O.J. by the Sea

Notes from different corners of the world.
Feb. 14 1997 3:30 AM

O.J. by the Sea

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       For people who think the Simpson saga has been primarily about race--and the cable selector offers an ample supply--the second verdict is the end of the story. But at the center of this spectacle, pushing the tragedy that initiated it to the edge of the frame, has always been celebrity. Without it, and the money that followed, a black man named Simpson accused of these crimes would have been tried and convicted in the time it takes Robert Shapiro to recharge his cell phone. With it, the defendant has been able to buy one team of world-class attorneys, and a second team that's performed like, well, like the second team.
       So the last two days of testimony in what may be the last Simpson trial we'll ever see (there'll be more trials, but in obscure places like custody court or bankruptcy court) finally get to the heart of the matter--the value the world puts now, and in the future, on the name and likeness of Orenthal James Simpson. Particularly on Thursday, with the testimony of plaintiffs' witness Mark Roesler, who controls the rights to the names of celebrities living and dead, human and equine (from James Dean to Cigar), the Simpson civil trial becomes an adversarial seminar on the question of whether, in late 20th-century America, notoriety makes a famous person's name worth less or more.
       Roesler is preceded to the stand by Neill Freeman, a forensic accountant. I don't know about you, but at High School Career Day this is a job they never told me was available. Freeman goes through the financial statements supplied by the defendant and made some "adjustments," all of them upward. You wouldn't have thought anything could be more soporific to a roomful of reporters than a reprise of the DNA testimony, but this was. And yet, we pay more attention to the ins and outs of O.J. Simpson's tax situation--whether the tax liability on his pension funds, for example, should be 50 percent or 62 percent, and why--than we ever pay to our own taxes. Such is the power of celebrity.
       Freeman estimates Simpson's net worth, as of the end of 1996, at $15,703,529. That's right, down to the dollar. Some estimating. He offers the quote of the day when, after noting that O.J. sold off some assets such as Honey Baked Ham franchises and insurance proceeds, he says, "I don't see where the cash went." This is as close as the plaintiffs get to alleging what anti-O.J. sentiment on the street has claimed to know for months, that the guy has been squirreling away assets in places unknown. And Freeman provides the most disturbing document in the plaintiffs' punitive case, a catalog of the revenues accruing to Simpson as a result of the murders: almost a million dollars for the book I Want to Tell You, $303,000 for the home video issued last year, $433,693 for the sale of post-verdict homecoming photos to the Star, and just over a million dollars from autographs and memorabilia sales, much of them while the man was in jail. The name of the game is fame.
       And that's what Roesler--with his thinning dark blond hair and his black three-piece suit a poster boy of putative seriousness--is here to talk about in the afternoon. His company has headquarters in Indianapolis, but he speaks with a deep Chicago twang, and it's all the more bizarre, or appropriate, to have the portrait he draws of a celebrity-crazed America limned in the broad vowels of the heartland.
       The surface irony is that the plaintiffs, who just successfully argued to the jury that Simpson is a monster, are now in the position of defending his continued revenue-producing potential, while the defense, so recently painting him as a benevolent victim, is now claiming that his worldwide fame is as worthless as a high-mileage Yugo. But a layer below, the plaintiffs are suggesting that in modern America evil is additive, rather than subtractive, to fame. A hundred years ago, the idea of celebrity itself, cut loose from the moorings of accomplishment, would have seemed batty. Now, the notion that celebrity can be engorged by notoriety seems normal, a concept familiar enough to critics of the culture. But hearing it argued out in a court of law is stunning: You should award us a lot of money, because our society is this sick.
