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Making a New Case for the Defense

'American Tragedy' tackles the strategies--and rifts--of Simpson's legal 'dream team.'

November 05, 2000|GREG BRAXTON

The vast warehouse in Sylmar was the most unlikely place imaginable for a reunion of the O.J. Simpson defense "dream team."

But there they were, together again for the first time, gathered in a conference room littered with pizza boxes and tossed files: "Robert Shapiro," complete with bald spot and bushy eyebrows, talking quietly on a cell phone; "Johnnie Cochran" looking stern and focused; and "Carl Douglas," waiting patiently for the conference with "the client" to begin.

"F. Lee Bailey" entered the room and started to address the group, but then glared angrily off to the side. "That camera crew is in my line of sight," growled Christopher Plummer as he stepped out of character as Bailey to complain about the TV entertainment-news show crew filming the scene. "I can't do my lines like this. Please tell them to leave the set."

"Cut!" yelled director Lawrence Schiller, and the actors portraying the infamous lawyers in the upcoming CBS miniseries "American Tragedy" relaxed. Moments later, Ving Rhames (Cochran), Ron Silver (Shapiro), Darryl Alan Reed (Douglas) and Plummer, all wearing wigs, padding and heavy makeup to approximate their real-life counterparts, were back into the scene, while Schiller watched closely from behind a camera.

The project Schiller and the actors were working on is more than just the dramatic adaptation of Schiller's 1996 bestseller, which went behind closed doors to examine the legal strategies and personal clashes among the attorneys who successfully defended Simpson in the criminal case in which he was charged with the 1994 murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald L. Goldman.

It's the two-part miniseries Simpson doesn't want you to see--a hook CBS is using to market the two-part miniseries.

The former football star has lost one Los Angeles Superior Court battle to stop the broadcast, arguing that the content in the script violated attorney-client confidentiality. He maintained that his lawyer and former friend, Robert Kardashian, provided Schiller with inside information on the defense team. Both Schiller and Kardashian have declared in sworn declarations they did nothing wrong.

Terry Gross, Simpson's attorney, also sought millions of dollars in damages against Schiller and Kardashian, saying there was a conspiracy to defraud Simpson of privileged information. That case was recently thrown out of court.

"What's important is the principle," said Gross. "This demonstrates that attorneys and writers have no qualms about stealing confidential information from people in high-profile cases and selling them to the highest bidder."

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The miniseries also arrives as Simpson continues to make headlines ranging from his stormy breakup with his young girlfriend to reports that he is selling his autograph without giving the profits to the families of the victims in the murders. A civil jury in Santa Monica ordered Simpson to pay $33.5 million in damages after finding him responsible for the Brown and Goldman deaths, but the vast majority of the judgment remains uncollected.

Schiller said he is not concerning himself with the legal shadows on his project or what perceptions viewers may bring to the miniseries as a result of their feelings about Simpson.

"I've really kept myself separate and apart from the legal things," he said. "The film will air as I have been producing and directing it."

And despite the deluge of Simpson-related books and movies during the last several years, Schiller is convinced that viewers who tune in will gain fresh insights into not only the case, but the justice system. He does not fear or anticipate a Simpson backlash.

"I want to show what this system of defense attorneys really means," said Schiller. "It's about winning. It's not about justice. That's a riveting story no matter who is involved."

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Norman Mailer, who wrote the screenplay for "American Tragedy," agreed. Schiller and Mailer had previously collaborated on several projects, including the book and film "The Executioner's Song."

Said Mailer: "One-third of the viewers may come to this believing Simpson is innocent. One-third may come to it believing he's guilty. And one-third may come to it being undecided. But my feeling is that it's not about guilt or innocence. It's about what goes on in defense lawyers' minds and how they work, irrespective of a client's guilt or innocence."

In fact, although Simpson is a pivotal character in "American Tragedy," he is not center stage. In an early draft of the script, Simpson was simply referred to as "the client."

"Sure, Simpson will bring people to the TV, but the story has to work without his name," said Schiller. "I wasn't making a film about O.J. This isn't a replay of the Simpson trial."

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