July 11, 1994 12:00 PM

THREE TIMES A WEEK, BEFORE his workday begins, Bob Shapiro ambles into the garage of his four-bedroom home in Beverly Hills and pounds the stuffing out of a set of punching bags. A trainer guides him through left hooks and right jabs, and a sparring partner reports on days when he wants to go mano a mano. It’s not the sort of sport that would appeal to every 51-year-old, but for this lawyer at this time, it may be the perfect training. “I’ve always admired boxers because they’re so agile,” Shapiro told PEOPLE. ‘That’s the way I want to be.”

He’ll need his every pugilistic skill in the battles to come. A man who made his name getting celebrities out of trouble, Robert L. Shapiro is facing one of the biggest challenges of his 25-year legal career. As the captain of O.J. Simpson’s defense team, he is at the center of one of the most closely watched murder cases in years. Each lime Shapiro walks into a courtroom, TV cameras roll—and all of America’s lawyers, it seems, are poised to critique his performance.

If the pressure is getting to him, he doesn’t show it. “Bob, our sons [Brent, 13, and Grant, 10] and I discussed his taking the O.J. case ahead of time, because we knew it would be overwhelming,” says his wife, Linell, 46. “Now the phone rings 24 hours a day, but he’s been extremely calm and very focused.”

In the first rounds against lead prosecutor Marcia Clark and co-counsel William Hodgman, Shapiro landed at least one stunning blow. On June 24, after a motion from Shapiro, Supervising Judge Cecil J. Mills dismissed the grand jury considering an indictment—finding that jurors had been exposed through the media to “potentially prejudicial matters,” including a sensational tape of Nicole Simpson’s 911 call to police on Oct. 25, 1993. The virtually unprecedented dismissal gave Simpson the right to a preliminary hearing—and gave Shapiro a tactically invaluable preview of the prosecution’s case.

Throughout pretrial hearings, Shapiro demonstrated that he intends to make the opposition fight for every inch. On June 28 he refused to accept Clark’s assertion that blood samples recovered by the police were too minute to share with defense experts; he convinced the judge that government witnesses must prove that the samples were too small to split.

Such scrappiness has taken Shapiro a long way. “We were really poor growing up,” says Good Morning America entertainment editor Joel Siegel, a friend since childhood. Born in New Jersey, only child Shapiro moved to L.A. with father Marty, a factory worker, and mother Mary, a housewife, in 1943. Siegel still remembers a slight he and “Snaps” suffered in the eighth grade: A clique calling itself the Idols held a meeting, and neither was invited. “We kind of hung around outside and wailed for it to be over, trying to avoid admitting that we weren’t popular enough to get into the club,” Siegel says. “Believe it or not, we talk about it 40 years later.”

By the time he arrived in high school, though, the gregarious Shapiro was charming his classmates. “He was the best dancer at Hamilton High,” says Siegel. “And he spent a lot of lime on his tan.” Known to UCLA frat brothers for his big hair and flashy suits, he toned down his act by the time he entered law school at L.A.’s Loyola University in 1965. Four years later his brief first marriage ended in annulment. Then, in 1969, he met model Linell Thomas, whom he wed the following year.

In 1972, after a three-year stint as an L.A. County deputy district attorney, Shapiro went into solo practice. Three years later he took the case of porn diva Linda Lovelace, who had been charged with drug possession. He got the case dismissed, and other well-known clients—including, over the years, Johnny Carson, movie producer Robert Evans, Tina Sinatra and athletes Darryl Strawberry and Jose Canseco—began turning to him.

According to L.A. lawyer Frank Rothman, Shapiro offers a kind of personal involvement rare in his profession. “Pie’s continually at clients’ homes; he becomes a close friend,” says Rothman. “It’s the old-time family doctor kind of thing.”

By Shapiro’s account, high-profile defendants need an extra measure of care. “The public perception is that a celebrity can get off easier,” he has said. “It’s absolutely not true…. Two cases being equal, one involving a celebrity and the other not, the ordinary citizen has a much better chance of getting a better result.”