       Carlos Rogers, who would have sacrificed his NBA career in order to donate a kidney to his dying sister, has nowhere near the number of endorsement deals held by Dennis Rodman, who kicked a cameraman unfortunate enough to be doing his job on the end line (a cameraman, interestingly, who subsequently got into trouble for spousal abuse; Rep. Sonny Bono was right, the beat does go on). Roesler testifies that Mike Tyson's autograph zoomed in value after the boxer was convicted of rape, that O.J.'s autograph on an 8-by-10 went from $20 to $60 after the murders on Bundy. This latter information comes from a trade magazine for sports-memorabilia buyers and sellers called Tuff Stuff, which also reports that only five living sports figures have autographs worth more than the man this jury has found liable for two gruesome murders: Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and the aforementioned Tyson. Where's Michael Jordan? Maybe he has to assault his cartoon bunny pal, or gamble more publicly. "I believe," Roesler says firmly, "that Mr. Simpson can earn one million dollars a year signing autographs."
       Roesler testifies that Simpson filed for six different trademarks (including my personal favorite, "Team O.J., Justice for All"), to apply to 20 different classes of products and services. All the filings followed the murders, including one that covered, among other items, cutlery. Neither side presents convincing evidence on this potentially spooky point. Either O.J. was ghoulishly planning to come out with a Simpson line of knives, or he was pre-emptively guarding against some other ghoul trying to do likewise. We, and the jury, are left to infer as we like.
       In the area of product licensing, Roesler quotes Skip Taft's deposition, saying that Simpson had 20 to 50 serious discussions with possible licensees during the 41/2 months beginning in October 1995. "That's a fairly significant number," he adds. Roesler doesn't see much of a future for Simpson in endorsements and advertising; we've seen the last of this guy running through airports for a car-rental company. But he sees an income of $100- to $250-thousand a year for O.J. in the field of media exposure: exclusive interviews, books, sales of photographs (like the photos of the post-criminal-verdict scene at Rockingham that ended up on the supermarket racks between TV Guide and the Tic Tacs).
       Bob Baker has to experience a profound, if familiar, humiliation: Having had the jury tell him they thought he and his client were baldfaced liars, he now must stand before them for these next two days and whittle away at the net-worth estimates of the plaintiffs. He might as well have a bull's eye painted on his chest and a "Kick Me" sign taped to his butt. But, somewhat morosely, he soldiers on: "You believe," he challenges Roesler, "that the market for O.J. Simpson autographs is not going to diminish as a result of Tuesday's verdict?"
       "That's correct."
       Baker then proceeds to offer Roesler the rights to the total package of name-and-likeness earnings off the Simpson name, for $25 million (Roesler's total estimate), for $20 million, and the witness takes a pass. But: "I think that for the complete package that price would be a bargain."
       "You go out and sell it," Baker snaps, "and we'll give you a commission."
       "Thank you," Roesler snaps back.
       Presaging the next day's testimony by defense witnesses, Baker asks if Roesler knows whether the prepaid phone card marketed with Simpson's picture and autograph was or was not a total flop, if he knows whether any Simpson rep concluded any sales at the recent Super Bowl. The witness doesn't know. Baker finishes with a familiar technique, used by both sides--reminding the jury how much money the witness is getting to testify (the plaintiffs frequently refer to Dr. Baden's 100 G's). Roesler testifies he charged Baker $350 for his deposition, but also has an outstanding bill of $15,000, payable by the plaintiffs.
       In redirect, Peter Gelblum suggests the plaintiffs' argument about Simpson's poor-mouthing: "Do you know if Mr. Simpson was even trying to sell anything during the last six months?"
       "He ... he ... doesn't look like he's been trying," Roesler offers. It is, he concludes, "inconceivable" that Simpson couldn't make money off his autograph.
       Roesler may have an impact on the jury, but he doesn't impress the paid observers. Journalists after his testimony rank him as the "plaintiffs' Robert Groden," and one lawyer-tator who's also a baseball-card collector seethes: "This guy doesn't know anything."
       The next day, Simpson's business manager, Skip Taft, balding, gray, and gruff, estimates Simpson's net worth in the four-figure negative range and his future earning power at zero. When Gelblum challenges such negativity, eliciting the fact that Taft himself has billed his client around a hundred grand in the last year, and at least some of it has been paid, Taft virtually yells at him about the lack of a market for Simpsoniana: "Show me the money! That's the deal. There's nobody out there." Two more witnesses underline the defendant's dire prospects, one a marketer who was discouraged from presenting O.J. material at a recent Heisman Trophy-winners memorabilia show, the other a retailer who says that Simpson material flew off the shelves in the first year following the murders, but might as well be stuck with Krazy Glue there now.
