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The Saga of O.J.'s Last, Lost Pilot

Television * It wasn't just any program; it was 'Frogmen,' which NBC shelved in 1994 because of Simpson's murder investigation. In an era of excesses, it stands out as the blockbuster that never was.

May 08, 2000|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Each year around this time, television networks conclude their long and frenetic scramble to discover the next hit show. But one program to emerge from this process has never been broadcast--even though executives were certain it would have rivaled the Super Bowl as a prime-time attraction, out-rating "Friends" and "ER" combined.

The program is "Frogmen," and in a business desperate for hits it remains an anomaly--the blockbuster no one saw. Today, in fact, the 1994 production is merely remembered as a footnote to the O.J. Simpson murder trial, because it starred none other than Simpson himself.

"Frogmen" has been the subject of considerable myth and legend. Its fate provides a unique display of self-restraint in an industry that seldom exercises it.

The show was discussed, but never introduced as evidence, during Simpson's criminal trial for the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman. In a chilling echo of those killings, a scene in the two-hour movie meant to launch the action-drama series features Simpson's character grabbing what he believes to be an intruder (the young woman turns out to be his daughter) and momentarily holding a knife to her throat.

The prosecution also investigated reports that Simpson received military training, including use of a knife, in preparing for the role. Defense attorneys sought to block the "Frogmen" videotape's admissibility by accusing the police of misconduct by watching the pilot in the former football star's living room as they searched his house.

Yet for all its notoriety, "Frogmen" has been kept locked in vaults at Warner Bros. Few have seen the final product, including many of those involved, who found themselves caught in the center of a media storm even as they watched a lucrative career opportunity ride into the sunset, hitched to Simpson's Ford Bronco.

Recently, a source near the project allowed The Times to view a 25-minute presentation tape, assembled by Warner Bros. in 1994 as a sales tool for convincing NBC executives to order the series. The tape consists of various scenes culled from the two-hour prototype.

In most instances, when the network orders a two-hour pilot, the plan is to at least broadcast it as a movie to help defray some of the network's production costs, even if a series isn't ordered.

Although "Frogmen" was completed, it has never aired. NBC's rights have reverted back to the studio, which says it has no intention of exhibiting the show, having bought out the rights of a German company that helped finance the project. Tapes, photos and virtually any other material tied to the project were rounded up by Warner Bros. attorneys.

"We believed on many levels, for many reasons, broadcasting the program in whole or in part was inappropriate," said studio spokeswoman Barbara Brogliatti. "All those reasons seem as valid today as they were then."

All this, despite the fact that Warner Bros. estimated in the mid-1990s that a video release would generate more than $14 million in profit. Network and studio sources also estimated a TV showing in the aftermath of Simpson's criminal trial would have garnered more than 60% of the available audience--roughly the percentage that tunes in annually for the Super Bowl, invariably TV's most-watched event.

"The buzz was, 'Do you realize we're sitting on a 60 share?' " said one executive with ties to the production, who was comfortable speaking about the project only if it was not attributable to him.

The Bronco Chase, Beginning of the End

Most of those associated with "Frogmen" were similarly reluctant to speak on the record. Yet the experience remains etched in their minds--their own personal connection to one of the few unopened chapters related to the frenzy that surrounded the Simpson trial.

The presentation tape of "Frogmen" was screened for NBC in advance of the annual schedule-setting process that occurs each May. Though principal photography in Los Angeles and Puerto Rico had been completed, work was still being done on the show when Simpson became a suspect in the slayings in June, an event made staggeringly public June 17 by the televised slow-speed Bronco chase as he fled from police.

For those even peripherally involved with "Frogmen," that televised event--which an estimated 90 million people watched and prompted the local NBC-owned station, KNBC-TV, to split the screen during a National Basketball Assn. championship game--has become a moment akin to John F. Kennedy's assassination: Everyone can remember exactly where they were when it happened.

NBC executives, for example, were returning from a programming retreat in Newport Beach. "I remember there was practically no traffic," said one. "I didn't know why until I got home."

"Frogmen" was NBC's attempt to recapture some of the fun-loving spirit of "The A-Team"--an action show with ample comedy set against an exotic blue-skies background.

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