Watched by more people than the Super Bowl, O.J.'s white Bronco chase was a seminal event – despite never being introduced at his trial

By Joe McGovern
February 11, 2016 at 03:46 AM EST
FX

“One of the most stunning announcements you’re ever going to hear on live television. O.J. Simpson, one of this country’s best known personalities, is a suspect in a double homicide, a terribly gruesome crime, and he is at large tonight. There is now a statewide manhunt for O.J. Simpson in California.”

That was NBC’s Tom Brokaw in a characteristically melodramatic reading of the teleprompter on Friday, June 17, 1994, as the news was spreading across America that O.J. Simpson was on the lam. Later, Brokaw referred to the unfolding drama as “Shakespearean.” 

This was the night of the NBA basketball finals, during which the Knicks were playing the Rockets in Game 5 at Madison Square Garden, and the telecast’s 9 p.m. start time was in perfect sync for split-screen coverage of a sports icon being chased on the freeway in Los Angeles. And that wasn’t all that was on TV: Golfer Arnold Palmer was playing his final U.S. Open, the FIFA World Cup was beginning on American soil for the first time, and ABC’s TGIF lineup included a rerun of Full House. 

Nearly 100 million people tuned in to watch O.J., a larger audience than watched that year’s Super Bowl. Advertising rates were gouged to all-time highs. Pizzerias across the country ran out of cheese. Everything about the freak show “trial of the century” that followed, including the case’s charged racial overtones, not to mention the last two decades of overwrought, the-sky-is-falling, 24/7 news coverage, shares connective tissue with this one night.

MORE ON THE PEOPLE VS. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY: Where Are They Now? | Cast Vs. Reality | EW Review | Exclusive Sneak Peek |

As a TV network executive says in a frenzied voice to his staff in this episode, commanding them to switch from the NBA finals to Simpson, “O.J. is news, entertainment, and sports!”

And that’s why The People v. O.J. Simpson, which sometimes abbreviates events for the purpose of dramatization, devotes this entire hour (directed, as was the pilot, by Ryan Murphy) to just this one evening. (As a reminder, these recaps will place the events depicted on the show in their historical context to illustrate how well synthesized so many of Murphy and company’s choices are.

By necessity, the episode deals the most with O.J. himself — and though I’m avoiding any deep analysis of the performances on the show, I’ve offered a defense here for Cuba Gooding Jr.’s casting as the title character. This installment is also the best showcase for the strength and weirdness of John Travolta’s acting as Robert Shapiro. All the inherently odd qualities of the Pulp Fiction actor (Adele Dazeem, anyone?) are on display in the hilarious scrambling that Shapiro engineers later that afternoon to exonerate himself for the Simpson fiasco.

“Look, you even came to my 50th birthday,” Shapiro tells the seething DA Gil Garcetti on the phone after Simpson has fled. “You loved it! It was a great party!” 

“Bob,” Garcetti growls, “find your client and deliver him.” Back in his office in downtown L.A., Garcetti says to Bill Hodgman and Marcia Clark, “This is the worst day of my life. Worse that the day I was diagnosed with cancer.” He also runs through a quick inventory of the big cases that have melted down in the hands of the L.A. district attorney’s office: The McMartin witch-hunt, the accidental deaths of actor Vic Morrow (father of Jennifer Jason Leigh), and two others while filming The Twilight Zone: The Movie, and the Menendez brothers

Meanwhile, at Robert Kardashian’s house in Encino, Shapiro and Kardashian confer behind locked doors about the three letters (evidently suicide notes) which O.J. wrote before escaping in the white Bronco with A.C. Cowlings. Here is where the show departs significantly in substance from Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run of His Life. Toobin, who is unambiguous in his own writing about O.J.’s culpability in the murders, de-emphasizes the Bronco chase and instead zeroes in on the first of Simpson’s letters, written two days earlier, in fact, than the freeway chase. He describes O.J. as “a terrible writer” and even opens his book with an epigraph of a letter that the football icon wrote to his then-wife Nicole after a 1989 domestic violence incident.

As you can see, Toobin has no interest in spell-checking O.J, though the media did so. Quite the contrary, he devotes six snarky pages to a psychological analysis of the suicide letter, replete with judgments about Simpson’s “near-illiteracy” and “vast self-regard.” After deconstructing the message paragraph by paragraph, Toobin ends with a damning conclusion: “Simpson portrays himself as an unjustly accused murderer, but his letter does not even request the police to locate the ‘real’ killer of his wife and her friend.”

At Shapiro’s farcical press conference, done because the self-serving lawyer believed that Garcetti has subliminally portrayed him as the story’s villain, Kardashian is asked to read the suicide note of Shapiro’s client for all of America to hear. What the show doesn’t reveal is that Kardashian had already cleaned up O.J.’s syntax. (Meta-references to the Kardashian family abound in the background of this scene.) And even more remarkable than the fact that Shapiro told police that the two other of Simpson’s letters were to remain private (despite being evidence in a manhunt), there was this answer to a reporter’s question about Simpson’s last words to the attorney:

“My personal words with him were of a complimentary nature. He thanked me for everything I did for him.” Travolta’s line reading is virtually identical to Shapiro’s on that afternoon.

Across town, Johnnie Cochran is watching. “What a prick,” he says. “Robert Shapiro is focused on his number one priority: Robert Shapiro.” 

NEXT: Marcia Clark questions the over-the-top Bronco chase coverage.

