets and run around the other side of the stadium where people are standing in line to buy tickets. ‘Sir, I got a couple of tickets on the 30.’ Depending on where they were, you could make face value on the tickets, maybe even double your money in a really big game. You pull that number three or four times before a game and you got $30, $40.”
As we talked, a bank of lights on OJ’s phone panel kept lighting up. He was in the midst of negotiations on a complicated TV deal. His agent, Jack Gilardi, had been approached by executives from NBC. They liked OJ as an actor: it wasn’t so much his work in such films as The Klansman or The Towering Inferno or The Cassandra Crossing (in which he played an Interpol cop impersonating a Catholic priest) as the ubiquitous Hertz commercial that sold them on OJ. Simpson eventually signed a long-term contract with NBC. He will appear in made-for-TV movies and various specials and he’ll generate other shows out of his own production company. After completing his sports contract with ABC, he will provide sports commentary for NBC, including the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.
OJ couldn’t talk about his deal yet, so we discussed the cushion-collection business instead. “After the games at Kezar, we’d collect cushions from the seats at a nickel a cushion. I’d get $5, $10 in cushions. In high school, we’d organize dances. We’d call it the Spring Affair or Summer Madness and send out cards announcing that the Superiors social club was giving a party. We were all well known, all athletes, and we were supposed to be ‘what was happening.’ We used to hire the band that became Sly Stone’s band. You paid him $75, $100. It cost about the same to rent a ballroom in a hotel. We’d get two dollars from every person at the door. We’d get 500, 1000 people. One Halloween we cleared about $3300 for the night which, to us, was unbelievable.”
A business agent named Chuck Barnes negotiated OJ’s original contract with the Bills. Simpson now handles all his own business, and he personally negotiated last year’s record-breaking contract. “Don’t get me wrong. Chuck Barnes is a good, honest man. It’s just that I think when guys start relying solely on business agents, they do themselves a disservice. Ninety-nine percent of all pro ballplayers went to college and in four years, something’s got to rub off. They don’t need an agent to keep their money, give them a budget. More times than not, an agent will screw them. You read about it all the time. Secondly, an agent can’t make money unless your money is making money. I mean, it’s hard for him to take your money and put it in the bank, ’cause all he gets then is his 10% for negotiating your contract. He wants you to invest. Now, a guy’s making $40-$50,000 a year, you know as well as I do that that’s not enough to be worrying about tax shelters.
“I’m against business agents because I think they force the athlete to rely on someone else. Once their career is over, these people aren’t around. The guy is faced with the reality of doing it himself. And that’s when you read’ about guys having problems adjusting to being regular people.”
Which isn’t to say that OJ can’t take advice. He can. He is, in fact, a sponge for information. He hopes, for instance, to become a bankable commodity as an actor, and he knows that, as yet, he is out of his league. So he listens to men like theatrical agent Jack Gilardi, who advised him to avoid Superfly starring roles, to go for the third or fourth lead in films and in films alone. TV producer Quinn Martin disagreed. TV doesn’t devalue an actor if he chooses his roles wisely.
As a supporting actor in five films, OJ has had the opportunity to watch actors such as Richard Burton and Lee Marvin. Burton, who recently told Barbara Howar that he couldn’t remember shooting The Klansman because he was too drunk at the time, managed to astound Simpson. “There would be times when he couldn’t move,” OJ says, “but he could change the meaning of a scene with just his voice. I studied that. We used to play a game: try to ignore Richard Burton when he’s talking. It’s impossible.”
Lee Marvin had a cogent bit of advice for OJ. “Kid,” he said, “just hit your mark, say what your lines mean, give the other actor his cue and you’ll be all right in this business.” In Rome, OJ met Lee Strasberg of the Actors Studio, and they established a friendship. Strasberg doesn’t really give Simpson advice, “he just tells little stories, but you get the point.” One of the little stories Strasberg told OJ was about this young actor who was constantly deferring to the star, oncamera, and how funny that young man looked onscreen because his character was treating Paul Newman’s character as if he were Paul Newman. OJ got the point.
As a serious actor, OJ has impressed some critics favorably; they say he’s a natural. Others have proclaimed him “a dreadful actor.” Whatever the case, after spending a few hours with him, it’s clear that OJ has yet to turn some corner in his acting career, has yet to unlock his enormous personal charisma onscreen.
Perhaps he will do that in DHQ (Detective Head-quarters), a made-for-TV CBS effort in which OJ stars as a tough detective with marital problems. He is teamed up with a white female detective — Elizabeth Montgomery — and the two of them chase bad guys around and have an affair. TV has treated racially mixed love affairs in the past and the convention is, as OJ understands it, that one of the lovers must die before the last commercial. That’ll teach ’em. The twist in DHQ is that both Simpson and Montgomery survive the show.
