O.J. Simpson’s Film Career
There’s a scene in O.J. Simpson’s first movie, the 1974 exploitation flick The Klansman, that fate has imbued with painful irony: Simpson, playing a good man turned terrorist by KKK violence, pops up in the backseat of a Bronco-style vehicle and puts a gun to driver Richard Burton’s head. Like The Klansman, Simpson’s 20 theatrical and TV movies will never look the same, and many of us will be looking at them closely. Simpson movies that have long sat unrented on the shelves seem destined to undergo an unprecedented kind of rediscovery.
In Capricorn One (1978), Simpson’s fugitive astronaut character is pursued by helicopters he mistakes for birds of prey. But there’s more to be found in Simpson’s films than unintentionally prescient sequences. The discerning viewer can detect a persona taking shape on film as directors grope for ways to utilize Simpson’s charisma.
His early work is junk, though this is only partly his fault. He didn’t write the stilted dialogue that he mouths as an African tribesman in Roots (1977) and as a narc disguised as a priest in The Cassandra Crossing (1977). He did manage to show signs of promise, however. Startlingly, he comes off as more appealing in The Klansman than Richard Burton, who overacts horribly. Simpson delivers his street-talking revolutionary’s rant well, and he alone strides out of the film with a measure of dignity. There was a reason that Simpson made it as a tertiary movie star while fellow gridiron giants Joe Namath and Brian Bosworth didn’t.
Many directors had him do the obvious: run. He’s fleeing in most of his early screen work, and unsurprisingly, he does this with the consummate grace that helped him break the surly bonds of earth as a pro running back and Hertz pitchman. But sometimes he does more: His bit in Roots, for instance — in which he tackles teenaged Kunta Kinte, who’s blundered into his camp, and then says, ”Peace to you, Mandinka warrior” — sets up Kunta’s capture by slavers. Simpson symbolizes the utterly civilized African man, and he imparts a light spirit to the brief scene: He is the chuckling, fleet-footed demigod among mortals.
Filmmakers typically assigned Simpson a good-guy role, whether it was saving a little girl amid gunfire in The Cassandra Crossing or solemnly handing Fred Astaire his rescued cat at the end of The Towering Inferno (1974). In part, this was the jittery instinct of producers eager to show powerful black men as peacemakers, not troublemakers. But it also capitalized on the massive goodness evinced by Simpson’s bona fide matinee-idol smile.
Simpson’s biggest commercial and artistic score began in 1988, nine years after he retired from football, in the first of the Naked Gun movies. The Naked Gun and its two sequels were a fine mess for O.J. to get mixed up in. The first film was the best, and Simpson provides its first, best belly laugh. Kicking his way into a mob’s den, he gets his foot stuck in the door, bonks his head on a pipe, burns his hand on a stove, backs into wet paint, steps in a bear trap, and eventually falls into the ocean. His ineptitude is as balletic as Inspector Clouseau’s, but what strikes us now is his incessantly violent victimization.
Simpson’s career may well succumb to his legal plight: A TV adventure-show pilot, Frogmen, is in limbo. But everything he’s done so far has capitalized on a blazingly simple public image. Whatever he may be in life, in movies he will always personify the fleetness of spirit.