I am materialistic,” declares Orenthal James Simpson, flashing the megawatt grin that has made him America’s best-known TV rent-a-jock. “I value money. I value my home. I do not like credit. I want to own things.” To finance his formidable appetites O.J., who turned 30 last July, is scrambling as hard off the football field as on.
He is a 6’1″, 210-pound mixed-media phenomenon—actor, salesman, commentator and the only resident of Buffalo, N.Y. whose name comes readily to most American minds.
Last month Simpson gave his best dramatic performance to date in A Killing Affair, a CBS-TV movie about a black cop’s romantic involvement with his white partner, played by Elizabeth Montgomery. Undoubtedly because of its controversial theme, the program held its own against Charlie’s Angels.
O.J.’s campaign for Hertz has been so effective that the rental car company signed him up for another three-year contract. (Simpson will not discuss salary; he is reluctant to talk about money except to say that he likes it. He does concede that he is already a millionaire.) More than football or films, O.J. believes that his Hertz commercials (“I’m vice-president in charge of propaganda”) account for his astounding 90 percent recognizability. There are also lucrative endorsements for Tree Sweet orange juice, Wilson Sporting Goods, Dingo boots, Shindana Toys (maker of the O.J. Simpson doll) and Hyde Spot-Bilt athletic shoes.
Furthermore, after seven years with ABC’s Wide World of Sports, including commentary at the 1976 Olympics, Simpson recently signed a five-year contract with NBC. It will allow him to do drama, sportscasting—even variety shows. “NBC was giving me the opportunity,” he explains, “to reach a point in my career I hadn’t planned to reach for another five years.”
At the base of the burgeoning Simpson empire is, of course, football. “I never doubted at any time that I would be a big, successful football player,” boasts the 1968 Heisman Trophy winner, who went on to set 10 NFL records in nine years with the Buffalo Bills and become the first in the league to gain more than 2,000 yards in a season. His contract with Buffalo, reportedly worth $2.5 million, expires after next year. “I have 26 more games to play,” says O.J., “and football will be behind me forever. Then I’ll be in Hollywood.”
In fact, Simpson already has more credits than most members of the Screen Actors Guild. Although his performances in movies like The Klansman, The Towering Inferno and The Cassandra Crossing left the critics decidedly underwhelmed, he won mild praise for a brief appearance as a tribal chief in Roots (a cameo in which he claimed his name was “exploited”). After A Killing Affair, New York Times critic John O’Connor wrote of O.J.’s performance: “His personality is so basically attractive that he is able to get maximum results with minimum effort.”
Perhaps, but Simpson’s attitude toward acting is far from casual. “I look at Dustin Hoffman and think, ‘Boy, that man can act,’ ” he admits. “If I work hard enough, I can be like that. I may have to fall into the niche of playing O.J. Simpson types, but I’m shooting to be as versatile as he is.”
It took that kind of determination for O.J. to escape the run-down Potrero Hill section of San Francisco where he grew up. His parents separated when he was 4, and Simpson’s mother, Eunice, raised four children while working as an orderly in the psychiatric ward of San Francisco General Hospital. (“Some patients went nuts on her,” O.J. recalls. “One day she came home really beat up.”) The family’s apartment in a federal housing project was cramped. “The whole building was the same size as the house I now own in L.A.”
A childhood case of rickets forced O.J. to wear a jerry-rigged brace on his legs because his mother could not afford real medical help. At 6, the condition had left him permanently bowlegged, pigeon-toed and, by his own account, with “very skinny calves.” As a member of several juvenile gangs, Simpson was arrested three times and actually spent about six hours in jail. “I learned one thing—I never wanted to go back.” At that point Willie Mays of the baseball Giants, who had heard of O.J.’s athletic achievements in school, invited him to spend a day in Mays’ palatial home. From then on, Simpson unleashed his considerable energies on the playing field, conscious finally of what rewards they could bring.
To help support the family young O.J. hawked papers on street corners, caught fish off Pier 90 and peddled them in “the projects,” unloaded freight cars and worked briefly as a clerk in a department store. “I only had one suit,” remembers O.J., who made the 1975 best-dressed list. “It was tough going to work after school in the same suit every day.” While at USC he was fired as a truck driver for RC Cola when he was caught sleeping on the job. After he had won the Heisman Trophy, Simpson signed a six-figure contract as a spokesman for RC. (He left college two semesters short of a degree in public administration.)
Simpson still sees his family several times a year in San Francisco, where his mother is now a supervisor at the same hospital. His father, Jimmy, is a chef in the executive dining room of the Federal Reserve Bank; sister Mattie, 34, is a housewife, and sister Carmelita, 29, a secretary. Brother Truman, 31, works as a doorman at the elegant Clift Hotel.
During football season Simpson lives alone in a sparsely furnished 13-room English Tudor home in Buffalo and drives a Ford LTD provided by Hertz. In the elegant Brentwood Park section of L.A. he has just purchased (for an estimated $650,000) a five-bedroom mansion and guesthouse with pool and courts for tennis and paddle tennis. There Marguerite, the 29-year-old college sweetheart whom he married 10 years ago, looks after the Simpson clan: Arnelle, 8, Jason, 7, and a second daughter, Aaren, born Sept. 24. O.J. dropped everything to fly to his wife’s bedside in an L.A. hospital.
While he professes to be “a family man—completely,” O.J.’s long absences from home and the ever-present groupies put almost intolerable strains on their marriage. Marguerite, a Catholic convert, protested in 1974, “We have practically lost our private life. I have been shoved out of the way, pushed and stepped on by more than one beautiful woman. I admit I’m jealous.” Explains O.J.: “I guess the price of fame was our biggest problem. I hope those things are behind us now. Every time you get over a hump, the marriage gets stronger. A few years ago we got over a hump.”
But O.J. remains a visible, vulnerable target for women with a yen for pro athletes. He brings part of the problem on himself. “For the most part, I can live very cheaply,” he says. “But if I’m in New York I love to dress up in a Pierre Cardin suit and silk shirt and go over to Régine’s and flash my Cartier lighter. I learned that from Richard Burton. I don’t smoke, but I work on these details—in case I play a David Niven type someday.”
As for those groupies: “I guess any healthy, good-looking guy who’s self-confident—and I’m certainly that—could conceivably get girls. Groupies would have been a problem in my youth, when I was more insecure and needed to prove something. Now that I’m older, let’s say I’m more selective. My wife knows I’m under control.”
These days, while Bills practice keeps him in Buffalo most of the time, Simpson spends hours each week on the phone to his wife and kids. He unwinds by reading fiction (looking for properties to buy and produce), drinking beer, playing tennis or cards, listening to rock and R&B and occasionally trying out his hand in the kitchen (his father taught him to cook).
“I sit in my house in Buffalo and sometimes I get so damn lonely it’s unbelievable,” O.J. admits. “Life has been so good to me. I got a great wife, good kids, money, my own health—and I’m lonely and bored. I’m saying, ‘Juice, life really can be something.’ I often wondered why so many rich people commit suicide. Money sure isn’t a cure-all. That’s why I throw on my jeans and try to stay loose.”