Always searching for the competitive edge, he’s a master at playing to the press. In a 1993 law journal article entitled “Using the Media to Your Advantage,” Shapiro revealed his strategy for dealing with reporters. Aside from noting that “it’s never a good idea to lie to the press,” he observed that tactful diction is important when defending an accused murderer. For example, he advised, “to describe an unfortunate death situation, I use the term ‘a horrible human event.’ ”

Although his public relations strengths are formidable, his experience defending murder suspects is relatively slim; he says he has been chief counsel in just 10 homicide cases. The best-known was that of Marlon Brando’s son Christian, now 35, who was charged with first-degree murder in the 1990 death of Dag Drollet, boyfriend of his half-sister Cheyenne. Shapiro argued that Drollet was shot in a struggle over Christian’s gun; Brando plead guilty to a reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter and avoided a trial.

Although some colleagues say that Shapiro—known for his skill at plea bargaining—would never attempt to argue a double-murder case before a jury, others disagree. “Bob is a phenomenal trial lawyer,” says L.A. superior court judge Elizabeth Baron, who faced off against against him as a county prosecutor. “He’s very thorough—an excellent strategist.”

Some L.A. lawyers, however, believe that Shapiro would be destroyed if he squared off with Hodgman and Clark in a capital murder case. Hodgman was anointed prosecutor of the year by the California District Attorneys Association after winning a conviction of former savings and loan kingpin Charles Keating (who was charged with securities fraud) in 1992. He “may strike you as plodding in the beginning,” said John Lynch, head deputy D.A. in Santa Monica. “But ultimately, he grinds you up.”

One of Shapiro’s strengths may be his knowledge of his own limitations. “Criminal defense lawyers often have egos so powerful they could stop a train,” says former L.A. district attorney Ira Reiner. “Bob doesn’t have that type of ego. He’ll do whatever it takes to win a case.” Shapiro didn’t hesitate to assemble a legal team that includes name-brand trial lawyer F. Lee Bailey and ubiquitous law-professor-author-talking-head Alan Dershowitz. And while skeptics wonder whether such legal egos can coexist peaceably, their professional ties are strong: Shapiro successfully defended Bailey on a 1982 drunk-driving charge, and Bailey sought Dershowitz’s help in his unsuccessful 1975 defense of kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst. Says Bailey: “We don’t have ego clashes.”

Meticulous and disciplined, Shapiro, who favors $2,000 Armani suits and frets about his growing bald spot (“I’m sick of looking at myself on TV with my bald head!”), has been sleeping only a few hours a night since taking the Simpson case. “If you were to paint a portrait of the Bob Shapiro I am today, it would have to be very, very tired with droopy eyes and achy legs,” he says. (Shapiro won’t talk about his fees, but Boston lawyer Tom Hoopes said, “A case like this can generate $2 million in billings.”) He burns the midnight oil in the Fox tower on L.A.’s Avenue of the Stars, where his office neighbors include Ronald Reagan and where, Shapiro says, “my windows were knocked out when they shot Die Hard.”

L.A. agent and lawyer Ed Hookstraten claims that “most of the great trial lawyers are divorced or alcoholics”—and that Shapiro is a notable exception. He has a fondness for carrot-beet juice and fresh fruit, and he hoards time with his family. In the middle of the frenzy of his first week on the Simpson case, he made time to take Grant and Brent to the U.S.A. vs. Colombia World Cup match at the Rose Bowl. “He’ll drop anything for the kids,” says Linell. He is also, she adds, a pretty good husband. Recently “he made me think he’d forgotten my birthday altogether and said the kids had gotten me Cracker Jacks,” Linell says. “We dumped them out, and there was a beautiful diamond bracelet inside.”

Even the neighbors like the guy. Beverly Hills rare-coin dealer Kevin Lipton remembers being horrified a few years ago when he received an emergency phone call from his wife. Their son, it seemed, had bitten Grant Shapiro’s ear at preschool. “I thought, ‘Oh, no, only Kevin Jr. could have picked this hotshot attorney’s kid to bite,” recalls Lipton. “I had visions of losing the house, the cars, the business….” Instead, he says, the understanding Shapiros became friends.

These days, Shapiro is part of the same world inhabited by his wealthy clients: Brent’s bar mitzvah reception was held at producer Evans’s house last year, and family friend Wolfgang Puck, the owner and chef at. Spago, caters the Shapiros’ parties. A wine connoisseur who drives a more than 20-year-old Bentley, Shapiro is a regular at Nicky Blair’s, Drai’s and other chic eateries.

Still, Shapiro says, it’s the little things that give him the most pleasure. A favorite: In 1991 he coached his son’s soccer team to an unbeaten season. Before taking on the job, “I had never seen a soccer ball,” says Shapiro. “But it wasn’t luck. It was strategy—the same thing I bring to the courtroom.”