I heard a lot about the O.J. Simpson trial last year, the event’s twentieth anniversary. It seemed every time I turned on the radio or TV — granted I live in Los Angeles — some program host was interviewing a key player in the case.
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The hosts blabbed about “untold stories” and “secret tapes.” As I rushed to change the stations, I reminded myself I just had to make it through 2015 and O.J. would go away again. My own secret would be safe.
Then just recently, I saw the trailer for the upcoming O.J. series on FX.
All I could think as I watched John Travolta playing Robert Shapiro and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. was that the “Trial of the Century” (as well as their entire TV series) might have been avoided if I’d had the balls to do something I wouldn’t hesitate to do today.
If I had, maybe two people wouldn’t have been murdered. But then again, maybe not.
* * *
In late May 1994, I was an actor living in Santa Monica in a rent-controlled one bedroom with a sliver of an ocean view. Having recently moved from New York, I thought I’d hit the jackpot. I was four blocks from the beach and had my best friend from New York, Richie, living next door. I’d followed him out for pilot season, and he scored me the apartment. He’d found another one in the building for his friend, Mike, also an actor. The three of us spent our days roller-blading on the beach path or playing pick-up basketball. While we did audition regularly, we always found time to work in our sports, as being in shape was a requirement for 30-year-old leading men types.
“Hey, I’ve got auditions at eleven and two. What about hoops at four o’clock?” one of us would say.
“That’ll work. I’ve got a three but I’ll go early so I can make it back,” someone else would inevitably respond.
We considered working out to be a part of our career, one we were damn good at, but I never expected our obsession with fitness to result in an actual job.
“It’s Bobby,” the voice on the phone said, as if I didn’t know my acting manager’s voice. “Wanna make some money?”
“Sure.” Though I still had a support job, it was my goal to earn my living entirely from acting. And I was close.
“Nancy’s directing an exercise video. She needs a couple of guys.”
Nancy was Bobby’s wife. For some reason, she was a fan of mine, telling him I was the one who was going to hit it big. Still, I balked. I flashed back to the aerobics classes I’d done in New York in my skintight nut-hugger shorts. I always stood in the back because I was so pathetic. Even when I got the routines down it was embarrassing how uncoordinated I looked, but the draw of exercising in a class full of beautiful women had been too much to pass up.
“It pays $750 a day for two days.”
“Jeez, I don’t know.” I couldn’t admit even to my own manager that I sucked at dancing, since actors learn instinctively to say yes to job offers as they are so rare in coming. This one would pay my rent for three months.
“Mike’s doing it, too,” Bobby added. He represented all three of us.
I couldn’t imagine Mike was a better dancer than I was, though he was a better athlete. Richie could dance, but as the most successful of the three of us, I also knew he wouldn’t be doing the gig. Richie didn’t need the money — or the embarrassment.
“You get to keep the clothes. You get to keep the sneakers too,” Bobby said, continuing his sales pitch. Perhaps he thought I was holding up my nose at the ‘not really an acting’ acting job. I was a theatre guy, after all. I’d had my picture on the front page of The New York Times Arts section. I’d gotten a rave review in the New Yorker. But the free sneakers got me thinking. I’d been using shoe glue to cover the holes in my own.
“Uh, it’s just…don’t you have to know how to dance?”
Bobby laughed. “Nah, nah, nah. They’re not gonna do any of that stuff. It’s an exercise video for men. She’s gonna shoot you playing basketball and doing pushups and stuff. She wants real guys. It’s for O.J. Simpson.”
“Wait, O.J. Simpson?”
“Yeah, it’s his video. It’s gonna be called ‘O.J. Simpson’s Minimum Maintenance for Men.’”
This was a game changer. I’d grown up idolizing O.J., watching him set the NFL record for most yards rushing in a season. I’d seen him in countless rent-a-car commercials and for years as an announcer on Monday Night Football. I’d loved him in the movie “Capricorn One.”
“Okay, I’m in.”
* * *
I remember two things from the first time I met O.J.: how big he was and how friendly.
“Hey, Rob,” he said after Nancy had introduced me. I shook his massive hand and felt small, even though I’m over six feet tall and weighed 190 pounds. Years from his playing days, I could feel the strength that had enabled him to win the Heisman Trophy and then become an NFL All-Pro. Mike, who was my size too, described us as “twigs standing next to an oak.”
