Monday, February 22, 2016

Washington Social Diary: The People v. OJ Simpson

Nicole Brown with O.J. Simpson. She was murdered, her throat slashed, on June 12, 1994, when she was 35 years old. Santa Monica civil court held Simpson responsible for the murders of Brown and Ron Goldman.
by Carol Joynt

While it may be a surprise that television has suddenly transported us 20 years into the past to the O.J. Simpson trial, it is not a surprise that television is our ride. Where else but on TV would Simpson draw us back into his disturbing, strange, and murderous orbit? Thanks to FX Networks’ compelling drama, “The People Vs. O.J. Simpson,” here we are again, staring at the tube and O.J., the white bronco, Marcia Clark’s hair, Robert Shapiro’s eyebrows, Johnnie Cochran’s swagger, and even Larry King, as himself.

In the limited series, which airs a new episode each Tuesday night through April 5, King is only a side player, but in truth Larry through his CNN broadcast, Larry King Live, was a news and pop culture staple from the time the vicious murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman were revealed in June 1994, through the criminal trial acquittal on October 3, 1995, and beyond, as tell-all books and first-person interviews continued to flood the publishing and TV marketplace.  Executive Producer Ryan Murphy could create a sequel that flipped the view of the O.J. drama to how it was experienced by Larry, his executive producer Wendy Walker, and the staff of LKL, who clocked countless hours and miles making ratings out of the story.
O.J. Simpson and Johnnie Cochran, one of the so-called legal "dream team."
O.J. Simpson during the "trial of the century." Images that are recreated in "The People vs O.J. Simpson"
The murders at Brown’s Los Angeles home were only a month old when I first came to work for Larry King Live. The LKL office suite was in the CNN Washington bureau, on a high floor of a nondescript office tower nestled among federal government buildings adjacent to Union Station. We were part of CNN, but separate, too, treated specially, because Larry was the network’s biggest star and our show was the network’s most watched. If you remember the 9 o’clock hour on CNN, you’ll recall at least tuning in to see the top, and the guest lineup, and usually sticking with it, and always tuning in when major news happened.

The first couple of days on the job are a blur, but I was keenly aware I had entered a new television dimension when on my second or third day I was in the green room with director Steven Spielberg as he waited to go on to talk to Larry about his new Shoah Foundation. My background was hard news, The CBS Evening News, Nightline, This Week, where celebrity guests were few and far between. Being in the same room with Spielberg was precisely why I was delighted to be at LKL; I wanted a different kind of excitement in my work as a producer. With the murders, and the trial of O.J. Simpson, the excitement never stopped.
With some movie-making magic, "The People vs O.J. Simpson" uses the real Larry King interviewing Evan Handler as lawyer Alan Dershowittz.
Wendy, the EP, hired me to be what she called her “big game hunter.” My role was to go after not the day to day newsmakers but the “gets” who were the hardest to get, where an interview might involve weeks or months of strategic negotiations in competition with producers for Oprah, NBC’s Today show, and Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer at ABC News. We wanted the same “big game” and we all wanted to be first. That’s why I was not necessarily in the thick of the O.J. Simpson drama in its first iteration, the murders and the trial, my piece of it was down the road. But if you were on the Larry King Live team, you were involved in the O.J. drama every day, regardless.

A team of LKL producers were on the O.J. beat when I joined the staff. In particular Wendy, senior producer Mary Gregory, producers Katie Spikes, Linda Wolf, Carrie Stevenson, who shuttled back and forth between our Washington headquarters and the CNN Los Angeles studio and the Superior Court, not to mention lunches and dinners with friends of the principals, contacts in the courts and the police, other sources, and, always, one of them accompanying Larry to his regular breakfasts at Nate'n Al, where the core crowd included a lot of insiders with information.
Larry at Nate'n Al in 2010. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
In Washington – and sometimes called to duty in LA -- were Britt Kahn, Tom Mazzarelli, Kyle Kaino, Pam Stevens, and others who I may forget and apologize for that. In this last cultural moment before being fully wired, this was nonetheless a 24-7 effort, a pervasive, all-hands, flood the competition, own all the real estate approach to sensational breaking news that would be the model for how we later covered the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky sex scandal and the death of Princess Diana

Were we obsessed with the case? Yes. It was sad and horrific but also a great story. Nothing like it on our landscape, even factoring in major broadcasts such as the time in 1993 when Larry had Vice President Al Gore and billionaire Texas businessman Ross Perot debate NAFTA, live on the air, an inspired booking pulled together by Wendy, or a memorable interview such as with Marlon Brando, which included an on-camera smooch between the actor and the interviewer.
The "goodbye" kiss.
Larry, not known for understatement, would later call Simpson “the most famous human ever charged with murder in the history of the world,” and, “the most talked about person in the world at the time.” For Larry, it was more involved and more personal. He knew many of the players, including O.J. and some of the lawyers, and would get to know more. He dated a member of the prosecution team and a member of the defense team, at the same time, and says he got intel from both.