       No one seems to get to the heart of the matter. The widespread--at least white-spread--boycott of everything-O.J. followed his acquittal downtown, reflecting a public feeling that, if the court system wouldn't punish the man, it was up to each individual. But now, with another jury having held him responsible, having publicly called Simpson a killer, morbid curiosity has been released from the straitjacket of guilt. Also, public interest in Simpson stuff might well be enhanced by the knowledge that the proceeds were going to victims' families instead of the killer.
       While the attorneys make their closing arguments Friday afternoon--Petrocelli wondering what a supposedly broke man needs with a mansion, servants, a Bentley, and a business manager; Baker morosely abjuring the jury to follow the law and not use punitives (or "punis," as courthouse regulars call them) to destroy O.J.--I'm flying into Panama City, Fla., on an unrelated matter. Unrelated until the driver who meets me at the airport reminds me that this is the place where, right after the criminal verdict, O.J. came to play golf. "I couldn't believe he would come here and rub our noses in it," the driver says with just a hint of Southern dialect. "He was just walking around with no security, and anybody could have gotten up into a tree or something. I mean, we're not that far from Alabama." It's cold down here.
       Monday afternoon, when I return to Camp O.J., the punitive verdict--$25 million, split between the Browns and the Goldmans--has been returned. In the Doubletree pressroom, a list is being passed around but, for a change, it's not a waiting list for those once-priceless courtroom passes; it's a name-and-phone-number list for the wrap party. Like movies on location, and world's fairs, and, yes, circuses, this temporary encampment breaks down quickly, but strange, strong bonds have been forged along the way.
       At a network farewell party just up the street from the courthouse Monday night, a criminal-trial witness tells me how relieved he was at not having to testify in this case, tells me also what a fun-loving guy Fred Goldman is. I've tried to stay away from the principals, to watch this spectacle as a TV show that just happened not to be on TV. But at the Doubletree bar later, I hear from a veteran reporter on the Simpson beat of frequent phone calls from Brown attorney John Kelly, chafing at the attention paid to Petrocelli, complaining about the lack of ink for himself. Sure enough, in ensuing interviews, Kelly never fails to mention that the final two pieces of testimony read back to the jurors were his cross-examination of O.J. and his direct of A.C. Even in a victory this big, this long-sought, there's never enough credit to go around.
       You could, if you wanted to, regard the Simpson saga as a Dickensian portrait of celebrity, violence, money, sex, and, oh, all right, race in late 20th-century America. You could see in it a perfect rendering of this society's surrender to nonstop lawyering. There was even, for the more sociologically inclined, a detailed study of two vastly different upper-class Southern California enclaves, the WASPish coastal Orange County of the Browns, and the show-bizzy and Jewish Brentwood, home of the Butcher. Having attended a major political event for this magazine, it's easy for me to defend interest in this drawn-out story. The Simpson trials offered more surprises, more glimpses of real human behavior, more connection to life as it's actually lived, than does post-Cold War American politics. No wonder Clinton's grasp on network coverage for the State of the Union depended on how fast the Browns could make it up Interstate 405.
       When I was a kid, there were technological marvels called View-Masters that allowed you to view three-dimensional slides. If, as I thought possible from early on, the Simpson case was a matter of a guilty man being framed, one jury verdict was insufficient to reflect the entire reality. It was like closing one eye while looking through the View-Master. The second verdict added the third dimension. Unless you're sufficiently well-grounded in advanced physics to recognize the presence of a fourth, this should be enough.
       But, as they say in rock 'n' roll, too much is never enough.

Harry Shearer is a writer, actor, and director who has met both Kato Kaelin and Heidi Fleiss.

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