When I decided to undertake a fact-check of FX’s The People v O.J. Simpson, I figured it would be an exercise in catching the creators in embarrassing deviations from the truth. Instead, the experience of simultaneously watching the show and reading the book it’s based on, Jeff Toobin’s The Run of His Life, has mostly just left me impressed with the volume of details the show gets painstakingly right. More than anything it reminds me of seeing a movie with subtitles in a language you happen to know—you read the translations for fun, and you feel a little thrill from knowing that you’re picking up on stuff other people in the audience aren’t privy to.
My “methods” are not remotely exhaustive—lord knows there are innumerable books, articles, and court documents I could read if I really wanted to, and plenty of people who would dispute this or that aspect of Toobin’s version of events. The prosecutor Marcia Clark, for instance, told New York last week that Toobin was wrong to have portrayed her and her colleagues in the D.A.’s office as being taken by surprise when Robert Shapiro and Johnnie Cochrane, O.J.’s lawyers, made race a centerpiece of their case.
I’m not trying to litigate that. I’m just trying to find out some crazy facts about the O.J. Simpson trial! To that end, let’s dive in to Episode 2.
O.J.’s suicide note
Maybe the best detail that doesn’t appear in the show is that Robert Kardashian went to great lengths to correct and smooth out the very poorly composed suicide note that O.J. Simpson left for his fans. In the press conference during which Kardashian read the letter out loud—you can see it on YouTube—he opens his recitation as follows: “First, everyone understand I had nothing to do with Nicole’s murder. I loved her, always have and always will.”
What O.J.’s letter actually said, according to Toobin, was: “First everyone understand nothing to do with Nicole’s murder. I loved her, allways have always will.”
That’s all subject to one big [sic], of course. But that’s not even the point. The point is that, incredibly, O.J. left out the words “I had.” And while the omission could be dismissed as a mere typo, it seems like fair-game for interpretation considering it happened while O.J. was trying to forcefully deny his involvement in the murder. As Toobin puts it, “it is tempting to infer some psychological significance from Simpson’s failure to render correctly this most important sentence of his letter.”
The Toobin book has some lovely background information on Robert Kardashian that, so far at least, we haven’t gotten much of in the show. For instance: After law school, he quit being a lawyer almost right away, and started a music magazine that he later sold his stake in for a cool $3 million. Also: “At the time of the murders he was running Movie Tunes, a company that played music in movie theaters between shows.”
The bigger picture on Kardashian, as portrayed by David Schwimmer, is so far on-point: In the show as in the book, he comes across as a hangdog yes-man who worshipped O.J. and clung to their friendship with something approaching desperation. In Sept. 1994, Toobin reports, Kardashian got into a conflict with the executive vice president of Movie Tunes when he signed the guy’s name to a full-page ad in some trade publication blaring the words “JUSTICE FOR THE JUICE.” The executive quit Movie Tunes in protest and later told the Hollywood Reporter, “Robert’s commitment to this case has overwhelmed every other corner of his life.”
The Bronco Chase
My favorite moment in Episode 2 happens after A.C. tells the 911 dispatcher that O.J. has a gun to his head, and she replies, “Is everything else OK?” In the show, this hilarious question is met with indignation: A.C., played by Malcolm-Jamal Warner, screams out, “What?! No! What kind of stupid ass question is that? Everything is terrible!” According to Toobin, A.C.’s reaction was a little more subdued in real life: “Everything right now is okay, Officer,” he is quoted as saying. “Everything is okay. He wants me to get him to his mom. He wants me to get him to his house.”
The stand-off that took place in front of O.J.’s house, during which it was unclear to the millions of people watching on live TV whether O.J. was about to kill himself, went a little differently in reality than it does on the show.
First off, Nicole Brown’s dog is improperly left out of the scene, which makes it twice now that the creators of this show have trampled over the dog’s truth. Per Toobin, Nicole’s Akita “wandered around the Bronco as O.J and A.C. lingered inside it.” (Side note: the dog was originally named after Kato Kaelin, but O.J.’s son Jason changed it to Satchmo after Nicole’s death.)
Second, the show portrays the crucial pre-surrender conversation as taking place between O.J. and Robert Kardashian, but in truth the main negotiator was Pete Weireter of the LAPD’s SWAT team. And finally, the thing that got A.C. to leave the Bronco was not O.J.’s go-ahead but the fact that he needed a new battery for his cell phone. It so happened that not long after A.C. got out of the car to run this errand, O.J. himself emerged and turned himself in.
And now, a lightning round:
Is it true that O.J. asked for a glass of orange juice after he surrendered?
Mixed report here: The Toobin book does say that O.J. drank some orange juice after he entered his house, but all it says is that the chief of the SWAT unit gave it to him, so we don’t quite know that O.J. asked for it. (We do know he liked orange juice enough to shill for it: According to the L.A. Times, he was a pitchman for a juice-maker called TreeSweet Products throughout the second half of the 1980s. Later, O.J. was “advised by doctors to stop drinking orange juice because its acidity was harmful to his arthritic knee.” You can watch one of the old spots here.)
Did O.J. and A.C. really take the Ford Bronco to Nicole’s gravesite after they absconded from O.J.’s house?
Probably not, but at the very least they thought about it. In the deposition he gave in his civil case, Simpson said he and Cowlings had pulled off the freeway to go to the cemetery, but decided to skip it when they saw the police had staked it out.
Did the 911 call that led police to the Bronco really take place near the forking of Interstate 5 and the 405?
Yep. According to Toobin, the call was made by a couple near the El Toro Y interchange, which was about five and a half minutes away from Nicole’s gravesite. One funny liberty the showmakers took is that they made the young man who called the Bronco in look like he was mainly bemused by the sighting; in reality, according to Toobin, he told the dispatcher, “We looked at [A.C.], you know, and he like stared us down, like he was death.” You can kind of understand why the creators cut this—it would have been a bit much, even for this show.
At one point someone in the D.A.’s office jokes that the Bronco chase was “the world’s longest Ford Bronco commercial.” Did it actually help sales?
According to USA Today it might have—Ford sold more than 37,000 Broncos in 1994, which was 7,000 more than they’d sold the year before—but it wasn’t enough to save the car from being discontinued two years later. (A spokesperson told USA Today that Ford “had decided to move away from the two-door, two-row, large SUV … long before O.J. made it a celebrity.”)
Is it true that NBC tore away from coverage of the NBA finals to show the chase?
Yes—that is not the sort of thing this show would make up. It was Game 5 of the Knicks vs. the Rockets, and the game was still going on by the time O.J. surrendered. The Knicks won by 7.
Did A.C. really scream, “You know who this is, goddamnit!” when he called 911?
Yeah, it seems like he did. Though Toobin has the line as, “You know who I am, goddamnit!”
Was “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys really playing during the climactic moments of the Bronco chase?
Alas, this one is unknowable. But let’s just say yes.