Larry notwithstanding, our show wasn’t in bed with the O.J. Simpson trial. It was the dawn of a new era of news coverage, a turning point for cable TV, “getting the gets” was the fiercest game in media, and because of that the integrity of the guest booking was closely managed by Wendy, Mary, Katie, Linda et al, or it would have been The Day of the Locust meets the Wild West.

It got close sometimes, as every character who had a story to spill about O.J., or Nicole, or Ron, or any lawyer or wannabe who had an opinion, clamored to get on the air. That’s how Faye Resnick emerged on the scene with an insta-book about her friend Nicole Brown, launching a journey of self-promoton that brought her to the set of Larry King Live, into the pages of Playboy magazine, and today to the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” That’s staying power, or determination, or an L.A. fable. Go figure.
Faye Resnick became a familiar face on Larry King Live, talking about the Simpson case.
The Faye Resnick insta-book, which came
out during the Simpson trial.
Faye Resnick in Playboy, 1997.
On "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills."
LKL in particular, and CNN in general, were the first stops for legal pundits who wanted to weigh in on the Simpson case. Lawyers flocked to the spotlight. In the TV series, Larry makes an appearance in Episode 3, “The Dream Team,” interviewing Harvard lawyer Alan Dershowitz (played by Evan Handler).  The legal issues of the Simpson case were the foundation for a new CNN daytime show, “Burden of Proof,” hosted by two unknown lawyers, Greta Van Susteren, now with FoxNews, and Roger Cossack, now with ESPN.
Greta Van Susteren and Roger Cossack, stepped into the Simpson limelight with legal show "Burden of Proof," providing analysis of the trial proceedings.
Television served the O.J. Simpson story and vice versa because all the characters involved were dramatic, colorful, borderline cartoonish, easy to love or easy to hate, and came into the limelight with finesse.

Eventually, when they legally could, every major player in the case made an appearance on our show--family, lawyers, detectives, jurors--and O.J. phoned in when Cochran was on the set with Larry in Los Angeles the day after the verdict.
Cochran on LKL on October 4th, 1995.
After the trial, Kato Kaelin came to Washington to be on the show, also detectives Mark Fuhrman, Tom Lang and Philip Vannatter. Their visits made it into the DC gossip columns.
LAPD Detective Philip Vannatter, explains evidence to Marcia Carter, Robert Shapiro and Chris Darden
LAPD Detective Tom Lange, testifying during the trial.
LAPD Detective Mark Fuhrman, on the witness stand.
It was after the trial that my role kicked in, negotiating the much-anticipated interviews with prosecutors Marcia Clark and Chris Darden. Each had written a book and were talking publicly for the first time. Oddly enough, though, my most vivid memory of the O.J. Simpson drama involves John F. Kennedy Jr., and Carolyn Bessette.
Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark.
Prosecution lawyer Marcia Clark. During the trial she changed her hairstyle from curly to straight.
Marcia Clark today.
Fellow prosecuter Chris Darden.
Chris Darden in 2015.
There’s not much that would have kept Larry King away from Los Angeles during the trial, and especially the closing arguments, but Kennedy had just launched his new magazine, George, and Wendy landed a rare, live, studio interview with him in Washington. The date was September 28, 1995, which totally by coincidence was the same day Cochran would give his closing arguments, and due to the time difference, Cochran, King and Kennedy were scheduled to go live at the same time.

John and Carolyn were to fly together to Washington, but there was a snafu getting their car parked at Laguardia and he dashed for one shuttle while she parked the car and caught the next flight. At CNN, shortly before air, John relaxed in Wendy’s office. We had a tray of sandwiches and he dug in. It was just a small group of us hanging with him  -- Wendy, a couple other staff, me -- all of us trying very hard to be friendly without gaping. He was tall, wore a pin-striped suit, a tie, was very handsome, still a little gangly, charming.

