O.J. Simpson's First Movie Was a Nightmare
It's hard to overstate how terrible, incoherent, and racist 'The Klansman' was.
|Eric Nusbaum||Oct 15, 2019|| 1|
Welcome to Sports Stories, a newsletter written by Eric Nusbaum, and illustrated by Adam Villacin. Every week, we’ll be learning about sports, history, and sports history. We hope you enjoy Sports Stories — and that if you do, you share it with your friends, families, and Lee Marvin impersonators you might know.
This week’s Sports Stories is a little different. It’s about a movie. And there isn’t much of a story, per se (in the movie, or in the newsletter about the movie). But hey, Sports Stories is a living breathing thing. It’s a constant work in progress. So let’s ride with it.
I initially set out to write about The Klansman after I read somewhere that in O.J. Simpson’s first big movie role, he played a black man who was falsely accused of murdering a white woman. I honestly don’t remember where I read this, but I believed it. I wrote it down in the Google Doc that Adam and I use to organize ideas. This seemed like a Sports Story to me. There was something horrible and fitting about it. The historical echo seemed almost too on-the-nose.
I’m by no means an O.J. Simpson expert. I haven’t even seen all of Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America documentary (I did watch the whole FX miniseries though). But like many people, I find O.J. fascinating. The trial was probably the biggest news event of my childhood in Los Angeles. It just kept going. I remember a teacher running into my fourth grade classroom screaming NOT GUILTY on the day of the verdict in 1995. I once wrote a book proposal about LA freeways—there was going to be a whole chapter about the White Bronco chase.
So I wondered what this movie would be, and how—especially if it really was the case that the plot in some way foreshadowed his later murder trial—it could have been so deeply forgotten. After all, The Klansman starred not only O.J.Simpson but Lee Marvin and Richard Burton. These were not un-famous men. I figured I would watch the movie, and write something meaningful about O.J. Simpson, and the ironic nature of history.
Then I actually watched the movie. O.J. Simpson kills a lot of white men in it. He even dresses in klan robes to do it. But at no point is he arrested, and at no point is he framed.
The Klansman opens with scenes from a small town in Alabama and a swampy song called The Good Christian People that was recorded, just for the movie, by The Staple Singers. The music is the best part about “The Klansman,” though I think most of it has disappeared from the collective consciousness along with the rest of the movie. We see a motorcycle. Then we see a police cruiser being driven by Lee Marvin. He removes some branches blocking a dirt road, and comes across a circle of white men in a clearing. They’re watching and cheering as a shirtless black man sets upon raping a petite black woman.
Lee Marvin honks his horn. He sends everybody off casually. No big deal. The white men are just Good Christian People. The would-be rapist is shown to be mentally disabled, himself a victim of these good old boys. The woman runs off and his not seen again for the rest of the movie. The scene basically makes no sense. But in this way, it’s a perfect way to set the stage for The Klansman. Nothing that follows makes sense either.
The Klansman features a lot of murder, and a lot of rape. It’s a shameless, violent, tasteless, bad movie that isn’t sure if it’s an exploitation picture or a kind of anti-racist political statement. It doesn’t work as either. It doesn’t really work on any level. Lee Marvin is totally disinterested, he’s barely even there as a straight-ish shooting sheriff. Richard Burton is just visibly shitfaced as a rich white guy with a war injury who opposes racism and the Klan. But I think it’s still worth writing about. It turns out that The Klansman’s very existence is fascinating. The Klansman is the result of many failures, personal and professional. Failures from almost everybody involved, except, it seems, O.J. Simpson.
The film was shot after O.J.’s best NFL season. In 1973, he became the first 2,000 yard rusher in NFL history. He averaged more than six yards per carry for the Buffalo Bills. He was unstoppable. But he was also already looking into what might come next. He started acting in TV shows four years earlier, after graduating from USC. The studio executives and Hollywood bigshots all told him he had it—he had the charisma, and the talent to make it in movies. So O.J., to his credit, took it seriously. He practiced. He bided his time and waited for the right roles. The Klansman was his first big break.
