Jeffrey Toobin walked into the courtroom set for The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and gasped. In 1995, the journalist spent eight months inside the famous Los Angeles courtroom reporting on the trial of the century for The New Yorker, and he was taken aback by how precisely they’d re-created it. “The great insight they had about the courtroom was the shabbiness of it,” Toobin told Vulture in a phone interview. “It was 1960s standard-issue bad paneling and cheap chairs. That’s exactly how the set looked. The only difference was the well of the courtroom, which is the part where the lawyers are in front of the judge. That was somewhat wider than the real one because they needed space for the cameras. Other than that, it was identical.”
Toobin later published a best-selling book about the case, The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson, the source for FX’s new anthology series, which premieres tonight and stars Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson; John Travolta and Courtney B. Vance as defense lawyers Robert Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran; and Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown as lead prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden.
Toobin, who served as a consultant on the project, spoke with Vulture about why Americans are still fascinated by the Simpson case, his involvement with the project, and what it was like to watch an actor play him.
Even for people who were obsessed with the trial, there are so many new details and insights in the TV show. That is going to be surprising to most people — except to you, because you outlined them all in your book. Did you ever imagine this would make for good dramatic television?
One of the reasons why I think no one ever did a movie or TV version previously is because there were two misconceptions: that people were sick of it, and everybody knew the story already. I always knew that both of those were wrong. It took [executive producers Brad Simpson, Nina Jacobson, and Ryan Murphy] to figure that out. The reaction we've had is indicative of the fact that the story has an incredible, enduring fascination. I always thought this was the most sensational event in American history never to have been brought to the screen. I knew that couldn't last forever. It's too wild a story.
What was going through your mind when Brad Simpson and Nina Jacobson approached you about buying the rights?
To be honest, I was a little skeptical. I had sold many options for my books and my work in The New Yorker, but nothing had ever been made. I was more than happy to sell the option, but I was skeptical that a project would actually be made.
What did your work as a consultant entail?
It had several iterations, and I don't want to exaggerate it. I talked to the producers, and to [show creators] Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, at an early stage, just about how to structure the whole thing. Then I would review the scripts as they came in. I spoke to a lot of the actors, before and during, about their characters. The thing that pleases me so much is that the theme of my book was the use and misuse of race in this case. I think that theme carries through to the mini-series completely. You've seen it. You can tell. That is very important to me. There are, of course, lots of other issues. There's domestic violence, there's celebrity, there's Hollywood. But to me, the most resonant theme, both in my book and the series, is race.
Do you think most viewers will find it striking to learn how early in the process Robert Shapiro landed on this idea of using race as a defense strategy? A lot of people think Johnnie Cochran came up with that, but it was really Shapiro who got the ball rolling, according to your book and, now, the show.
The story I tell in the book, and that New Yorker story about [LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman], really lifted the lid on the defense strategy that became the theme of the whole defense. What I like so much about the story is that once Bob realized the furies he had let loose with the racial strategy, he wanted to back away. And Johnnie said, "We have a job to do for our client, and this is the way to do it." That led to tremendous conflict between the two. Bob was worried about his friends in West L.A. getting mad at him, and Johnnie was more concerned about winning the case for his client.
When you were asked to read scripts, were you helping them fact-check? I know the creators took some creative liberties.
Yes, they did. I understood from the beginning that this was not a documentary. I was not there to try to turn it into one. I was there to try to help them preserve the essential truth of the story in a dramatic context.
Did you observe the filming of some scenes, too?
I was there when they shot the scenes with the actor playing me. That was sort of surreal and hilarious. I was thrilled they picked an actor who is better-looking than I am. I want to be preserved for posterity in a new and improved form. Chris Conner, the actor who played me, did a great job. I still always carry a reporter's notebook with me. I gave him one to carry around in his scenes with John Travolta. So he had an actual Jeffrey Toobin reporter's notebook. I don't think the technology of the spiral notebook has changed since 1994, so it was authentic.
What was that like, watching him and John Travolta reenacting a big moment in your life and career?
It was bizarre. It was really a conversation, very much like the one you see on film. One of the weird things about it was — I don't know if you remember this — when Chris Conner walks up to Shapiro's office, he walks up a spiral staircase. Shapiro's office had a spiral staircase. It looked exactly like that. That was not something I put in the book. That was not something that anyone asked me. It felt eerie to me.