John asked that someone please look out for Carolyn once she arrived and I was asked to be her babysitter. I met her in the lobby, and from the start she was friendly, easy, if a little stressed by the hassles of travel. She was in a black turtleneck, mustard colored pencil skirt, black tights and boots, hair pulled back in a ponytail. I brought her upstairs, where we sat in an office to watch the interview. As events rolled out, we ended up spending a long time together.
JFK Jr. on LKL on September 28, 1995.
John was talkative. Carolyn watched closely and observed that with Larry he was opening up as much as he ever would in an interview. But then that other reality, the trial, butted into the moment. Cochran rose to make his lengthy closing remarks and CNN switched live to the courtroom in L.A. The lights dimmed in our studio, where Larry and John chilled on the set. There was nothing we could do; the nation’s airwaves belonged to Cochran.

Carolyn and I passed the time occasionally listening and also talking about this and that. She worried that they would miss the last shuttle back to NY (they did), and would have to spend the night in Washington (they did), and someone needed to go to their apartment to look out for their dog (it was arranged). She was amused that at the time the gossip columns were reporting she and John had split up (nope).
When Cochran finished, and Larry and John wrapped the their interview, we all convened in the studio for handshakes and photos, and then John and Carolyn were out the door and on their way.
On their wedding day a year later.
It was one of those moments that brings a smile to the faces of the LKL family, because it serves as a defining slice of what life was like in the universe of Larry King Live -- that all in one night our piece of prime time network real estate would include the dramatic defense closing arguments in the “trial of the century” and, on the set in Washington, “America’s prince,” JFK, Jr.

If you haven’t yet, do check out “The People vs O.J. Simpson.” It is based on Jeff Toobin’s 1997 book, “The Run of His Life,” and the tastiest parts are those that show the behind the scenes. The performances are especially notable, and at times uncanny, in particular Sarah Paulson as Clark and Sterling K. Brown as Darden.

John Travolta takes a moment to get used to as Robert Shapiro – he’s paunchier than Shapiro was – but he gets him, and so, too, does David Schwimmer as the first celebrity Kardashian, patriarch Robert Kardashian, and Courtney V. Vance as Cochran, and Billy Magnussen as Kaelin. Nathan Lane portrays F. Lee Bailey, Bruce Greenwood is District Attorney Gil Garcetti, and Selma Blair is a believable Kris Jenner.
Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey with John Travolta, doing a good Robert Shapiro, especially the eyebrows.
David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian and Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. Simpson.
Courtney Vance as Johnnie Cochran.
Selma Blair plays Kris Jenner in "The People vs O.J. Simpson."
Cuba Gooding Jr., doesn’t have O.J.’s physicality, and I know he’s portrayed a football player before in “Jerry Maguire.” What he does well is convey O.J.’s complicated and flawed personality, his anger, his manipulative nature and his emotional dark places.  Kudos to the casting directors (there are several names listed on IMDB). In sum it is a feast of vivid characters, just as it was with the real thing.

Note: While O.J. Simpson was acquitted in the criminal trial, in a later civil trial a jury unanimously found him responsible for the deaths of Brown and Goldman and ordered him to pay more than $33 million in damages to the their families. He is now serving a 33-year prison sentence at the Lovelock Correctional Center in Nevada for kidnapping and armed robbery, from an incident that happened in Las Vegas, and could be paroled as early as next year, when he will be almost 70 years old. 
O.J. Simpson in 2013, in a hearing related to his Las Vegas robbery case.
O.J., hearing the verdict in Las Vegas.
ENDNOTE: One more TV show. “Vinyl,” on HBO. I lived in the West Village in the '70s. During the day my work was straightlaced, but at night it was street life and nonstop (shout out to Jesse Kornbluth) fun. The Mercer Arts Center for the New York Dolls, the new play at The Public, drinking at Lady Astor’s, the Cedar Tavern, or dancing at the Continental Baths, or Les Jardins, or waiting in line for the midnight showing of the new John Waters film, or in a subterranean after hours club off Bleecker, and then breakfast at dawn at the Pink Tea Cup, and bed, and back to work. NY in the '70s was great, and young, and it's a shame they don’t get it right. 
New York Dolls at Mercer Arts Center in 1972.

Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt