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VERDICT FOR E!’S O.J.

Cablenet axes actor, but reason in dispute

The only certainty is this: Stephen Wayne Eskridge, who has been playing the role of O.J. Simpson in E! Entertainment Television’s nightly Simpson civil trial re-enactments, was bounced permanently from the show on Friday and actor Gil Colon was named Monday as his replacement on “The O.J. Civil Trial” (5 p.m. on E!).

As for why Eskridge was canned, the reasons given Monday by E! and by Eskridge were as wildly contrasting as the prosecution and defense theories broached in the trial itself.

Unreasonable demands

E! released a statement Monday charging that Eskridge had made unreasonable salary demands and was threatening to bolt if his contract were not renegotiated.

“Stephen and his agent failed to live up to the agreement that he and his agent signed at the beginning of the production,” John Rieber, VP of programming for E!, said in the statement.

“Once Stephen gained national notoriety in the role of O.J. Simpson, he and his agent presented demands for unreasonable salary increases and other concessions, in an effort to ‘hold up’ the network. It was E!’s intention to continue to live up to its original agreement with Eskridge, and even to sweeten the deal, but Stephen and his agent refused to consider any of the rational economic alternatives we presented.”

All of this comes as news to Eskridge, the actor said in response on Monday. He called E!’s charge that he pressured the network for more money “a ridiculous, bold-faced lie” that he believes was hatched “to capitalize on the publicity that would come as a result.”

Missing pay

Indeed, Eskridge maintained Monday that not only was E! paying him only $625 per week, the network hadn’t paid him at all since mid-November. But he never missed a day of work despite his spotty compensation. But because he was working exclusively for E!, Eskridge couldn’t field other offers.

“It was important for me to see this thing through,” Eskridge said. “It’s such a lie to say that I tried to renegotiate this. I was counting on making a name for myself from this, not making a mint.”

Eskridge suspected that the real reason E! fired him was an interview he gave to KCAL-TV in which he discussed the rigors of playing O.J. and his fears of being typecast.

“Someone at E! didn’t like that; they wanted me to talk about all of the offers flooding in to me instead,” Eskridge said. “They thought I was ungrateful. So now they’re spreading likes about me to soil my name. Please tell Hollywood I’m not a problem.”

An E! spokeswoman said the network stands by its statement.

Colon, who replaces Eskridge as Simpson beginning with today’s show, has had a recurring role on the CBS soap “The Young and the Restless” and has guested on “Melrose Place” and “The Father Dowling Mysteries,” among other programs.

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