If you’re of a certain age, you’ll likely remember where you were the evening of June 17, 1994. Perhaps you’d settled in for a Friday night of watching TV when regularly scheduled programming was interrupted by aerial footage of a white Ford Bronco pursued at low speed by several police squads through an empty Interstate 405 in Los Angeles. In the back of the vehicle was football legend O.J. Simpson, charged with the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.
You probably also remember where you were on Oct. 3, 1995, when the not-guilty verdict in Simpson’s lengthy, tumultuous trial was read. You may have felt outraged or elated. Maybe you were confused, or maybe you were fearful because the “real killer or killers” were still at large.
FX’s 10-episode limited series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (Tuesdays at 10pm ET/PT beginning Feb. 2) is a surreal, detailed throwback to one of the seminal news stories of the 20th century. Based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson and from executive producer Ryan Murphy, the series assembles a stellar array of impeccably cast actors, including John Travolta, Cuba Gooding Jr., David Schwimmer, Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, Bruce Greenwood, Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Nathan Lane.
Vance, who plays defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, recalls where he was during the Ford Bronco chase. “I was in Sacramento doing Mario Van Peebles’ Panther,” Vance says. “We were sitting at the hotel lobby, and the entire lobby was there. I guess we were watching the game — it was the NBA Finals on — and it was, of course, slowly but surely preempted. And we were just all transfixed. I just remember there was a big bay window there where we were watching television, but I was looking out just knowing this was very surreal, very strange.”
Vance also remembers once meeting the man he portrays in the series. “It was just people gathered over at his house, and he was a very life-of-the-partyish kind of guy,” Vance recalls. “And life was just calm and cool and serene and lovely and loose and fun.”
To play the colorful Cochran, Vance says, “I tried to immerse myself in all things Johnnie and then put my homework away. … I didn’t want so much video or courtroom footage or anything like that in my mind. I just wanted the words, and then I wanted to get in and jump in with him and see where it went.”
Where it went involved ill-fitting gloves, racist cops, reasonable doubt and a victory for Cochran. “This particular area was [Cochran’s] area of expertise,” Vance says. “He cut his teeth in these kinds of situations with the police, specifically, and of course specifically in the black community, men and women who were caught in the clutches of the LAPD system. He was very much at home in this landscape and knew what the stakes were. … In the end, he was going to get up there and tell the jury to do its job.”
Photo: Copyright 2015, FX Networks. All rights reserved. Credit: Michael Becker/FX Networks