If you thought FX's superb The People v. O.J. Simpson was the definitive TV miniseries about the NFL star turned criminal, you ain't seen nothing yet.
Just wait until tomorrow, when ABC airs the first part of O.J.: Made in America, a stunning 10-hour ESPN documentary series from director Ezra Edelman, who delves into Simpson's entire life and sets his NFL and Hollywood successes and subsequent murder trial against the turbulent backdrop of L.A. and race in the 1950s and '60s. It's a remarkable, tragic portrait of a superstar's rise and fall and our society's culpability in every twist of his story. Thought-provoking and engrossing, it pulls off something that might have seemed impossible: It surpasses the FX miniseries that preceded it. (ESPN will air the other four parts on Tuesday, Wednesday and next Friday and Saturday at 9 p.m.)
Some of the documentary's most interesting insights come during Saturday's premiere, which explores how Simpson became an advertising star almost as soon as he was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1969. He quickly signed deals with Chevrolet and RC Cola, but his most life-changing endorsement came in 1975 when he signed with Hertz.
The first ad, which saw him racing through an airport to get to his rental car, was an instant hit and lead to an astounding two-decade partnership between Hertz and Simpson that lasted until Simpson's trial for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
"There was never a story written about O.J. that didn't mention Hertz," said ad exec Mark Morris, former account supervisor with the Ted Bates & Co., Hertz's advertising agency at the time, in the documentary.
Simpson became the first African-American spokesman to appear in advertising campaigns for mass audiences, which until then had featured almost exclusively white actors. In the series, activist and sociologist Harry Edwards notes, "O.J. was the first to demonstrate that white folks would buy stuff based on a black endorsement as long as it was not pressed as a black endorsement. And the way they did that was to remove black people totally from any scene that O.J. was in." (Indeed, the spot's creators talk about adding in white characters cheering him on to counteract what they saw as a potentially problematic image of a black man running wild through an airport.)
Before his documentary debuts tomorrow, Edelman talked about what made Simpson so attractive to advertisers, how Madison Avenue made Simpson a superstar and how that other O.J. miniseries has been a mixed blessing.
Adweek: How did O.J. become the first African-American athlete who was also a star spokesman?
Ezra Edelman: One of the fascinating parts of the narrative is that especially when you think of the history, there had been very few black corporate pitchmen, period. I think the only person at that point had been Bill Cosby, who had hawked White Owl Cigars in the mid-'60s. The idea that a black kid from Potrero Hill, the housing projects in San Francisco, after two years of junior college, arrives at USC, and two years later, he's spit out of his place and he already has these endorsement deals—that transformation is amazing to me. The fact that Chevrolet and RC Cola and ABC television, for that matter, signed him to these deals before he'd even played a down of professional football is astounding. How much of it was the pure magnetism of O.J.? How much of it was the influence of that school and the power of that school? He was transformational as a football star, but you're talking about something that's never been done before, that happened before he became even an NFL star.
What convinced Chevrolet to take him on right out of college?
I have to fall back on the people that I interviewed in the film. First of all, the idea that [sports journalist] Robert Lipsyte says that O.J. very much was the first counterrevolutionary athlete and how that plays into an advertiser's desire in 1969 to take a chance on a black man endorsing the most All-American of brands—I don't know. As one of his business agents at the time, David Lockton, says in the film, the pitch was, "Here's a guy who is not going to make any waves, essentially, and you might get brownie points for stepping up, and also, there's a lot of black people who buy cars, too."
It goes back to the lovely tale we like to tell about Branch Rickey [who, as Brooklyn Dodgers president and gm, broke baseball's color barrier and signed] Jackie Robinson. In the end, Branch Rickey wanted to make money, and he wanted to win games. And the best way to do that is to field black ballplayers. So in some ways, it's as simple as, we can sell more cars to more people with a black face—at least to a market previously potentially unavailable to us—then that makes sense, combined with the fact that they knew he wasn't a political risk. But this is all speculative.
Hertz CEO Frank Olson says that he saw O.J. as "colorless," which is a theme that continues in his stardom: Many people, including Simpson himself, didn't think of him as black.
Yeah, in the sense that the impact of the Hertz ads are immeasurable in the sense that the success of the campaign—it won awards and was an enormously popular, successful campaign—and then when you think about the time that we're talking about, the mid-'70s, and what the television landscape was, this was a time when there's essentially three networks. And people would sit down on a Wednesday night to watch their favorite shows on ABC, some of which would get a 30 or 35 share, and you have a black guy running through the airport selling Hertz. I think that familiarity, in terms of what that brought, was off the charts. Also, we're talking about O.J. as a pitchman for this company, but the advertisement that those commercials were for O.J. himself were off the charts. It was immeasurable.
You could argue that for all that O.J. did in his life as a public figure, nothing topped those Hertz ads as far as reaching the broadest audience the most often. That was the perfect vehicle and it was also perfect for his personality. This wasn't a three-hour drama. This was 30 seconds or a minute, where his good looks and his charm could come through.
As you point out him the documentary, football made him famous, but those Hertz ads really turned him into a superstar.
And that's one part of the idea of O.J. being "made in America." There is the basic rags-to-riches story of a kid growing up where he grew up, and ending up being a football star. But the idea that there's this other level that he can succeed in Hollywood and he could succeed in this realm as well, and that did more for him as far as his broad, commercial appeal, than just being quite simply one of the greatest athletes in our history. I think speaks volumes about what we value in our culture.
What was your reaction to first hearing about FX's O.J. miniseries?
It was just, what are you going to do? I wasn't thrilled. Look, it was already incredibly rare that we were working on something that ended up being 10 hours of television about this subject, and no one had done this and no one had done this deep a dive into the story of O.J., ever, and then you find out a year into the process that someone is doing a 10-hour dramatization. But it didn't have anything to do with what we were doing.
How about when you heard people talk about how good that other miniseries was?
That's the fear—that if this thing is good, and it's going to engage audiences, and you see how critically acclaimed it was and how popular it was, you fear that maybe there isn't an audience for another look at this story. I think, in retrospect, the sense I've gotten is that it really did prepare a culture that either had forgotten about O.J. or not thought about him in a while, and a generation that didn't know about him in the first place, it put O.J. back in the zeitgeist in a way that I feel like has potentially whetted people's appetites for our show. I certainly underestimated our culture's fascination with this story.
So, you still haven't seen it yet?
Look, I'm trying to escape O.J. The last thing I need personally is to watch 10 more hours of it. I know the story.
You've spent two years making O.J.: Made in America. What's next?
I don't know. What do you do after you do an eight-hour documentary? Do a 20-hour documentary? Do something different? I'm hoping to find some physical and mental space so I can figure out what comes next.