Besides me and Mike in the video, there was a lean and muscular black woman named Madonna, a voluptuous white woman named Desiree, and a white man, Richard, who I was told would be choreographing us while on camera.
I’d been so caught up in the excitement of meeting my hero that I hadn’t paid much attention to the room in which we were to film. It had a wooden floor — a dance floor. I began to sweat. Where was the basketball court? And why was Richard being referred to as the choreographer?
I pulled Mike aside. “Are we gonna have to dance?”
“Nah,” he said. “Probably just do some jumping jacks and calisthenics.”
“Then why are there women for a work-out video for men?”
“Kerby,” he said, using my nickname. “If they want guys to buy the video, they need hot chicks.” Mike pointed at Madonna and Desiree. They were, indeed, attractive women.
“Okay,” Richard called out. “Let’s get started.”
He was short and thin and reminded me of Richard Simmons. He lined us up and demonstrated a sequence of moves that made my aerobics classes in New York seem like amateur hour. To my shock, Madonna and Desiree executed the sequence perfectly on the very first try. Even O.J. handled it well. Mike struggled a bit, but like the athlete he was, he quickly figured it out.
I, on the other hand, was lost.
Richard came over to me looking pale, as if he’d seen a ghost, probably wondering how the hell I’d been hired. “You all right?” he asked, like maybe I had food poisoning.
“Yeah, it’s just I’m not a dancer.”
“Clearly,” he said, making sure the others could hear.
“Hey, I’m glad Rob’s here,” O.J. said, cackling and slapping his thigh. “He’s making me look good.” Everyone else laughed, too, except Richard, who stared at me like he was going to fire my ass. But by speaking up, O.J. had vouched for me. Rule number one in Hollywood was to make your star happy. Inadvertently, my terrible dancing had done that.
“Well,” Richard said to me. “You’re going to stand in the back. Make sure I don’t notice you.”
I nodded and looked over to Mike, who winced. The women gazed at me with sad but sympathetic half-smiles like I was the slow kid at school.
The rest of the day, Richard taught us the routines we would be doing on camera while O.J. cracked jokes, sang Isley Brothers songs (“This old heart of mine, been broke a thousand times”), or threw out random banter. He was never quiet.
“Hey Rob, don’t slip in that puddle,” O.J. hollered back at me when he saw the pool of sweat at my feet. It wasn’t the physical challenge of the exercise that was making me sweat so much, though it was pretty intense, but more my nerves, since Richard continued to glare my way. Though my dancing sucked, I had a photographic memory. Once I saw the routine, I was able to replicate it in my own kooky manner. This seemed to further infuriate Richard. If I’d just missed a move, I’m sure he would’ve fired me, no matter how good I was making O.J. look.
On break, O.J. grabbed me. “Rob, come here.” He took me to a corner of the large room where there was filming equipment and popped a videocassette into a VCR player that sat underneath a small TV.
“This is the trailer for the pilot I just shot. It’s about a team of ex-Navy Seals. It’s called ‘Frogmen.’”
“Cool,” I said, meaning it. I was thinking maybe O.J. could get me hired if the show went to series, though I wasn’t any more qualified to play a Navy Seal than I was a dancer in an exercise video.
O.J. beamed while the trailer played. It seemed rough to me, the story disjointed and hard to follow. It appeared O.J. recognized this because he kept filling me in.
“I play John ‘Bulldog’ Burke, the leader of the team,” he said.
After a slow-motion shot of him coming out of the ocean in a wetsuit, he added, “We had to undergo military training for the pilot.”
Later during a fight sequence, he told me, “My character’s a knife expert.”
“Cool,” I said over and over, like I was eleven and watching him break tackles on TV. It was exhilarating to be so close to the superstar, who seemed to have taken a liking to me. He wasn’t showing anyone else the ‘Frogmen’ video, though he did keep staring in the direction of Desiree.
I couldn’t blame him since I’d caught myself doing the same thing. She was the prototypical Southern California dream girl.
I followed O.J.’s gaze and we took her in together for a moment, then he turned back to me.
“Wanna watch it again?”
“Sure,” I said, thinking it would be a good way to further bond.
“Just hit rewind.”
