- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 30, 2000

LOS ANGELES Six years ago this summer, O.J. Simpson was a defendant in the most-watched murder case in American history. Viewers sat glued to their TV sets as the saga unfolded in what would be dubbed the trial of the century.

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

It will air on CBS in November unless 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 would look at the script and revisit the matter.

With luck, production will be completed by the time Simpson's suit gets back to court 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 defense team, lawyer Robert Kardashian.

Mr. 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 Mr. Shapiro.

Mr. Schiller, who collaborated with Simpson on a jailhouse book, "I Want to Tell You," recently directed another miniseries 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 believed it invaded Simpson's attorney-client privilege of confidentiality. Eight members of the defense filed affidavits last week saying they had been misled into giving interviews to Mr. Schiller. But the author's lawyers pointed out that no one took legal action until the miniseries was nearly completed.

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

"This story isn't about O.J. Simpson. It's about the lawyers," Mr. Schiller said in an interview. "The public doesn't know what took place behind closed doors, how the defense 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 miniseries.

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," Mr. Plummer said. "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 miniseries much more than "a ghastly replay of the trial."

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

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