When Evan Handler first heard about The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, he put on a wig to make himself look like attorney Barry Scheck, took a picture, and sent it in. Best known for his work on Sex and the City and Californication, the actor was eager to work with executive producer Ryan Murphy, but didn’t hear back from casting directors until they began scouting for the role of Alan Dershowitz. “So then I put on a wig that I used to play Larry Fine in The Three Stooges and went for that.”
It worked. Handler plays the familiar lawyer, scholar, and political commentator who famously pronounced Simpson guilty on TV soon after the murders, but agreed to represent him anyway. What the ACS producers didn’t know was that Handler had a personal connection to Simpson. In the spring of 1994, the actor spent three weeks filming a two-hour pilot for NBC with the former football star. Although Frogmen never aired, it became part of the investigation into the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. The show, about a group of Navy SEALs who take on special assignments, featured a scene in which Simpson’s character grabbed what he believed to be an intruder — but turned out to be his daughter — and momentarily held a knife to her throat.
Handler spoke with Vulture about what working with O.J. Simpson was like, meeting Dershowitz, and how different he is from his public persona.
Dershowitz might be one of the more challenging roles because we’re still so familiar with him on TV. How did you prepare?
I immediately reached out to Alan after I was hired. I hadn’t met or spoken with any of the producers at that point, so I didn’t know they had an embargo against meeting the people they were writing about. But I wanted to meet Alan. I wanted to glean something a little deeper. It’s great to pick up on behavioral things, but at the same time, part of the reason I became an actor is because it takes you into different worlds. I’m interested in meeting somebody like Alan Dershowitz, and this gives me the opportunity and the access. I don’t do it just for the project. I’m interested as a human being. He’s a fascinating guy. I read a lot about him and learned a lot of things I didn’t know. I had a lot of questions that I felt he hadn’t been asked, but Alan’s a much older man now than he was then. To me, he really didn’t bear enough of a resemblance to the younger guy people are familiar with, or, at least, that I was familiar with from back then. Alan is a much less animated guy in one-on-one conversation than [he is in] the news and courtroom appearances I’m used to seeing. He’s a less animated guy when you knock him off the story he’s used to telling.
But there were some poignant moments just the same. Alan is very open about the fact that most of the people he has defended are guilty because most criminal defendants are guilty. And he very quickly says that’s a good thing. You wouldn’t want to live in a society where most criminal defendants are not guilty. That would mean innocent people were getting charged all the time. I asked him: Since most of the people that you’ve defended have been guilty, have many of the people that you’ve defended gotten in trouble again? He looked at the floor sadly and said, “Only one.” Meaning Mr. Simpson.
You’ve actually spent time with O.J. Simpson. Tell me about your time working on the Frogmen pilot.
I believe we finished working on that pilot about five weeks before the murders happened. I was living in New York. I came to Los Angeles and then traveled with that whole crew from Los Angeles to Puerto Rico. I’m guessing we were together about three weeks, every day. It was a bizarre project. It was about these Navy SEALs who went on incredible death-defying missions, and I was playing the guy who was an accountant but had been some kind of a CIA operative, and he was a master of disguise and mimicry. But he was in hiding because of tax-evasion problems, so these guys somehow were blackmailing him to force him to be part of their team even though he was the physical coward. So you had these four very athletic, strapping guys, and me. It actually would have been kind of cool because I would be doing these accents and disguises and playing all different characters within every episode.
We spent every day together, and everybody had recently broken up or had separated from people. I had broken up with a girlfriend, somebody else had gotten divorced. O.J talked a lot about wanting to get back together with his ex-wife. He very much played the role of the big brother in the locker room and said to us all, “The one piece of advice I’d give you fellas is don’t let your ego fuck up your relationships.”
Were you a football fan, or a fan of his before you worked with him?
Not a fanatic like a lot of Americans, but I was aware of O.J. I knew who he was. We spent three weeks together. It probably took me 18 days to get comfortable calling him Juice. That’s what everybody called him, but it always felt strange and silly to me. O.J. was a huge, huge star. He was the most famous person that I’d hung around with at that time. For me, it was kind of like riding on O.J.’s coattails a little bit. That said, I’ve never been one to get caught up in that kind of jock-ish camaraderie. So I was hanging out with these four guys and doing my work, but feeling pretty much on the outskirts. But also observing and thinking, okay, so here’s this very, very famous ex-athlete that many, many people find tremendously appealing.
