Acquittal is likely to give career new life As Madison Ave. recoils, Hollywood could rush in

The O. J. Simpson Verdict

October 04, 1995|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Exit O. J. Simpson, the ex-football star. Enter O. J. Simpson, the ex-defendant.

In perhaps the final irony of the case, the trial and acquittal of Mr. Simpson is likely to breathe new life into a celebrity career that had been gasping before the two slayings, experts say.

But it will be a vastly different career. Gone will be the nationally broadcast dashes through the airport for Hertz or other roles on behalf of mass-marketed products. Also gone are $20,000 per-tee-off appearances at corporate golf outings that allowed CEOs to mingle with the handsome former Buffalo Bills running back.

But as Madison Avenue recoils from Mr. Simpson, a new Hollywood career exploiting his year in the spotlight could easily emerge and, at least in the short run, prove more lucrative. And given the millions he owes in legal fees, he may well need it all.

He has an agent and has already made an estimated $1 million from his published collection of correspondence from his jail cell. Add to that movie rights, paid interviews, merchandise sales, a few book deals, and Mr. Simpson's earnings could easily top $10 million over the next few years, according to entertainment industry experts.

"He'll be making more than when all this started," predicted David Burns, founder of Burns Sports Celebrity Service, a Chicago-based agency that matches athletes with sponsorship deals.

Mr. Burns estimates the ex-player earned $2 million a year, mostly for personal appearances, before the slayings. Even though he was acquitted, there is enough doubt about his innocence and negative publicity about his wife beatings that companies will shun him as a spokesman, Mr. Burns said.

Besides, Mr. Burns said, "He was already cooling down before all this happened. Those of us in the business rarely got calls for him. There were lots of ex-football players who were hotter."

Hertz was winding down its 20-year relationship with Mr. Simpson when he was charged, and cut it off altogether at the end of last year. That won't change, said a Hertz spokeswoman.

Over the next few months, Mr. Simpson could enjoy a windfall by granting exclusive interviews to magazines and television shows. There's even speculation of a pay-per-view interview that could pay Mr. Simpson $10 million.

A collection of correspondence while he was in jail was compiled as a book with an initial printing of 500,000, netting him about $1 million, said Claire Schoen, editorial director of the newsletter Book Publishing Report.

"I would think anything from him right now would be very well read," Ms. Schoen said.

Marty Blackman, with the New York-based celebrity agency Blackman & Raber, estimated that a Simpson book could easily top the $5 million advance that Desert Storm hero and retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf earned for his book.

And Mr. Simpson could sell the movie rights to his story for, say, $500,000 to $1 million, said Stan Soocher, a New York-based entertainment lawyer and editor-in-chief of the newsletter Entertainment Law & Finance.

Producers would be reluctant to pay more because Mr. Simpson would want control over its content and so much of the case is in the public domain a movie-maker can use First Amendment rights to tell the story without Mr. Simpson's approval, he said.

However, if Mr. Simpson were willing to play himself in the movie, he could conceivably draw $5 million to $10 million, Mr. Soocher said.

"He's not a Sylvester Stallone; he won't command $20 million. But anything is possible in a Hollywood bidding war," Mr. Soocher said.

There is also the possibility of royalty income from Simpson merchandise such as T-shirts, paperweights and audio cassettes related to the trial. Such commercial use of his name, voice and likeness is protected under California and federal laws. Recently, Mr. Simpson took steps to register his name with trademark officials.

But in the long term, Mr. Simpson's ability to remain on the public stage depends on how well he rehabilitates a battered image, Mr. Blackman said. If police were to find another suspect in the killings, that would go a long way toward helping, he said.

But even short of that, Mr. Blackman said, "We're not going to have to have a bake sale. O. J. Simpson will not starve."

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