O.J. Faces His Future

AT 48, THE FACE IS STILL smooth and blandly handsome above the broad right-angled shoulders, the voice the same husky drone. He is still, indisputably, O. J. Simpson, a celebrity in that peculiar American way of being famous for being famous. When he was arrested last year he was no longer in demand as an athlete, broadcaster or actor, yet he retained all the perquisites of greatness, in-eluding a girlfriend straight from the pages of Playboy and a job as a corporate glad-hander and golfing partner. He's still the same person, except that a substantial majority of the public now believes that he slaughtered his former wife and an innocent stranger with a knife. His attempts to re-establish himself as a hero, therefore, will be an interesting test of the Warholian proposition that in America fame itself obscures every other attribute of a personality--including, ultimately, whatever one was famous for in the first place.

Of course, he isn't in this alone. Any number of people would be happy to help shove Simpson back into the limelight, for their own reasons of vanity, ideology or, mostly, money. His "surprise" call to "Larry King Live" during Johnnie Cochran's appearance Wednesday night was actually suggested by King and orchestrated by Cochran, who beamed in his client's lavish gratitude. Afterward, the producers were literally dancing with joy. "If we had God booked and O.J. was available," King proclaimed, "we'd move God." Simpson and Cochran were both planning to attend next Monday's Million Man March on Washington, sources told NEWSWEEK; the event, billed as a day for black men to rededicate themselves to their families, was conceived by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and has been endorsed by many mainstream African-American groups. But there are also plenty of people who don't want Simpson joining their parade just yet. Cochran conceded that "I don't expect that corporate America is going to have him as a spokesperson." And his fame won't help him in civil and family court, where the same question supposedly decided by the jury last week can in effect be asked again--with no guarantee the answer will be the same.

His life is still on hold, circumscribed by the armada of satellite trucks that have descended on his home, the camera crews perched on 12-foot ladders, the hordes of reporters, demonstrators, street preachers and gawkers kept at bay by hired guards. He spent his first hours of freedom with family members and close friends--a celebration that was covered by the tabloid Star for a payment said to be close to $1 million--although there was no sign of his former girlfriend, Paula Barbieri, who had stopped visiting him in jail some time ago. His friends expect him to leave soon for a vacation, destination undisclosed.

Simpson's two younger children--Justin, 7, and Sydney, 9--visited him last week but returned the next day to the home of their grandparents Lou and Juditha Brown, who were awarded temporary guardianship after Simpson's arrest. The past year obviously has been hard for the children, especially Sydney. Sheila Weller, who wrote a best-selling book on O.J. and Nicole's marriage ("Raging Heart"), reports that sources close to the Brown family portrayed Sydney as being upset about the prospect of seeing O.J. again. For three months after Simpson's arrest last year, Weller says, "Sydney refused to get on the telephone with O.J. unless he was truthful to her" about why he couldn't see them. When they finally spoke, according to Weller's sources, Simpson said only that he was away because "he had information the police needed . . . When the call was over, Sydney said, 'My Daddy doesn't know how to be honest with me'."

On Simpson's side, his friend and lawyer Robert Kardashian said "there were lots of hugs and smiles" at the reunion--and, he insisted, there were no reporters present this time. Still, Simpson gave no indication of when he planned to move the children back to his home. Legal experts say the Browns could, if they chose, fight Simpson for custody, with a slim-to-fair chance of winning. Family-court judges in California have latitude to act in "the best interest of the child." The Browns could point to Simpson's documented history of abusing Nicole to show that he was a poor risk as a father, or they could cite his jet-setting lifestyle--"a father who is always on the road, probably looking for a girlfriend, a job or whatever," as Juditha Brown described it to the Los Angeles Times last week. Their lawyer, John Q. Kelly, says that the couple would decide whether to fight for the children "depending on how the environment evolves." Kardashian said he expected the issue to be resolved amicably. "He and the Browns have always had a good relationship," he told NEWSWEEK. "He wants the children to see their grandparents."

Simpson also faces a contentious legal fight in the wrongful-death suits filed by the families of the two victims. Few accused murderers have assets worth going after, but Simpson is rich--or was, before paying an estimated $10 million in legal bills--and presumably will be again. Acquittal in the criminal trial actually complicates his situation in civil court. Immune to prosecution now, he has no privilege against self-incrimination and can be asked to defend himself under oath. The case will be decided on a "preponderance of evidence"--a much looser standard than "reasonable doubt"--and juries can make awards in the millions. Not to speak of the anomalous moral position Simpson would then occupy, having been acquitted of murder by one jury, but ruled responsible for the same deaths by a second.

Which is why those who would like to see him rehabilitated may need to act fast. "He's not broke, but he's going to have to earn some money," says Cochran. "I know initially he's going to be writing another book. People want to hear his story. A pay-per-view program is under discussion. Those two things are going to be blockbusters." Jay Bernstein, a former publicist for Simpson, now a producer, says the market for Simpson's story consists of, basically, "the people already on his side . . . those who are totally against him [and] those on the fence," which makes for a fairly inclusive audience. Industry sources compare Simpson's potential draw to Mike Tyson's fight last month (which grossed $65 million from 1.5 million viewers) and to Colin Powell's book (a reported $6 million advance). But they may not be reckoning with the resistance to Simpson, from people like pay-per-view executive Jeff Bernstein (no relation to Jay). "We would not carry such an event," says Bernstein, a vice president of Request Television, which did not shrink from bringing Howard Stern's New Year's Eve special into American living rooms. "Our feeling is that it's in bad taste. There's been enough of a media circus already."

Still, Simpson has the good fortune to live in a country where no celebrity goes to bed with an empty stomach. But what of his soul? Some members of the African-American community expressed hopes last week that some good will come out of Simpson's troubles if they remind him that he's still black. "It's too bad he has to come back as a fallen hero, but he does need to return," says Los Angeles Urban League head John Mack. "His face should be seen everywhere black people are in need." That would be a big change for him; Simpson, said one prominent black filmmaker, "was just as white as anybody on 'Melrose Place' when I met him a few years ago. I won't be shaking his hand at the next black function." Yet for many white people, questions of social conscience and penitence were beside the point. Ron Hardy, a Los Angeles restaurant owner and a friend of Nicole's, hopes that wherever Simpson goes there will be someone to call him a murderer or throw a drink at him. But he also suspects that sooner or later Simpson will be back on the A-list for dinner parties, restaurant openings and movie premieres. After all, he's a celebrity.