But it is a little more complicated. OJ Simpson is no poster boy for innocence: subsequent civil cases established that he did kill his wife and Ronald Goldman, and he’s currently in jail in Nevada for armed robbery and kidnap following a dispute in 2007 over the ownership of sports memorabilia.
He got away with murder in 1995 as the result of an unholy combination of police venality, prosecutorial vanity and incompetence, political back-stabbing, and the brilliant and ruthlessly cynical performance of his Dream Team of lawyers who did exactly what they had promised. They gave him “the best defence money can buy”. The result is terrific material for a TV series: it has been dubbed Pulp Non-fiction.
It even stars John Travolta as OJ’s lead lawyer, Robert Shapiro. Travolta, whose own career was rescued by his turn in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, gives a clunky but irresistible performance. He looks in horror at OJ’s handwritten suicide note and says, “Jesus Christ! Who the hell signs a suicide note with a happy face?”
As the evidence against OJ builds, Travolta hams it up, scratching his head and pounding his fist on piles of paper until he’s hit by a moment of inspiration: there’s a dirty cop on the case, Mark Fuhrman, who has been caught on tape boasting of beating up “n******”, and who once tried to sue the City of Los Angeles for a disability pension on the grounds that being a policeman had made him “hate” black people.
Bingo! Travolta’s eyebrows shoot up. The race card! Shapiro “leaks” the Fuhrman story to none other than Toobin, and signs up flamboyant lawyer Johnnie Cochran, who has made millions of dollars suing the LA police in civil courts for violating the civil rights of black people.
The rest is history: Cochran told OJ that if he had just one black juror, he would get him safely home. He did, and he did. He pounced on the infamous blood-soaked glove, said to have been worn by OJ, but possibly planted by Fuhrman, and famously declared to the jury: “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit!”
Cochran is played by Courtney B Vance, and with such panache that old hands who were in court forget it’s not Johnnie himself. The real Cochran told me soon after the trial that what counted was that this time it was a rich black man who had secured an acquittal, rather than yet another rich white man, and that that had evened the score of racial injustice.
American justice has never quite recovered its dignity. Neither has American broadcasting. One of OJ’s best buddies was Robert Kardashian, father of the Kardashians. He is played by David Schwimmer, formerly of Friends. There is a priceless scene in which his son and daughters squeal with delight as they watch TV and feel, for the first time, the thrill of public exposure. Dad then takes them to the diner, where they are recognised and led to the best table, as heads turn and flashbulbs burst. It was the birth of “reality TV” and the Kardashian phenomenon. Just for that, OJ should surely be serving life.
Gooding is convinced that OJ is brain-damaged from the repeated concussions suffered by American football players. He decided against meeting him when preparing for the part, instead basing his performance on the “braggadocious marquee athletes” he had got to know while researching to play Rod “Show me the money!” Tidwell, in the 1996 Tom Cruise film Jerry Maguire, for which Gooding won the Oscar as best supporting actor.
“He’s the shell of a man now, in prison,” says Gooding. “I know that from my own friends and relatives who’ve been inside. But I also know what happens to these athletes who have been looked after all their lives so they can nurture their special talent. That stunts their social skills, and when their brains go from the concussions, something happens they can’t control.”
He remembers the time on set when, as OJ, he attends Nicole Brown Simpson’s funeral, and, to the gasps of the mourners, shamelessly leans into her open coffin and kisses her face.
“I had to rush out to my trailer, I just could not stop crying,” he says. “I realised it was because, in real life, rooting for OJ, I had never acknowledged the victims. We had even gone to church to pray for Johnnie Cochran to get OJ ‘out of his predicament’! I thought I was going crazy, having a nervous breakdown.”
Gooding silences himself for a few moments, and calls for more coffee. “We have a responsibility as artists to reflect society, to provide an outlet for anger,” he says. “But this has been the hardest role to excise from my soul.
“My pivotal roles seem to come at a time when I am going through similar things to my character. With Boyz N the Hood, I experienced rough handling by a cop just before we filmed the scene when a cop holds a gun to my head.
“Now, I have been separated from my wife while making the OJ movie. One day I went to a recital at my daughter’s school, and my wife didn’t have a ticket for me, so I had to sit apart from my family. Remember that OJ tried to join Nicole at his daughter’s school recital on the day she died? And then he flew to Chicago, right? Well, that day, I too flew to Chicago, with a buddy, to watch a ball game. And in the evening, I get a call from Ryan, who tells me that they have just wrapped the murder scene!”
Gooding has been married to his childhood sweetheart, Sara Kapfer, since 1994. They have three children. She filed for divorce in 2014, but Gooding says they remain married and he still hopes for a reconciliation. He says she is not treating him well. He is upset. He shakes his head, and laughs off the memory of that night in Chicago and its chilling echo of the OJ story.
“Perhaps it’s God’s will,” he says. “But it really f**** with your psyche.”
The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story begins tonight at 9pm on BBC2 (11:15pm in Wales)