Ninety-five million people watched that slow-speed Bronco chase; 150 million were glued to their TVs throughout the “trial of the century.”
But the creative team behind FX’s 10-part series “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” — which has earned rave reviews from critics — is confident they’ve still got surprises in store for viewers.
“Our position with the show was, we were interested in telling you things you didn’t know,” executive producer Ryan Murphy tells Variety ahead of the Feb. 2 series premiere. “Because we all know that case has been such a part of the culture and has been for so long.”
“I thought I knew everything about it — I was so into it,” he adds. “But when I read the first two scripts, there was so much that I didn’t know at all.”
The series, which is based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book “The Run of His Life: The People V. O. J. Simpson,” was adapted by screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who mined the bestseller for telling details. Among the revelations that surprised them: Defense attorney Johnnie Cochran (who’s played in the series by Courtney B. Vance) was allowed to redecorate O.J. Simpson’s house ahead of the visit by the jury, replacing naked photos of his girlfriend Paula Barbieri with African art.
For Murphy, the project echoed his HBO film “A Normal Heart” in the challenge to get it right. “These were all real people,” he says. “I wanted to make sure we did our best with being true to history. I was nervous about the historical accuracy, but I think we got it right.” The project was heavily vetted by the network’s legal team, he told reporters at the recent TV Critics Assn. press tour, with every line reviewed by at least five lawyers.
The project had a circuitous route to the screen: executive producer Brad Simpson found the Toobin book in a used book store. “It wasn’t until we made our deal with FX and knew they wanted to be in the limited series business that Brad conjured up the book and said, what about this?,” says his producing partner, Nina Jacobson. “And so what had been just a great read a couple of years earlier suddenly became a very active pursuit for the company.” They lined up the screenwriters, and their compelling scripts caught Murphy’s attention. From there, it was just a matter of lining up the cast — a dream team in and of itself. (Among the cast: Cuba Gooding Jr., Sarah Paulson, Nathan Lane, David Schwimmer, Malcolm-Jamal Warner and more.)
Those scripts were key to landing John Travolta to play lead attorney Robert Shapiro. “I was flattered, Ryan’s at the top of his game,” he said. “But I what I wanted to investigate was, was this a guilty pleasure or was this a serious project? When I realized the quality of writing was hitting relevance that still existed, then it started to hit home.” Travolta asked for, and was granted, a producer credit to protect his role, but never had to invoke its power.
Twenty years may have passed since the verdict, but the themes are still relevant today. All involved point to the cases of police brutality that have dominated headlines. “To me, it doesn’t feel like a period piece, it feels very modern,” says Murphy. “Toobin’s theory was the verdict is all about race. That’s happening all over the country still.”
Echoes Brad Simpson, “If you are white or you are black you have a very different experience with and view of the criminal justice system. At the time it was hard to contextualize and see that. Jeffrey Toobin’s book sees that.”
The case is also “about the birth of the 24 hour news cycle, the birth of the celebrity obsession,” says Murphy. “As we were making it and events like Ferguson were happening, you saw the things we were struggling with in 1994, 1995, we’re still struggling with. We haven’t figured them out.”
Toobin couldn’t be more pleased with the final product. “One of the things I love about this series is that it captures the complexity of the case,” he says. “I love Courtney’s portrayal of Johnnie Cochran, because Johnnie was someone who was very serious about civil rights but who also badly wanted to win. Those two feelings can sometimes be in tension.”
Expanding Cochran’s role was a note that FX CEO John Landgraf gave to the producing team. “If you’re tracking the narrative of the trial, he’s a later addition on the dream team,” says Jacobson. “But it’s a TV series in which he’s one of the key protagonists with the most compelling journeys.” Landgraf pushed them to find ways to integrate him from episode one, to show off the lawyer’s work on police brutality.
“People say it and it’s true: The Bronco chase brought us together as a country because we all watched it together, and the verdict of that case in many ways split the country apart,” Murphy says. “The thing that I hope that people get from watching it is that they see a new side to these people they think they know. I hope that they really can understand how the jury came to that verdict. By the end, love it or hate it, agree or disagree, you really understand how that verdict was reached.”
“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” premieres Tuesday, Feb. 2 at 10 p.m. on FX.