Simpson's free shot at redemption


I NEVER thought much of O.J. as an actor, although I loved him, as we all did, in "Goldie and the Boxer."

But now he's taking on the most challenging role of his life: In which O.J. tries to win back the people, and maybe also his job as football analyst for NBC.

All he has to do is go on TV tonight and convince about a hundred million viewers that he's the old rent-a-car O.J. with the winning smile and not some wife-batterer- turned-demented-killer with a knife fetish. This time, though, O.J.'s lawyers won't be at his side (Johnnie Cochran will be in the control room, though). Neither will O.J.'s acting coach -- Kato Stanislavsky.

It's just O.J. and the unblinking camera's eye, which sometimes performs double duty as a lie detector.

You know about the prequel. We'll review the plot, in case you were out of town for the last year. Former football star's ex-wife and friend are brutally murdered. The former football star gets accused of the crime, after which he takes a long ride in a white Ford Bronco. There's a celebrity trial, which leads to the introduction of Kato and a barking dog. Eventually, the former football star is acquitted. Still, most people think he's guilty.

Now, in case you thought the O.J. frenzy would end with the trial, NBC brings you the next act in what will be billed as the exclusive of the century.

You'll be watching. Everyone will be watching. It's must-see TV, all right. You'll watch if you love O.J. You'll watch if you're repulsed by him -- especially if you're repulsed by him.

You'll even watch -- I'm guessing -- if you were among the thousands who called in to protest the broadcast.

Because you want to know what happened to the black bag.

You want to know about the fake beard.

You want to know what the hell Paula Barbieri could possibly be thinking.

This will be a bigger ratings bonanza than who shot J.R., because, well, somebody actually did kill Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman. This is real life, I think.

And you know what? The killer might just be the guy in front of the camera. (If he can't look Katie Couric in the eye, then we'll know.)

How big is this? Well, NBC is going commercial-free, as if it were the president or the pope being interviewed and not some

third-rate professional celebrity. Even Michael Jackson, king o' pop, had to endure commercials in his shot at redemption. Of course, Jackson also brought along a video. What's O.J. going to do -- bring home movies?

Here's how big it is: Larry King said that if he had God scheduled and he could get O.J., he'd bump God.

Actually, I thought that Larry would get the interview. Tom Brokaw (although maybe not Katie Couric) is an actual newsperson who will ask tough questions and maybe questions O.J. can't answer. O.J. never took the stand, and he's got -- and I'll put this in TV terms, so everyone can understand -- some 'splainin' to do.

If Larry King were doing the interview, he'd be holding up a copy of O.J.'s latest book and asking, "O.J., during those long nights of doubt in prison, when it seemed the world was against you and you might not ever see your lovely children again, unless you were wearing stripes, did you ever consider switching to suspenders? They work for me."

Of course, CNN, where Larry King works, doesn't have football. O.J. needs a job. NBC could offer him work, depending on how he does tonight. Of course, this is a little tougher audition than jumping over suitcases.

The rumor was that O.J. wanted to do a pay-per-view interview, in which he might make $50 million. But even the pay-per-view boys didn't want any part of it. That's how sleazy it is for an accused double-murderer to charge $29.99 a head to tell his story.

O.J. had to understand that. If he went pay-per-view, he'd come out rich, but with the Q rating of Charlie Manson.

A free interview gets the big audience. And O.J. must believe that he's either innocent or he can talk his way into making people believe he's innocent.

It's a huge risk, but one he had to take eventually unless he wanted to move to somewhere they don't know O.J., like, say, Sri Lanka. And I'm guessing it's hard to get tee times in Sri Lanka.

Even though this is TV, which likes pat endings, don't expect a confession. But it is live TV. And there is the great chance that O.J. could stumble. If you think he did it, that might be the only satisfaction you ever get.

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