With the hindsight of two decades, the media’s coverage of the Bronco chase plays like a parody of itself. Perhaps it did at the time, as well. Toobin’s book argues that the absence of any authoritative news voice was perhaps what propelled the event to such high ratings. “Peter Jennings repeatedly confessed that he did not know where the Bronco was or where it was going,” Toobin writes of the late ABC News anchorman. “These uninformed narrative nondescriptions somehow made the chase even more hypnotizing for the rest of the nation.”

The Bronco’s route wasn’t all that Jennings didn’t know. In one of the more appropriately absurd moments of the night, a phone caller claiming to be observing O.J. from a news van nearby was put on the air with Jennings. And the man spoke in a ludicrous, transparently false accent for a full minute before yelping, “Baba Booey to y’all,” a reference to Howard Stern.

On his radio show the following Monday, Stern compared the anchorman to a piece of wood. “Peter Jennings should be on suicide watch,” he crowed.

The Stern call is not included, but this episode does touch upon the baffled response of many people via the bewildered reaction shots of Marcia Clark. At one point she’s flabbergasted that O.J.’s blood-splattered white Bronco, which had been impounded after the murders, is back on the road. “There are two white Broncos,” she’s told. “A.C. Cowlings worships O.J. so much he bought the identical car.” Later, while Simpson is still on the freeway, she’s watching TV along with other employees in the DA’s office, dumbfounded that the coverage has been edited and scored like a drippy eulogy. (Sarah Paulson’s facial expressions here – plastered in disbelief but subtle enough to retain dignity – deserve a special award.)

That same quasi-eulogy on TV also connects the narrative to Cochran. He is observing two technicians editing the same clip package while waiting in a TV studio for an appearance. “Gentlemen,” he says. “The last I heard, the man was still alive.” Once on air, Cochran educates viewers about a man who isn’t alive, recounting the tragic story of Leonard Deadwyler, a black, 25-year-old Los Angeles man who was shot in 1966 after being pulled over for speeding while driving his pregnant wife to the hospital. “If the LAPD is involved,” Cochran says, referring back to O.J. “We should let history be our guiding principal.”

On the highway overpass, a news reporter interviews two black men who are holding signs and cheering “Go O.J.!” One says, “We’re not cheering for O.J. We’re booing the LAPD.”

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Elsewhere, Chris Darden is visiting his parents’ house. In an interesting touch, his father is watching golf when Chris arrives. Having dinner and watching TV outside, the young prosecutor is conversing with the neighbors as the Simpson saga is unfolding on TV and captivating everyone. Perhaps the symbolism is a bit too on-the-nose, but the green lawn of the Darden house is contrasted via a high crane shot with the concrete backyard of the guys having a barbeque next door. “Once O.J. made his money, he split and never came back,” Darden says to them. “He became white.”

“Well, he’s got the cops chasing him,” one of the neighbors says. “He’s black now!”

Once the sun has set and O.J. has returned to his Rockingham estate to surrender to police, the elder Darden approaches his son. As both men watch TV, the father offers prescient advice: “You stay the hell away from this.”

NEXT: Why the Bronco chase was never introduced in Simpson’s trial.

About a third of this episode takes place inside the white Bronco — and by virtue, inside O.J.’s head. This is where I wish the show focused slightly less, since nothing except for the 911 calls made by Cowlings (which are more hyper than they were in reality) is known from what transpired in the vehicle. But two compelling details related to the chase, which don’t appear as plot points here, are worth mentioning:

First, the handgun that Simpson is shown waving around and threatening to kill himself with. That Smith & Wesson .357 magnum had been gifted to O.J. five years earlier by a man named Earl C. Paysinger, an LAPD lieutenant. The regret that O.J. feels and the constant apologizing he exhibits toward the police comes from the fact that he was friendly with so many of them. And that could explain why Nicole Brown called cops nine times for domestic violence and stalking incidents before a slap was lightly administered on O.J.’s wrist. (In his suicide note, Simpson claimed that he was a battered husband — an absurd delusion that the LAPD entertained.)

And secondly, the cache of money and disguises that were confiscated from the Bronco. This included $8,750 shoved in Cowling’s pockets, plus Simpson’s passport along with a fake mustache and a goatee. Why wasn’t this incriminating evidence ever used against O.J. at his trial? The decision was made relatively early and in a word the problem was very simple: sympathy.

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Toobin writes, “It would require calling a number of witnesses — including Simpson’s secretary, Cathy Randa, and of course his friend A.C. Cowlings — who were sure to shade their testimony in Simpson’s favor.” The disguises could be dismissed by defense witnesses who would say that O.J. used them for avoiding the celebrity spotlight in public. Cowlings claimed that the money was his own. And, per Toobin, “The full story of the chase might require several more weeks of testimony.” (Remember that the jury was sequestered.)

The show’s premiere episode ended with a phenomenal use of the Beastie Boys’ high-charged “Sabotage” as the Bronco sped and changed lanes on the freeway. And once again, Murphy & Company continue to nail just the right music cues for maximum accentuation. And that runs the gamut from high to low in this episode. In one of the funniest scenes in the whole series, Shapiro is driving home after the press conference and he’s listening to the soft beats of Al Jarreau’s lite FM classic “We’re in This Love Together,” with its cornball lyrics like “And like berries on the vine/It gets sweeter all the time.”

And the closing theme, as Simpson is at long last arrested after an extraordinary set of special privileges, is the aching melancholy of Franz Schubert’s “Piano Trio No. 2.” Written shortly before the Austrian composer’s death in 1828, the piece is a favorite of filmmakers — and a sideways excuse for me to end with its gorgeous use in Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 masterpiece, Barry Lyndon.

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