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O.J. mini-series takes viewers behind 'trial of the century' Add to ...

Six years ago this summer, O.J. Simpson was a defendant in the most-watched murder case in American history.

Now, a TV mini-series is reproducing the experience and exposing audiences to what they didn't see during the yearlong trial: behind-the-scenes battles and strategy sessions by the defence "dream team" which won Simpson's acquittal.

It will air on CBS in November unless O.J. Simpson is able to stop it.

Simpson sent his lawyers to court this month seeking a preliminary injunction to halt production on American Tragedy. So far, his 11th-hour legal bid has been futile. A judge refused to issue an injunction, saying he'd look at the script and revisit the matter.

With luck, production will be completed by the time Simpson's suit gets back to court on Sept. 6.

What is this movie and why does Simpson want to shut it down?

A visit to the soundstage in North Hollywood is an adventure in deja vu. Actors bear an eerie resemblance to Marcia Clark, Robert Shapiro and Superior Court Judge Lance Ito, among others. The courtroom where the case was tried has been duplicated in every detail including floral arrangements that often decorated the judge's bench.

The guiding hand behind the production is Lawrence Schiller, who wrote the book American Tragedy with James Willwerth based on information from his "mole" on the defence team, lawyer Robert Kardashian.

Schiller is directing from a script written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Norman Mailer, and he has assembled a top notch cast headed by Ving Rhames as Johnnie Cochran Jr., Christopher Plummer as F. Lee Bailey and Ron Silver as Robert Shapiro.

Schiller, who collaborated with Simpson on a jailhouse book, I Want to Tell You, recently directed another mini-series from his book Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, a recounting of the Jon Benet Ramsey murder case.

American Tragedy: The Uncensored Story of the Simpson Defense, published in 1996, was controversial from the start: Lawyers felt it invaded Simpson's attorney-client privilege of confidentiality. Eight members of the defence filed affidavits last week saying they had been misled into giving interviews to Schiller. But the author's lawyers pointed out that no one took legal action until the mini-series was nearly completed.

Schiller says neither Simpson nor anyone else was promised prior approval on the book or script. Cochran and Shapiro have met with the actors portraying them, he said.

"This story isn't about O.J. Simpson. It's about the lawyers," Schiller said in an interview. "The public doesn't know what took place behind closed doors, how the defence dealt with the evidence, how they pushed the envelope in the court system. To me, that is more interesting than anything else."

Although a Simpson "body double" sits at the counsel table during filming of court sessions, his is not a speaking role. A Simpson voice is occasionally heard on an intercom talking to his lawyers during their meetings.

Segments of actual trial footage will be seen in the mini-series.

The actors have spent many hours immersing themselves in trial history, reading books and watching hours of trial videotape. Most of them were avid fans of the televised trial.

"Of course I watched the trial. It was the hottest show in town," said Plummer. "One is not particularly proud of having watched it. It was sort of the fascination of watching a snake."

But the actor, who recently played Mike Wallace in the movie, the Insider, said the chance to play the legendary F. Lee Bailey was irresistible, and he found the mini-series much more than "a ghastly replay of the trial."

"It's about the defence team and the quite amazing ego challenges involved," he said.

The challenges of playing Bailey included a physical transformation for Plummer, whose body was padded and his face altered by a rubber mask.

"He's a wonderful character," said Plummer. "He represents the high-flown old school of lawyering, the old man, the curmudgeon. I'm sure he loves his drink and I do too, so I sympathize."

Ron Silver, who bears a striking resemblance to Shapiro, added thick eyebrows and shaved a bald spot on the back of his head. Silver has met with Shapiro more than once but said the lawyer claims never to have read Schiller's book.

"I've read Bob's book and I've talked to other people about him," said Silver, who concluded that Shapiro laid the groundwork for a brilliant defence but was forced to the sidelines by others.

"Once the trial started, he became quite marginalized," said Silver. "Everyone had their agendas. But his obligation to his client kept him there."

If the movie hews to the book, it will not take a position on whether Simpson was truly innocent of the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. Simpson was acquitted in criminal court and later found liable in civil court.

"I don't know what the truth is," both Plummer and Silver said separately. But one cast member said he became convinced that truth was never the aim.

"This thing about the search for the truth is laughable," said Bruno Kirby, who plays attorney Barry Scheck. "In a courtroom, it's about winning. Both sides are there to win ... I hope this (movie) makes people look at the system and see that it needs work."

 

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