On Feb. 2, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story—a ridiculously entertaining, somewhat lurid 10-part account of the trial of the past century—premieres on FX. Although part of the charm of the series is its eccentric casting (John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J.), the show is based on Jeffrey Toobin’s studiously damning account of the case, The Run of His Life.
Toobin, a New Yorker writer and CNN personality, chatted with Slate last week about the making of the series, O.J.’s guilt, and how the trial would play in the post-Ferguson era. The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.
Isaac Chotiner: How did you first get involved in this case?
Jeffrey Toobin: I had started at the New Yorker, and I knew something about law, but I was worried because I thought every reporter in the United States would be out there. What am I going to add? Tina Brown, who was my editor, said to me, “Look, there’s no story in New York, just go.” I had one lead. Alan Dershowitz, who had been my criminal law professor, had told me in a very vague way that one of the cops who testified at the preliminary hearing was a bad guy. That’s basically all he said.
This is Mark Fuhrman, I assume?
It was Mark Fuhrman, and so I thought to myself, Well, if he’s such a bad guy maybe there are lawsuits against him. In those pre-Internet days I went to the basement of the Superior Court Building, and there were these huge mountains of files. I didn’t remember exactly how to spell his name so I went to a pay phone and I called a fact-checker I had been working with, who was, and is, Dave Kirkpatrick, who’s now a big-shot reporter at the New York Times. Miraculously I found a lawsuit involving Mark Fuhrman, but it wasn’t as I expected with him as the defendant. No, he was a plaintiff. He had sued the city of Los Angeles for pension because being a cop made him hate black people so much.
Right. He said it caused him to have a disability. The Los Angeles Police Department said, “No, go back to work as a cop,” which is typical of the LAPD. I thought, Well, this is interesting. Anyway, I basically just barged my way into Robert Shapiro’s office in Century City, uninvited, unexpected, and I managed to talk my way past the receptionist and literally showed up at his door. He said, in effect, “Well, if you think that’s bad, we think he planted the glove that was found in O.J.’s house.” I wrote up a story for the New Yorker about that, and it found an enormous amount of attention. That led to my getting a book deal and my being on television and 20 years later to this series. Now, fast forward to this summer. I was on the set a couple of different times, and just by coincidence one time I was on the set during the scene that the actor played me interviewing Bob Shapiro in that exact exchange.
Who was the actor who played you?
Chris Conner, a very good solid working actor in LA, was talking to John Travolta, who’s playing Robert Shapiro. He’s better-looking than I am, which is a great relief.
You probably didn’t think it was going to be John Travolta playing Robert Shapiro when you were around there 20 years ago.
No. It was just so surreal.
What does Dershowitz make of the case now?
I quarreled with him about it. I have a whole list of people whom I like very much but long ago agreed to disagree with about the case. The late Johnnie Cochran, my friend Barry Scheck, Alan. Although Alan … I wouldn’t exactly call him a passionate believer in O.J.’s innocence.
If the same case happened today, do you think the public response would have been different?
I think the utterly remarkable thing is that it feels so topical in the nation of Ferguson, Missouri. And one of the things that the [show’s creators] did was have the show open with the Rodney King line, and that to me was why the case was important in 1994, and it feels only more topical in 2016.
The conversation about police now has obviously now gone national, but in that time, despite the fact that police brutality was happening everywhere, it was a very Los Angeles–based conversation.
Absolutely. Rodney King and everything else that African Americans experienced in Los Angeles from their policemen. Rodney King is a progenitor of all these cellphone videos that we have. It was unusual that a person had a video camera to take a picture of the Rodney King beating. Now of course everybody has a phone, and that has been one of the key factors in all the new attention to the issue.
Do you think O.J. could get off today? My memory is that there was more skepticism about exactly what DNA was among the general public than there is now.
Yeah, there was a lot. DNA was very new. Also just in terms of the media, it’s important to remember that during this trial there was essentially no Internet. There was no Fox News, there was no MSNBC. There was Court TV and CNN showing it gavel to gavel. You couldn’t have a single story occupy the news media to the extent that this one did because there were just so many fewer outlets.
Twitter would be all over it, and there would be websites devoted entirely to deconstructing the evidence.
Did you ever had any interactions with O.J.?
To this day, not a single one. I have written him many letters in prison. I tried to get in touch with him before he went away. Not one word.
What was interesting about Cuba Gooding’s performance was that he didn’t try to do an imitation.
I agree with you completely, but I think that’s true for all the acts. You are talking about people who are still very familiar in certain respects, and yet I found all of the portrayals complex in the best sense of the word. There’s an interesting distinction between the actors who look a lot like their characters and the ones who don’t. Sarah Paulson looks like Marcia Clark, Courtney Vance looks like Johnnie Cochran, Schwimmer looks like Kardashian, but Cuba doesn’t look like O.J. and Travolta doesn’t look like Shapiro.
Travolta doesn’t really look like anyone anymore. What was it like being on set?
We were on the courtroom set one day, and it was the day that Johnnie Cochran raised the issue of the Colombian necktie. I said to the director during a break in the shooting, “I really remember sitting here listening to Johnnie talk about a Colombian necktie, thinking I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about.” Anthony [Hemingway] says to me, “Well, did you go back and Google it?” I said, “Yeah, I went to a pay phone, put in a quarter, and asked directory assistance for a company that would be created about a decade later.” I just thought it was such an interesting example of how the world had changed in ways that we don’t even think about.
In regards to Gooding, it seems like as an actor you have to decide whether you are playing someone who’s wrongly accused of murder or playing someone who killed his wife and doesn’t want to get caught.
To be honest, I don’t know enough about acting to answer that question. I remember having a conversation with Schwimmer, who was a very serious, studious guy. He had never really played an actual human being before. He had always played invented characters, which is what most actors do most of the time. It was a new and interesting experience for him.
Because of the added responsibility?
Yeah, it was like a sense of responsibility. He’s spoken publicly about how he spoke a lot with Kris Jenner. He and Courtney had the situation where the characters they’re playing have passed away, so [talking to them] obviously that wasn’t an option.
You have any good Travolta stories?
Look, I grew up, like most people in my generation, watching John Travolta. I was thrilled to meet him. He was the most popular person on the set. He is an old-fashioned movie star. He treats people with enormous respect.
Do you feel like the show takes a position on whether O.J. was guilty?
No, it very explicitly does not. In my book, on about Page 3, I made it very clear that I think he’s guilty, as I do. Ryan didn’t want the story to be as if he’d done it. He wanted the story to be about the prospect and the people and the legal world in which the case was tried. I wouldn’t say the series abounds with alternative suspects, but it is definitely different from my book, [which states] explicitly that they did it and you know this.
If people come away from the series thinking, Well I don’t know who did this, would that bother you?
No. I’ve been talking about this case for 20 years. One of the things I learned early on is that people’s beliefs about this case are like their religious beliefs. They just believe what they’re going to believe, which is fine with me. If people want to watch this series and think that Colombian drug lords killed these two people, that’s fine with me.
I just read a whole piece about how O.J.’s son is the real killer. Have you heard about this conspiracy theory?
Some lunatic keeps emailing me about this. It is completely absurd.
Well, for one thing, he had an alibi. He was cooking at a restaurant. End of story. There were people with him, plus, did he have size-11 shoes? Was he walking away from the scene bleeding from his left hand? No, that was his father. It’s just absurd. Was Jason convicted of domestic violence against the person who was killed in this case? What was Jason’s motive? The whole thing is absurd.
Once the real killer is discovered this will all be academic.
Yeah, well I’m not holding my breath on that.