Aside from movies and TV, OJ is a partner in California Way, owner of a couple of racket and health clubs in southern California. He wears Dingo boots in print ads, endorses Wilson sporting goods, has lent his name to a child’s doll, sprints through airports for Hertz and recently completed a deal to do TV spots for Treesweet orange juice. Orange juice companies like his initials, not to mention demographic studies that show that 90% of the women tested recognize him on sight and that they consider him natural and trustworthy. Listen to this deal: OJ received a guaranteed fee for the commercials, print ads and personal appearances, plus a percentage of Treesweet’s sales growth. The catch is that Treesweet distributes to only 40% of the country, but they are going national in conjunction with the OJ commercials. A very sweet arrangement.
OJ also endorses Hyde Spot-bilt shoes and the anatomy of his involvement says a lot about how he handles his business. “They came to me because there was a picture of me breaking the NFL rushing record and I was wearing their shoe. I’m saying, ‘Well, what do you mean, you’d like to use the picture. To do what?’ They didn’t want me because they thought I was a nice guy. They think I can help their sales. And I’ve always thought that if they’re going to be using me, why shouldn’t I benefit from it too? They’re not giving the money to the Heart Association.
“Now you know I have a firm policy about not mentioning amounts of money. I’ll just say they wanted a poster. They weren’t doing any TV work at all. I said, ‘Why should I give you the right to do it?’ So we started talking in terms of dollars. And, of course, whenever I do business, I think I should be totally involved. Plan how I’m going to be used. It was a grass shoe 1 was wearing and they wanted me to endorse their Astroturf shoe. I told them I couldn’t do it ’cause they didn’t have a good one. They said, ‘Could you help us design one?’
“I told them most Astroturf shoes roll over. I wanted one with an edge on the sole and a wider base. I wore that model for a year, but it didn’t give me flexibility. Then we took that bottom and put it under a basketball shoe top and we got the shoe, the ST70. So I have a percentage of that for the life of the shoe. We also make a shoe for kids, the Juicemobile, and I have a larger percentage of that.
“I wrote the TV commercials we’re doing for Spot-bilt. Instead of doing a whole lot of hokey stuff, I thought I should appear as myself, the way I normally dress: sport coat, open shirt. I’d be inside the factory. We have the idea of this long assembly line, but I went to the factory and I saw people who have spent their whole lives working with leather; 20 years working with shoes. Now, that’s what the American people want to see: the simple thing, not assembly-line junk. So I walk through the factory talking about the fact that we have been in business for 79 years, an American company, making shoes for American feet. So, hey, they agreed with that and scrapped this other junk they had with me running bases. It’s a clean sale. Not a fancy-dancy thing.
“My business philosophy is just common sense, but people come up to me with schemes you wouldn’t belive. How about this one: I got a letter from a guy somewhere who’s got this super bull and he wants me to go in with him. Wants to call the bull OJ. Start selling the bull sperm as ‘The Juice.’ Now that’s kind of far out.”
I have seen OJ having lunch in a dentist’s home in Tiburon, a cushy suburb outside San Francisco, and I’ve heard him say things like, “Gosh, a fellow certainly gets lethargic after a big meal like that.” I’ve seen him on Potrero Hill, flattering half a dozen adoring teenage girls with statements like, “Shoo, you be lookin’ good, mama.”
I know this makes OJ look bad — a real phony-baloney and all — but the truth is somewhat simpler. Simpson seems genuinely at home in both worlds, a sort of racial Renaissance man if you will. People of all races and ages ought to love him, he seems to think, because, after all, he feels that way about himself. The night the two of us waded through that St. Patrick’s Day crowd out in front of Harrington’s saloon is a case in point. It was OJ who dragged me into it, and all the way from the hotel he kept complaining that “I can’t go into crowds.” For two solid hours he accepted accolades and charmed his way past offers of drugs, sex and business deals “you would be a fool to pass up.”
Later, after we’d shoved our way out of the crowd and were walking back to the hotel, I said, “Holy God, is it always like that?”
“Always,” he said, “I told you I can’t go into crowds.” He credited the Hertz commercials: “Before that, I’d say 30% of the people I met recognized me, and they’d be football fans. Now I’d say it’s closer to 90%.”
“What about the blond in the black pantsuit with the cocaine?”
“Hey, in my position I’d be a fool to take drugs on the street.”
“I think she wanted to give you more than drugs.”
“You think so?”
Simpson reflected on that for a few moments, then he said, “I’m puzzled about this sexy thing. I think it’s just that most women prefer a man who is physically in shape. Okay, I’m a professional athlete, so I’m in shape. And I have a high degree of visibility. You take those two things — physical and visible — and you get sexy. I sure don’t think of myself as sexy, or try to be sexy.”
“You don’t, huh?”
“No.” OJ threw a classy move into an imaginary tackler. “But, hey, if a guy wanted some action, that’d be the place to go.”