When it came out in 1996, Jeffrey Toobin's book The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson became the definitive chronicle of The Trial of the Century and the events leading up to Simpson's 1995 acquittal, which polarized the country along racial lines.
Two decades later, The New Yorker staff writer and CNN senior legal analyst's book has been turned into one of the year's best shows: the FX miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Premiering tonight at 10, the star-studded, sensational series uses Toobin's book and reporting to reveal how the seemingly airtight case against Simpson unraveled, and how the issues raised during the trial remain startlingly relevant today. (Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Simpson, John Travolta is Robert Shapiro, Sarah Paulson is Marcia Clark and David Schwimmer is Simpson's pal Robert Kardashian.)
As The People v. O.J. Simpson debuts, Toobin—who serves as a consultant on the miniseries—talked about how he helped shape the series, what it was like to see himself represented onscreen and how different the trail would have been today.
Adweek: Was there any interest in adapting your book before this?
Jeffrey Toobin: I never sold an option. I believe there were some discussions in the immediate years afterwards, but the argument you always heard was the same, which was: People knew it all, and they were sick of it. I never believed that.
Why now? It's obvious after Ferguson and other events in recent months during production, but why the interest a year ago?
I think this is the biggest media event in American history that had never been dramatized. And it just cried out for it. These are big characters, big issues, a fascinating and surprising story that belongs in a dramatization. I consider myself an evangelist for this production; I think it's great. And it vindicates exactly why you would go to this story again.
Did you have any worries, even initially, about what the producers might do to your book?
I made a decision from the very beginning that I wrote my book, and I stand behind every word of it. I was determined to help the filmmakers do the work they wanted to do, but it was their work, and I wasn't going to agonize about my vision. Now, as it happened, I turned out to be enormously pleased with how it turned out, but I know there is this history with authors being frustrated, angry and disappointed, and I resolved from the beginning that I was going to enjoy this ride. And I have, enormously.
As a consultant, how much input did you have in the miniseries?
I had some pretty extensive discussions at an early stage with Larry [Karaszewski] and Scott [Alexander], the main screenwriters, and [executive producers] Brad [Simpson] and Nina [Jacobson], just about the story. At that point, I then reviewed scripts and said, "This doesn't ring true." I would also frequently answer questions about "What does this look like?"—to the extent I could remember them.
The miniseries devotes more time to the Kardashian family than your book did.
How could they not?
Kim, Khloe, Kourtney and Kris Jenner were in your book because they were a part of the story.
I joke that if I knew how famous the name was going to become, I would have put a lot more emphasis on it. There's that very funny but poignant scene when Robert [played by David Schwimmer] takes them to dinner and he talks about what it means to be a Kardashian. Obviously that's not something in my book, but it would have been dramatic malpractice not to acknowledge what the Kardashian name has become.
You're a character in the miniseries. What was it like to see someone play you on screen?
Just sort of by coincidence, I happened to be on the set the day that most of [actor] Chris Conner's scenes with Travolta were shot, and I have a cool photograph of the three of us together. I was hugely relieved they picked a good-looking guy to play me, better looking than I am! It was surreal to watch actors playing an event that actually took place that I was actually involved in.
That scene, in the third episode, makes it seem like you're getting played a bit by Robert Shapiro, when he uses your New Yorker story to float the idea that O.J. was framed by LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman.
I think one of the issues with my piece that was raised at the time was, was I being used? And my response to that was, my sense of the percentage of people I interview who have some sort of agenda with me, is roughly 100 percent. So that, to me, was not a reason not to do the story, it's just to put it in context. Did Shapiro have an agenda with me? Absolutely. That's how journalism works.
So much of the cast is so perfect, but which actor comes closest to capturing the essence of who that person really was?
I'll give you two people who I think inhabit their characters to a fascinating degree. One is Courtney [B. Vance, who plays Johnnie Cochran] because you get from Courtney the combination of the true civil rights dedication that Johnnie had, and his enormous desire to win. Which are both at play in him. And I think Sterling [K. Brown] as [Chris] Darden captures the incredibly awkward, unpleasant position he was put in by having to defend, in a sense, the LAPD, while also trying to get a conviction.
As you look back on this trial two decades later, what had we forgotten about?
I don't know if I'd forgotten about it, but I think the centrality of the relationship between African Americans and the police. As we discussed, there are aspects of the screenplay that do not come directly from my book, but the thing that I am so pleased that does come from my book is that the story is told through the prism of race. That is the indispensable overhang to the story, and that's what makes it feel so topical in the era of Ferguson. I had an editor who said good stories always turn out to be topical because they are evergreen.
The miniseries and your book detail the many ways that the prosecution bungled this case and how the defense took advantage of that. What was the prosecution's biggest mistake?
There were blunders, but the indispensable reason for the acquittal was the legacy of the LAPD in Los Angeles. African Americans, for good reason, had such suspicion of the LAPD that the defense's hypothesis about Fuhrmann's misdeeds were the indispensable aspect of the case. Now, should Chris Darden have asked O.J. to try on the glove? No, that was a big blunder. But I don't think that made a difference. You can't blame Marcia Clark or Chris Darden for the history of the LAPD.
Your book makes Simpson's guilt very clear, and the fact that even his own lawyers were convinced he was guilty. But the series leaves his guilt more up in the air.
Correct. It is probably the most major distinction between the series and my book. And I think it was a very smart decision on their part because if they were to draw a conclusion on that, that would be the story. When in fact, the series is about the process and the people. And, by the way, the series doesn't exactly present credible alternative suspects! I wouldn't exactly say it's a 50-50 proposition.
How do you think this trial would have played out in today's world of social media and TMZ?
Not enough people remember how long ago this was. In 1994, there was no Internet. There was no Fox News. There was no MSNBC. You had a much more concentrated media world, so that the case was a national experience in the way that almost nothing could be today because people just didn't have the option.
Anthony Hemingway directed most of the episodes, and there's a reference in court to something called a "Colombian necktie." We were chatting on the set and I said to Anthony, I remember hearing that in court, and thinking, "What the hell is a Colombian necktie?" And he said to me, "Well, did you go and Google it?" And I said, "Yeah, I went to a pay phone, put in a quarter and said, 'Directory assistance, can you get me the number of a company that's going to be invented in about five years?'" That just gives you some sense of the world in which we were living.
What would that have been like in 2016?
Can you imagine how the evidence would have been dissected on Reddit or various websites? Would the case still have been a big deal? Absolutely. It just would have been a different kind of big deal. And can you imagine how social media would have exploded during the chase? Hashtag "what the fuck," or whatever.
Do you think so much would have leaked out that there wouldn't have been enough left for you to do the book?
People always think the whole story is known. It's never known! And I think good journalists, and I presume to include myself in that group, can always find a story afterward. Especially about something people are already interested in.