O.J. Simpson Dies: Football Superstar & Actor Acquitted Of Double Murder In Televised Trial Of The Century Was 76

O.J. Simpson Dies: Football Superstar & Actor Acquitted Of Double Murder In Televised Trial Of The Century Was 76
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O.J. Simpson, the legendary college and NFL running back, Hollywood actor, broadcaster and pitchman who was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife and her friend in 1994, resulting in the televised trial of the century, died Wednesday of cancer, his family has announced. He was 76.

“On April 10th, our father, Orenthal James Simpson, succumbed to his battle with cancer. He was surrounded by his children and grandchildren. During this time of transition, his family asks that you please respect their wishes for privacy and grace. -The Simpson Family.”

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Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman outside her condo in West L.A.’s Brentwood area on June 12, 1994. That led to the infamous televised slow-speed pursuit that captivated the nation and much of the world five days after the killings.

When police sought to question him about the crimes, Simpson vowed to turn himself in at LAPD’s Parker Center headquarters. When he failed to show up 45 minutes after the agreed-upon time, a police spokesman announced in a news conference that Simpson was a fugitive and that a warrant had been issued for his arrest. Officer David Gascon shocked the room and the nation when he said, “The Los Angeles Police Department is actively searching for Mr. Simpson.”

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Simpson’s white Ford Bronco, driven by longtime friend and ex-USC and NFL teammate Al “A.C.” Cowlings, was spotted on an Orange County freeway, and the most famous of all televised TV pursuits was on. Crowds lined the overpasses to witness history, many cheering him on, as the Bronco made its way north toward L.A., trailed by numerous law-enforcement vehicles at regular speeds and filmed by helicopters. An estimated 95 million people watched at least part of the chase.

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Cowlings told police via telephone that Simpson had a gun pointed to his head, and they allowed him to drive the Bronco back to Simpson’s stately home on Rockingham Avenue in Brentwood, where he eventually was taken into custody. Cowlings also was arrested for his role in the chase, but the charges later were dropped.

Coming just 2½ years after the Rodney King riots, Simpson’s televised trial flat-out mesmerized the country, with its overtones of race, celebrity, wealth, spousal abuse and brutal violence. It became a cultural touchstone of the 1990s that ruminates today.

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The 11-month trial from November 1994 to October 1995 would make household names of such people as Johnnie Cochran, Marcia Clark, Kato Kaelin, Robert Shapiro, Mark Fuhrman, Robert Kardashian, Judge Lance Ito, Christopher Darden and others. It also spawned many unforgettable moments, including Simpson trying to put on the gloves that were recovered at the scene of the grisly crimes. That moment led Cochran — who led the “Dream Team” of high-priced defense attorneys — to deliver one of the most famous catchphrases in legal history: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Also infamous is Simpson’s emphatic if petulant statement upon pleading to the charges: “Absolutely, 100 percent not guilty.”

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The chase, arrest and trial became one of the biggest stories of the late 20th century, especially in
Simpson’s adopted hometown of Los Angeles. People were divided about his guilt or innocence, but it seemed that everyone had an opinion. Gavel-to-gavel coverage on TV and radio transfixed millions and introduced many to the then-nascent concept of DNA evidence. The jury of 10 women and two men, who had been sequestered for the entire trial, took less than three hours to return its not-guilty verdict in both killings — leading to outpourings of anger, joy, relief and disbelief.

During the trial, prosecutors played two 911 calls that Brown Simpson made three years before her killing. In the longer second one, she said with exasperation, “He’s back.” When the dispatcher asked for a description, she replied: “He’s O.J. Simpson. I think you know his record. Could you just send somebody over here?” A male voice was yelling in the background, and later she told the dispatcher, “He broke the back door down to get in.”

Earlier, in 1989, Simpson had pleaded “no contest” to spousal battery charges. Photos of her bruised faced, purportedly from that incident, were made public during the murder trial.

Later in 1996, the families of victims Brown Simpson and Goldman filed a wrongful-death civil suit again Simpson. After a seven-week trial, the jury found Simpson liable and awarded the plaintiffs $33.5 million in damages. The families would fail to recover most of that judgment.

All the time, Simpson proclaimed that he was searching for and would hunt down the “real” killer or killers.

