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Original Issue

It's O.K. To Be O.J.

O.J. Simpson talks about Hollywood, being a celebrity and, of course, football

Sports Illustrated: Tell me about the state of your body. Any aches and pains? And how are your knees?

O.J. Simpson: I have major aches and pains in my knees. I had an operation a year or so ago—an arthroscope on my left knee, clipping the meniscus cartilage. Plus, I was attacked in 1991 by the early stages of rheumatoid arthritis.

SI: Where? Just in your knees?

O.J.: Everywhere! My knees, my shoulder, my fingers. I still can't bend one of my fingers. That's the only actual disfigurement that I have. In the beginning the doctors put me on anti-inflammatory medicine, but I didn't think it was helping. So I went to an acupuncturist, who got me off all the medication. She changed my diet, took me off red meat, orange juice—I was one of these guys who drank a quart of orange juice a day—and eggs. Now I'm much better.

SI: Was the pain from the arthritis worse than the pain that you experienced after games?

O.J.: I never hurt after games. In college I was carrying the ball 30-something times a game. I'd go home and soak, and I'd sleep in a special lounge chair. Those were just bruises. I was one of those guys who never really took much punishment during the games.

SI: Since retiring from football, have you found any sport that has given you the same exhilaration, that has touched as many emotions?

O.J.: Golf. The competition—just as in football—is myself. It's me against the course and the ball. I get that competitive high playing golf.

SI: Are you as aggressive in other sports?

O.J.: One of the reasons I don't play much tennis is that there are too many weekend warriors. All their aggression, all their masculinity comes out on the tennis court. I don't need that at this point of my life. Line calls? Guys go nuts! And they're close friends of mine! I don't need that.

SI: Are you surprised that your celebrity has lasted as long as it has, that you can still make money by being who you are?

O.J.: To an extent, yes. But understand this—I've always made more money away from football, though football opened the doors. I actually signed with Chevrolet and RC Cola before I signed with the Buffalo Bills [in 1969]. I was one of the first athletes to be a major spokesman for a company during his career. Hertz told me that in all their surveys I was colorless. The American public didn't categorize me as black or white, just that O.J. was O.J., which I liked.

I have an aversion to being referred to as an ex-football player. I'm O.J., which means I'm somebody today and the highlight of my life isn't behind me.

SI: What's the oddest place that you've ever been recognized in?

O.J.: Lee Strasberg [the late method acting coach] and I had gotten to be pretty good friends, and we were doing a movie together in Europe in the 1970s called The Cassandra Crossing. We were near the Spanish Steps in Rome, in an antique-book store, and we got into a debate about recognition. I remember him saying that I was recognized all over the world, and I said, "In America I'm recognized, but your name is better known around the world." Just then a group of Japanese came up to me and said, "O.J. Simpson. O.J. Simpson." I was in shock, and Lee was smiling. I thought it was a trick, that somebody had gone out and gotten those people to do this, but it was only Lee and I in the bookstore, so there was no one else to go and do this.

SI: Was there ever a time when you were uncomfortable being a celebrity?

O.J.: I think it has been more uncomfortable for people who live with me over a period of time. I prepared for it [being a celebrity] my whole life. As a kid I wanted to be Willie Mays, so when celebrity came, it was easy to take. The only time it becomes uncomfortable is when you have some crisis in your family. The press brings the public into it. Normally, by that time, you've already dealt with the trauma, and when the press gets involved, it opens sores again. That's the element I don't like.

In L.A. celebrities are looked at differently. I go months without signing an autograph in L.A., but I can't walk down the street in any other city. I look at [the pop music group] Wilson Phillips. Those girls were all around my house, at my pool. Now they're big stars. I used to throw footballs to Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen. Sophia Loren's kids used to sit on my knee. Parents' Day at my kids' school was celebrity day.

SI: Jim Brown, who has been known to say outrageous things, said that he quit making movies because "I think Hollywood just got tired of a big old black negro kissing all their women." Is it just as hard for you in Hollywood?

O.J.: I never considered it hard. I don't consider myself an actor. I'm a personality. When I get hired for a part, it's more for my personality than my acting prowess. In the Naked Gun movies, I go in like a stunt man. I think a lot of my success in that role, especially in the first movie, had to do with the stupid things happening to me, because people still relate to me as O.J.

SI: Do you have a checklist that keeps you from taking yourself too seriously?

O.J.: My mother. The Bible. Do unto others. That's my basic philosophy. It is so simple. You treat everybody the way you want to be treated. Because I can run with a football—used to be able to run with a football—I'm making a fortune? I have my faults. Sometimes people close to me suffer from my celebrity and from my natural weaknesses, weaknesses that all men have. Fortunately, I've got my weaknesses under control. But I've gone through phases, not on a Magic [Johnson] scale, certainly not on a Wilt Chamberlain scale, but on a minuscule scale.

SI: How do you think that Magic Johnson's testing HIV-positive has changed the attitudes of athletes?

O.J.: For the first time heterosexuals felt threatened by AIDS. Magic brought it home. I think those one-night stands—meeting a girl at a bar—will change. I think guys are going to be looking for more long-term relationships. If I was an active player today, especially a bachelor playing in the NBA, I would be really concerned.

SI: You're also living in the entertainment community, where there have been people who've not only tested HIV-positive but also died of AIDS. Why did Magic's revelation have a greater impact?

O.J.: You can admire Rocky, but in real life he's Sylvester Stallone. Your average Hollywood actors—it's hard to relate to what happens to them in their real lives. You like to read about it, you get a peek into it, but even that's not real to you. Magic is a real guy. What you see is what you get. He's not acting, he's not playing somebody else.

Seeing Magic's smile, I just dread the thought of seeing him like the girl [Kimberly Bergalis] who got the virus from her dentist. I could almost cry right now thinking about Magic looking like that.

Last spring I spent an evening at an affair for Lyle Alzado. I just sat there in tears. I was trying to relate to a guy who knows he's dying, and he was there to help others not make that mistake [taking anabolic steroids]. I've obviously made some mistakes, but they weren't earth-shattering. I wasn't going to die from them. I don't know how to relate to what Magic is going through and what Lyle went through.

SI: You're 45 years old. Have you come to terms with your own mortality?

O.J.: No. I'm currently going through a divorce. And I've been through one before. You tend to get introspective at times like that and wonder about people who have been in your life and how your life has evolved. I don't really see an end. I haven't really thought about the end, but I have thought about what I've done in my life and how I've related to people. And how much time I have to change.

SI: Do you think you can change?

O.J.: Where it matters. I've always believed that male athletes face mid-life crises twice in their lives. They face it when their careers end, and then of course when you normally would face it, which is in the mid-40's or 50. I don't know if I'm facing it yet. I don't feel like it.

Unfortunately, it's misfortune that leads you to look inside, to really take a hard look at yourself. I'm sure Magic sees things a lot differently now. Lyle obviously looked at himself. And they shared their insights with people, and that's the positive side of it. You have to go through a period of hard times, a negative, to be able to take a hard look at yourself and be honest.



Simpson says he has made more money off the football field than on it.



Simpson spent nine seasons carrying the ball for the Buffalo Bills.