Did you like him? Was he warm toward you?
Yeah. Warm. I can’t give you delicious material there. He didn’t strike me as a guy of tremendous depth, but he was pleasant. I enjoyed the proximity and I was interested in the athletic accomplishments, but I did not bond on a significant level.
But he did talk about his relationship and being brokenhearted?
Fairly constantly, yes. It was referred to often. When I heard about the murders, I was at Yaddo, the artist’s retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York, working on a book. My initial was response was, Oh, poor O.J., I know he wanted to get back together with her. And then, within a few days, when you realize there was an even more horrible angle to it, that was a big turnaround. Then you’re thinking, This person that I just spent all this time with, could they really be capable of that? That’s very, very difficult to adjust to and acknowledge.
The Bronco chase must have been super weird for you.
I was dating an actress named Joanna Going, who was in the film Wyatt Earp. The premiere of Wyatt Earp happened in Los Angeles, and I decided to fly from Yaddo to Los Angeles. I guess that probably means I drove four hours into New York and flew from there. And the Bronco chase happened while I was in the air. So I went from being in that state of “Poor O.J.” to landing in Los Angeles when the pilot said, “The New York Knicks have won the NBA playoffs, and O.J. Simpson is in the custody of the Los Angeles Police Department.” And I had no idea that whole day had transpired. I went to the premiere and then watched a lot on the news after that, and had that whole coming to terms with, Oh, so this is a completely different story than I thought, and even creepier in terms of my exposure to the guy.
There was a lot in the press back then about whether there had been extensive knife training during Frogmen. [Ed. note: The prosecution investigated reports that Simpson received military training, including the use of a knife, to prepare for the role. Actor Todd Allen told the Los Angeles Times that the actors received “a fair amount of training.” Allen’s experience with Simpson was especially interesting to the prosecution because, during a break in filming in downtown Los Angeles, he and Simpson visited a knife store where Simpson later returned to purchase a knife that authorities felt might have been the murder weapon. It was never found.]
Yeah, there was training, but I don’t know anything about it. I was the nerdy disguise guy. They may have given me any kind of prop, I don’t remember. I know there was a day when we filmed downtown in the abandoned tunnels of the L.A. subway that never came to be, and there was a knife shop that O.J. and another cast member went into. But whatever the actual occurrences there were, I’m clueless.
Did Cuba Gooding Jr.’s performance remind you in any way of the person you knew?
Cuba seemed to be doing a breathy, raspy thing with his voice that did ring true right away. My exposure to him wasn’t huge. We would see each other. We would slap each other on the back. He seemed to be a fan of Californication. Whenever he would lay eyes on me, he would just sort of laugh. “Oh man, oh man, oh man. That stuff you did on that show.”
Given your exposure to Simpson then, did you have any trepidation being involved with a series about that time?
No. What would be the trepidation on that level — because I met O.J. Simpson decades ago? It was just an interesting slant to me, my personal history. My trepidation was, I knew the cast they were putting together. It was very, very aggressively, ostentatiously high-profile, kind of all over the map, stylistically. The trepidation is: Is this going to be The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure? Is it going to go down as a camp classic? Or is it going to come out well? That’s the gamble and the leap of faith you consider with every project. Do the cards look good in terms of how this is going to fly? And you can never really know that. This so clearly taps into so many things: the horror of what happened to Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, the unfairness of O.J. not being held accountable for it. And yet, the unfairness that the entire black community had lived with for hundreds of years, and continues to so obviously live with — to the point where you can show videotape of the people being slaughtered and large portions of society still say, “No, no. He shouldn’t have run. If he hadn’t run, it wouldn’t have happened. If he hadn’t been looting, if he hadn’t been stealing from a CVS, it wouldn’t have happened.” As if the punishment for that is being shot in the back. So, the series just really exposes not only the depravity of a lot of our culture and system, but it exposes the imperfection of the systems we have in place to try to balance it.