The momentous events of the day of the Bronco chase were depicted in the riveting 2010 ESPN documentary June 17th, 1994. Part of the network’s 30 for 30 series, it detailed the remarkable confluence of huge sports-related news that Sunday: Before the pursuit, the first U.S.-hosted World Cup kicked off, golf legend Arnold Palmer played his last round at the Masters, and the New York Rangers held a parade for its first Stanley Cup win in 54 years. NBC also was televising Game 5 of the NBA Finals that afternoon and was forced to go to a split screen of the New York Knicks-Houston Rockets game and the Bronco chase — which eventually became the larger of the two screens, outraging many fans.

Another 30 for 30 project was 2016’s O.J.: Made in America, the longest in the series. Originally a five-part miniseries, its first episode aired on ABC before finishing its run on sibling network ESPN. It also was released as a movie. Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival, Ezra Edelman’s pic went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

More than a decade after the trial, the 10-episode FX miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story became a ratings and critical sensation, depicting the aftermath of the crimes through the trial, verdict and its repercussions. The 2016 show won eight Emmys on 22 nominations, including acting nods for Courtney B. Vance as Cochran and Sarah Paulson as prosecutor Clark. Cuba Gooding Jr. scored an Emmy nom for playing Simpson, as did John Travolta as defense lawyer Shapiro and David Schwimmer as Simpson confidant and reality-juggernaut scion Kardashian.

In 2006, HarperCollins imprint ReganBooks announced that it would publish If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer, credited to Simpson and ghostwriter with Pablo Fenjves, who had testified during the double-murder trial and was a friend of publisher Judith Regan. In it, Simpson detailed his relationship with his ex-wife and laid out a hypothetical scenario involving him finding his ex-wife’s body and confronting Goldman, a waiter at a nearby restaurant where Brown Simpson had dined that night. The book says Simpson then lost consciousness and had no recollection of the crimes.

The book’s original release was canceled after a public outcry, but not before nearly a half-million copies were printed. It later was published by Beaufort Books, in 2007, and a court awarded all of its rights to the Goldman family to help satisfy the civil judgment.

Then in September 2007, Simpson led a group of armed men into a Las Vegas hotel-casino in an attempt to recover was he later said was stolen sports memorabilia. After his arrest two days later, Simpson admitted to taking the items but denied the break-in and said none of his accomplices was armed. He was charged with multiple felonies including kidnapping, robbery and assault with a deadly weapon, leading to another high-profile trial that began a year later.

He and the co-defendants were found guilty on all counts after a three-week trial, and Simpson was sentenced to 33 years in state prison. He was paroled in October 2017, after serving nearly nine years.

Born Orenthal James Simpson on July 9, 1947, in San Francisco, Simpson would become one the greatest football players ever, winning a Heisman Trophy and national championship at USC and leading the nation in rushing during his two seasons in 1967 and ’68. He also was an All-American both years and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983.

In January 1969, he was taken No. 1 overall by the AFL’s Buffalo Bills in the pre-merger AFL-NFL common draft. The team would join the NFL officially the following year, and in 1973, Simpson became the first player to rush for more than 2,000 yards — when the league played only 14 regular-season games — winning the MVP Award that year. He led the NFL in rushing four times, made five Pro Bowls and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985 after playing 11 seasons from 1969-79, the last two with the San Francisco 49ers.

His amiable personality and good looks made “The Juice” a natural for show business. He guested on late-’60s TV series including Dragnet, It Takes a Thief, Medical Center and Ironside and went on to star in commercials for Chevrolet and Hertz — famously running through airports and leaping over benches for the latter — before becoming a broadcaster. He was a commentator for ABC’s juggernaut Monday Night Football from 1983-85.

Simpson continued to guest on popular TV shows into the 1970s before co-starring in the 1974 disaster epic The Towering Inferno opposite such huge screen icons as Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden and Faye Dunaway. He went on to appear in an episode of Roots and several films through the ’70s, culminating in a star turn in the 1979 pic Capricorn One, which depicted a faked mission to Mars. He played an astronaut along with James Brolin and Sam Waterston. Elliott Gould and Hal Holbrook also starred.

But Simpson’s most famous screen role would come nearly a decade later, when he was cast opposite Leslie Nielsen in David Zucker’s 1988 comedy gem The Naked Gun. Based on the short-lived 1982 CBS series Police Squad!, the pic featured Simpson as the accident-prone Detective Norberg, and he would reprise the role in two sequels: The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991) and The Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult (1994).

Between those sequels, Simpson co-starred in the last five seasons of HBO’s pro football comedy 1st & Ten, playing an aging running back for the fictional California Bulls who is forced to transition to coaching. Delta Burke, Shannon Tweed and ex-NFLer John Matuszak also starred.

Greg Evans contributed to this report.

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