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The cultural legacy of OJ Simpson: football player, actor and murder suspect


It feels like the passing of O.J. Simpson closed a chapter in Los Angeles history - one, though, that still leaves a sense that there is still a lot that will never be resolved.


His family announced yesterday that he died of cancer. Last century, he was a famous and infamous figure as an athlete, an actor and murder suspect.

MARTÍNEZ: Here to look back at his cultural legacy is NPR's Mandalit del Barco, who reported on the Simpson saga in the 1990s. Mandalit, before the freeway chase, before the so-called trial of the century, O.J. was already famous in so many ways.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: That's right, A. You know, O.J. Simpson started off as a star football player at USC. Then he went on to be a running back in the NFL and a sports commentator. You know, he was handsome and with a famously great smile. And after his football career, Hollywood ate him up. He starred in commercials, sprinting through airports. He was in the TV series "Roots," and he had parts in movies like "The Towering Inferno" and "The Naked Gun" comedies.


OJ SIMPSON: (As Detective Nordberg) Polce. Throw down your guns.

DEL BARCO: Audiences loved him, and that's why it was so shocking what came next.

MARTÍNEZ: That next is becoming the No. 1 suspect in the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. That was 1994. Mandalit, you covered that story for NPR. I mean, it was just a huge deal.

DEL BARCO: It was. It was huge. And after Simpson became a wanted man, he went missing. And then he emerged as a passenger in a white Ford Bronco on the freeways of Los Angeles, getting chased by police. Ninety-five million people were transfixed by the slow car chase that was broadcast live on national television. Here's a clip from a CNN special with Eric Spillman from KTLA.


ERIC SPILLMAN: People have pulled over, many of them carrying signs reading things like save the juice, go O.J. People are literally cheering him on.

DEL BARCO: And as a reporter, I don't think I had a cellphone then, but I followed the helicopters to his mansion where a crowd of people had gathered, some with kids on their shoulders, to see what would happen next. Simpson sat in his car in the driveway, pointing a gun to his head, and he eventually surrendered.

MARTÍNEZ: And then there was his murder trial the following year, which was another huge media moment.

DEL BARCO: Yeah, it was called the trial of the century, and it felt like the whole country was glued to the TV to watch it unfold live. Everyone involved became a pop culture icon - the judge, the prosecutors and Simpson's lawyers, like Johnnie Cochran, who famously asked Simpson to try wearing once bloody gloves found at the crime scene. Here's Cochran in his closing argument.


JOHNNIE COCHRAN: It makes no sense. It doesn't fit. If it doesn't fit, you must acquit.

MARTÍNEZ: And they did acquit, Mandalit. The reaction was very telling.

DEL BARCO: It was huge all over the country, and it was somewhat divided along racial lines. I interviewed some liberal white Angelenos who were outraged. Here's a retired Hollywood accountant named Al (ph). NPR agreed at the time not to use his last name.

AL: This trial was a big fraud as far as I'm concerned. The guy is as guilty as sin.

DEL BARCO: Reaction was more complicated for Black Angelenos I spoke to. Some told me that whether or not Simpson killed his ex-wife, they felt that for once, justice was on the side of an African American man. Here's a clip from Al Humphries (ph), a former sheriff's deputy.

AL HUMPHRIES: We said, wow, at least a Black guy got away sometimes because there's a lot of people, a lot of dead Black folks that nobody ever went to jail for.

MARTÍNEZ: O.J. lived nearly 30 more years after all that. And really, Mandalit, he remained a very fascinating and complicated figure.

DEL BARCO: Yeah, you know, after his civil trial, he sort of faded away from the public for a while. He served nine years in a Las Vegas prison for armed robbery and kidnapping. But in 2016, there was a highly acclaimed TV miniseries about his trial and a documentary about him that won an Oscar.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Mandalit del Barco in Los Angeles. Mandalit, thanks.

DEL BARCO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.