Were you there for other scenes?
I was there for several courtroom scenes. There was one funny incident that gives you an idea of how time has passed. There's a scene where Johnnie Cochran (Vance) is cross-examining a detective about something called a Colombian necktie, which is [a] gruesome [form of] torture. I said to Anthony Hemingway, who directed that episode, that I remembered sitting in the courtroom, hearing Johnnie cross-examine about the Colombian necktie. And I had never heard of that before. And Anthony said to me, "Did you go Google it?" And I said, "Yeah. I went to a payphone, put in a quarter, and asked directory assistance for a company that would be invented in about ten years." Anthony was responding like any normal person would today. It's just a reminder of how much time has passed. Another thing people don't realize is that there was effectively no internet in '94 and '95. There was no Fox News. There was no MSNBC. The only cable news was CNN and Court TV, so the story dominated people's consciousness in a way that wouldn't even be possible today because people have so many more options of things to watch. I was also there when Connie Britton was playing Faye Resnick. She is a total genius. Those scenes are hilarious because Faye Resnick is hilarious.
What about the actors? Did you find yourself a little freaked out watching them because they reminded you so much of the real people?
I, like everyone of my generation, grew up with John Travolta. I saw Saturday Night Fever the day it opened with my high-school friends. John Travolta is an old-fashioned movie star. He has this graciousness and welcoming attitude that is very striking. You meet the guy and you think of movie stars of past generations. You see him on the screen and you can see, in every scene, “Oh, that's a movie star.” Courtney Vance and I are college classmates, weirdly enough. We're both Harvard class of 1982. Courtney, as a work-study job, was a typesetter at the Harvard Crimson, the newspaper where I worked. It was thrilling to see Courtney in this context. He's so good. My daughter, who is 25, grew up watching Friends. So the idea that I would be professionally involved with David Schwimmer was beyond exciting to her.
Don’t you think he did a fantastic job playing Robert Kardashian?
Yes. And I think people will find it surprising because it's David, and also because Robert Kardashian was a very different person than his children turned out to be. Obviously, when I was covering the trial, I had no idea that the most famous name to come out of the case would be Kardashian. I suppose that's a failing on my part. The series does a good job of winking at the name, but also of developing David as this full-fledged, complicated character that Robert Kardashian was.
Did you see what Kato Kaelin wrote in the Daily News?
Do you mean that he didn’t eat hamburgers or something back then?
Exactly! He wrote he hadn't eaten meat since 1983. But didn't he testify that he went to McDonald's with O.J. the night of the murders?
I thought the same thing. Kato operates by his own rules. Maybe he got a Filet-O-Fish at McDonald's.
The families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman are taking issue with the fact that they are pretty much left out of the show. What are your thoughts on that?
I think it was actually a gesture of respect towards the victims. The other thing is that the murder itself is not dramatized. The idea was that this is a series fundamentally about how the trial unfolded, the lawyers, and the broader societal and legal context. In the chronology, the story begins with the discovery of the murders. I think they wanted to be respectful. They wanted to recognize that two people died here, and there was nothing funny about that. The best way of dealing with that was to focus on the legal side of it.
There were always a lot of incorrect theories about this case. Do you remember some of them?
The one that persists is that his son Jason did it, which is outrageously unfair to Jason, who had an alibi, was nowhere at the crime scene, and had no reason to kill these people. One difference between the book and the series is that I am very explicit in my book about my belief that O.J. killed these two people. The series does not take an explicit position, though I think anyone who watches the ten episodes would be hard pressed to find a different suspect. It is certainly not nearly as explicit as my book. I still get emails from many people. Or "The Colombian drug lords did it," which is just silly. One of O.J.’s problems is that there is no other plausible suspect, to say nothing of all the incredibly incriminating evidence against him personally. Those are the two I remember. Unfortunately, I often had this problem when the producers or writers would ask me questions. They were very steeped in it, but I was like, "Hey, pal, this is 20 years ago. I've written a lot of other things since then."
It was so long ago, and yet it seems most still find it very compelling.
It is one of the great American stories. There is no doubt. And by great, I mean big. I don't mean good. That illustrates so much about America then and now. This story has everything to do with the American people. It has race, it has sex, it has celebrity, sports, Hollywood. And the only eyewitness is a dog. You've got the whole package there.