O.J.'s SHRINKING ROLE Lawyers chew up scenery, witnesses are stars, while Simpson slips into Greek chorus

March 18, 1995|By Mike Littwin | Mike Littwin,Sun Staff Columnist

Where's O. J.?

That's not a serious question. (To be or not to be: That's a serious question.) We know where O. J. is. Since that night in the Bronco, he's been either in the L.A. lockup wearing prison denims or in court sporting $600 suits.

We see him every day on the news, on the tabloids, on "Nightline," on the morning shows, on the front page of your newspaper. You can run from O. J., but you can't hide. After all, we live in what has become -- cue the music -- the wide, wide world of O. J.

If we're serious trial watchers (celebrity trial watchers, by the way, include Christie Brinkley, Christian Slater and Bill Clinton -- I read this in People), we have enjoyed the entire range of O. J.'s courtroom performance.

You've got O. J. raising his eyebrows, O. J. rolling his eyes. O. J. bored. O. J. disdainful. And you thought he couldn't act. Yes, there was the one moment of drama, clearly scripted, in which he had his no-lines, all-eyes confrontation with Detective Mark Fuhrman.

And that's it.

We see him. We don't hear him. He has no lines. In fact, in the celebrity trial of the century, the so-called celebrity seems smaller every day. In the movie version, it'll be "Honey, I Shrunk the Defendant."

The real celebrities are, well, Kato and Rosa Lopez and, lately, Gunnery Sgt. Max Cordoba.

The true stars are Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran and, lately, F. Lee "Bag O' Wind" Bailey.

Oh, yes, and kindly, urbane Judge Lance Ito, who makes pronouncements while leaning on his left hand or, occasionally, while leaning on his right. We love Judge Ito. I see Judge Ito beards becoming an important fashion trend. And, if not, we still have Jay Leno's Judge Ito dancers.

Meanwhile, O. J., star running back and car-rental spokesman, sits somewhere in the far reaches of your TV screen, scrunched behind his lawyers, who have clearly upstaged him and spend their spare hours trying to upstage each other. (Just the other day, Bob Shapiro, who once called F. Lee Bailey a snake, criticized Bailey for playing the race card. Can't we all just get along?)

Imagine "Hamlet" if the Danish prince of darkness had no lines. O. J. is never going to talk (read: testify).

We're so desperate for any O. J. that his phoney-baloney book becomes a No. 1 best seller.

To extend the play metaphor, small roles are actually the big ones. The chorus gets all the songs. The bit actors get center stage. There are long days of drama in which O. J.'s name is never once mentioned. He's crowded out by, say, Mary Anne Gerchas.

O. J. is supposed to be the bad guy. But it's Mark Fuhrman, the rogue cop, the racist with a human face, who plays the anti-hero.

Bailey, the once-great attorney who hasn't had a big case in two decades, and Fuhrman, all chiseled and blue-eyed and maybe not a racist but just a cop with an attitude, fill the screen. Bailey wants to turn Fuhrman into Travis Bickle. Instead, he comes off like Clint Eastwood.

Major confrontation

It's the most talked-about confrontation since Lincoln-Douglas, or at least Ali-Frazier. Bailey throwing haymakers, Fuhrman all counter-punches. When they're in view, everything else is background.

Bailey: You say under oath that you have not addressed any black person as a nigger or spoken about black people as niggers in the past 10 years, Detective Fuhrman.

Fuhrman: That's what I'm saying, sir.

Fuhrman said anyone who testified differently was a liar.

Bailey: All of them?

Fuhrman: All of them.

When was the last time in a public forum in which nobody was wearing sheets that a white male repeatedly used the n-word?

It shocked you to your shoes. And yet, through all this, O. J., black American, never comes into focus. Now, gunnery sergeant Max Cordoba. That's another story.

We like to call it the trial of century because we want to validate our obsession with a trial that is, at its essence, about voyeurism. How big isit really? The Nuremberg trial was pretty big. The Lindbergh baby trial was pretty big. Leopold and Loeb. The Scopes "monkey trial." Charlie Manson. The Chicago Seven.

However big, it's certain there has never been a trial like this one.

This is the double-murder trial that is all about celebrity, but a distinctly '90s kind of celebrity.

It is no coincidence that the E! network is carrying the trial pretty much gavel to gavel. Because if it happens in Hollywood, it happens on E!

O. J. was a great football player who, after his career, became the smiling spokesman/minor actor. He is the kind of personality that is best described as engaging. He does not give off sparks. He's basically just a pretty face. That was before we knew about his darker side, and yet even when we saw O. J. as wife-beater and possible double murderer, somehow, he still did not seem dangerous, at least in the Hollywood sense.

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