O.J. rolled out of his chair like he was going off tackle and making a beeline for the hole.
I watched as he left me and hustled over to Desiree.
* * *
Later that day, while filming a routine that simulated boxing O.J. said, “Don’t want to get too close to the wife when you’re doing this.”
We smiled and laughed.
“Better get your spacing if you’re working out with the wife, if you know what I mean.”
Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink.
“You could always blame it on working out,” O.J. added, in case we hadn’t figured out he was making jokes about domestic violence.
This was on camera, in front of the female director and most of the crew. I was shocked but didn’t say a thing. No one did. We all let O.J. continue saying whatever he wanted. On break between shots, O.J. started in on Desiree.
“Mmm, mmm, mmm, what I’m gonna do to you tonight,” he said, looking her body up and down. “How many children we gonna have together?”
O.J. did everything but lick his lips. Sometimes he would silently leer at her for up to a minute. Desiree didn’t say a word or respond in any way, giving him only a tight-mouthed half-smile in return.
On a break when O.J. was preoccupied, I approached Desiree.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“You sure? We can get the union down here with one phone call. They’ll put a monitor on the set. He’ll have to stop right away.”
“No, it’s fine,” she said, like his behavior was no big deal. I sensed she was afraid to speak up and was worried about what calling the union could mean to her career. I understood her reluctance. I’d been told O.J. was best friends with the President of NBC.
“You can call anonymously,” I said.
“I can call. I’ll call for you.”
My intention had as much to do with winning her attention as it did with doing the right thing. For if it had only been doing the right thing when Desiree said she didn’t want me to call, what would it have mattered? Shouldn’t I have called anyway?
O.J.’s behavior was completely inappropriate regardless of whether she objected. It was offensive, I suspect, to everyone in that room. But no one did a thing.
That includes me.
* * *
One week later I sat on my apartment’s futon, gape-mouthed, as O.J. made a run for the border, taking my chances of a role on ‘Frogmen’ with him. I couldn’t believe he’d murdered two people, including his ex-wife. But why else would he be trying to escape? I stared at the TV as his friend and attorney, Robert Kardashian, read a letter O.J. had written, which sounded to me like a suicide note. Pictures of the victims flashed on the screen. It struck me how much Nicole Brown Simpson looked like Desiree. Maybe the Southern California buxom blonde was just O.J.’s type, but the resemblance was uncanny. The news reported that O.J. had been harassing his former wife, and, only a few years earlier, had pleaded no contest to a charge of domestic violence.
I felt sick.
All that week tabloids phoned me, wondering what it was like to work with O.J. right before the murders. But what was I going to say when they asked if I thought he’d done it? If I’d seen signs of harassment or abuse or even potential violence?
I didn’t return their calls. I did, however, call the District Attorney’s office.
They never called me back.
* * *
For over 20 years, I’ve played do-overs in my head. What if I’d called the union and convinced them to send a monitor? Could the events that were to occur have been changed?
Certainly with a monitor on set, O.J. would’ve stopped harassing Desiree, at least openly. He wouldn’t have made any more comments about punching his wife, words later subpoenaed in his trial. He (and Nancy) also would’ve stopped talking to me, since they would have learned it was me who called. I probably would have been fired and dropped by Bobby as a client, as well as blackballed from NBC and any upcoming dance videos. The only one to suffer consequences would’ve been me, not O.J., since being watched for a couple of hours by a union rep wouldn’t have stopped him from the kind of jealous rage that nearly decapitated his ex-wife.
I spent the next months (years really, since O.J. never seemed to go away — or get put away until 2008) auditioning while ignoring the tabloids that wanted to pay me to find out what had happened on that set. Of course now you can view it on YouTube. Outtakes from the shoot with much of O.J.’s inflammatory language are there for all to see and hear. You can judge for yourself whether saying something might’ve made a difference.
I’m the one hiding in the back.
* * *
Robert Kerbeck grew up surrounded by women making fun of his dancing. His website is www.robertkerbeck.com. Follow him on Twitter @robertkerbeck.
Thomas Howes is an artist living in Suffolk, England. He roasts coffee for his day job and spends the nights drawing science fiction. He goes by the name of Nodosaurus after a childhood obsession with that particular dinosaur. Follow his fanboy nonsense on Instragram @Nodosaurus.