LOS ANGELES – John Travolta had his strut back. In 1994, the once-white-hot actor was one more bomb away from manning a booth at “Welcome Back, Kotter” conventions when “Pulp Fiction” hit the film-festival circuit and sparked a career comeback tailor-made for Hollywood.
If only Dad hadn’t been so distracted.
“I was in the middle of this resurrection and my dad, who was a football coach and had worked with Vince Lombardi, was obsessed with the O.J. case,” Travolta said last month. “So I’m sort of in my glory about this new, hopeful part of my career, and my dad was on the sofa watching every second of it, from the car chase on.”
Travolta is once again attempting to reinsert his relevance, but this time he’s on Team O.J.
In his first major TV role since his Sweathog days, the actor plays attorney Robert Shapiro in “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” an all-star re-creation of the most famous event in U.S. history that hadn’t been dramatized on screen.
That’s a bit surprising when you consider just how much the case inundated most adult lives in the mid-’90s, from pint-clattering arguments in every barroom to the Dancing Itos on “The Tonight Show.”
According to a 2012 poll conducted by Nielsen and Sony Electronics, the Bronco chase and the verdict were ranked Nos. 3 and 6, respectively, among the top 25 memorable TV moments in history. The assassination of John F. Kennedy, which once topped similar lists, fell to No. 15. Man walking on the moon didn’t even make the cut.
So why the long gap between the courtroom and a back-lot studio?
“I think people were just really oversaturated with it,” said Nina Jacobson, who oversaw a production that includes David Schwimmer as defense attorney Robert Kardashian, Sarah Paulson as prosecutor Marcia Clark and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson. “We needed time and distance to be able to come back and look at it from a perspective where you can really have compassion and emotional access to these characters and not just react to what you think they stood for.”
Then there are viewers so young they’d struggle to identify Jessica Simpson.
For them, the 10-part miniseries, as well as ESPN’s upcoming five-part documentary, will help set the stage for current hot-button issues — “Making a Murderer,” Black Lives Matter — and unravel a tale that’s stranger than, well, pulp fiction.
“As my old editor Tina Brown used to say, great stories have high and lows,” said Jeffrey Toobin, whose book “The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson” served as the basis for the FX series. “Here you had profound highs dealing with race and character. You also had Faye Resnick,” a friend of Nicole Brown Simpson, O.J.’s ex-wife, who was killed along with her friend Ron Goldman.
The project seemed tailor-made for Ryan Murphy, who has an affinity for the serious (the rise of the AIDS epidemic in “The Normal Heart”) and the sublime (the rise of teenage misfits in ”Glee”). But Murphy, who supervised the entire miniseries and directed two episodes, resisted any of his trademark flights of fantasy. When you have a judge who gets giddy over a personalized photo from Arsenio Hall, a prosecutor whose coiffure choices become tabloid news and a surfer bum as a character witness, there’s no need for the characters to break into a rendition of “I Shall Be Released.”
Despite a desire for accuracy — Murphy said he has never worked on a project with so much legal vetting — actors were advised not to contact their real-life counterparts until at least halfway through the shoot.
Schwimmer spent an hour on the phone with the late Kardashian’s former wife, Kris Jenner. Paulson and Clark had dinner.
As for Gooding, he never entertained the idea of meeting with Simpson, who’s serving prison time in Nevada for a robbery conviction.
“I had no desire to visit him in his present condition, being incarcerated, being a shell of a man,” said the Oscar winner. “If Ryan wants to do next season as O.J. today, and he casts me again, then I’ll sit with him every day and research. But until then, I knew that this portrayal had to be of a flamboyant, charismatic movie star, marquee athlete. So I used the research materials from that time period in his life in terms of his walk, his gait, his physical appearance, the egotistical manner in which he carried himself then. That’s what I was looking to achieve.”
Time may have affected some of the key players, but the case itself still resonates today, particularly when it comes to the legal system and racial strife.
“When we were making this show, we saw what was going on in Ferguson and all these other protests and this issue of how we have different perspectives on the justice system and police brutality came forward again,” said executive producer Brad Simpson. “I hope what people will take away from it is that we’re in this endless conversation that’s important to have, which is basically your experience with the criminal justice system and policing is very different based on the color of your skin and also based on where you are economically.”
Keeping up with Kardashian
“Crime Story,” which is being set up as an annual anthology series with Hurricane Katrina being Murphy’s next target, isn’t all weighty issues.
One of the show’s surprise stars is Kim Kardashian (played by Veronica Galvez), whose bedroom was used by Simpson as a hideout before his Bronco excursion. The giddy reaction she and her siblings have to her father’s sudden celebrity goes a long way toward explaining why her every move is now being played out on the E! network.
“There were a lot of themes we wanted to hit, with the start of the 24-hour news cycle and the beginning of reality TV,” said series co-screenwriter Scott Alexander. “This was the beginning of an era where someone like Kato Kaelin or Faye Resnick would become famous and no one was really sure why they were famous.”
Yes, some things never change: Kardashians mugging for the cameras. Lawyers treating the courtroom as if it were the stage at the Globe Theatre. Schwimmer looking like he just graduated from college.
But when it comes to the rabid attention to a superstar trial, don’t expect a real-life sequel.
“In 1994, there was no Internet, no Fox News, no MSNBC,” Toobin said. “Today, you can watch other things. It really was one of the last fully shared national experiences. It would have been big no matter what, but the Bronco chase was so weird and so ubiquitous on all our lives, it set the case on a trajectory towards the stratosphere.”