Early on in the movie, an innocent black man named Willy Washington is framed for the rape of white housewife Nancy Poteet. (This is the second of three rapes in The Klansman. While the two black victims are shown in miserable, drawn out scenes, the camera cuts away from the white victim—as if showing this would be too much.) The local KKK wants to lynch Willy, but Sheriff Lee Marvin doesn’t let them. Instead, as Willy sits in jail, the mob just chases down the first black man it sees. They kill and castrate this nameless victim while Garth, played by O.J. Simpson, watches from a hiding place. Garth then decides to take matters into his own hands. He decides to start killing Klan members.
(Why Willy Washington gets a last name, but Garth doesn’t is one of many questions I have about The Klansman. But overall, the names are one of the movie’s few redeeming qualities. Marvin’s sheriff is named Track Bascomb. Richard Burton’s character is Brek Stancil. I’m pretty sure both those guys played lacrosse for Syracuse last year. The movie’s villain, the racist deputy sheriff, is named Butt Cutt Cates, but his friends call him Butt for short.)
O.J. as Garth barely speaks for most of the movie. In his first act as a vigilante, he dresses up in a white hood and robe, and knocks on the door of one of the town’s dumber KKK members. You can watch the scene below. And if you can handle some violence, and are interested enough in this terrible movie to have read this far, I would highly recommend watching it:
The Klansman is based on what was at the time a well regarded novel by a white Southerner named William Bradford Huie. The rights to the novel were optioned by an African-American film producer named William Alexander. Alexander had produced a bunch of critically praised documentaries tackling race and colonization in Africa among other topics, but this was his first attempt at producing a big budget feature. It would be his last.
Alexander took the job seriously. He enlisted Samuel Fuller, known for making high concept genre films, to write and direct. According to Fuller’s memoir, the script was dynamite. Fuller initially recruited Marvin to play a Klan leader. John Cassavetes was going to play Butt Cutt. The Klansman was going to be a Serious Film. Then, as they do, studio executives got involved. Fuller was dropped as director. For some reason, Paramount decided to bring in Terence Young, an Englishman known mostly for making some of the great early James Bond movies. The script was rewritten. Lee Marvin became a sheriff. Richard Burton appeared. And suddenly, so did O.J.
“The reworked story made no sense as social commentary and was repugnant as entertainment,” Fuller wrote. “They’d turned my original work into a disastrous piece of bullshit and launched production. Against my wishes, they left my name on it.”
The film was shot in a small town near Sacramento called Oroville. During the course of production, Richard Burton was in the process of divorcing his wife of ten years, Elizabeth Taylor. Their personal drama overshadowed the actual movie. Burton apparently talked a local woman into leaving her family to marry him, then abandoned her after the filming. (He and Taylor would remarry a year later, then divorce again soon after that.) Burton was so drunk on set that many of his scenes had to be shot with him sitting down, or leaning conveniently against a nearby object. In an interview about his acting career, O.J. later spoke about the great lessons he got in all-night poker games with Burton and Marvin. This may well have been the case, but after shooting wrapped, Burton had to be taken to a hospital and dried out.
“Oh, there was some vodka absorbed,” O.J. told Playboy. “Like cases and cases of it. I learned that in the acting industry, the heavy drinkers all go for vodka because it doesn’t smell. Lee Marvin amazed me with his stamina, ‘cause he’d go through an entire bottle and still do his lines without a hitch. Same thing with Richard Burton. And sometimes when he was inebriated, Richard would start rambling on in that booming voice of his, maybe reciting something from Camelot or something, just to get your attention.”
Here’s a “fight” scene in which Richard Burton, who is barely ambulatory, beats up Butt Cutt Cates with a series of judo chops at a bus station.
As you can imagine, the reviews were terrible. Lee Marvin’s biographer said “The Klansman may not be the worst movie Lee Marvin ever made, but it’s certainly the most abominable.” But even harsh reviews about the movie were pretty kind to O.J. Simpson. The Los Angeles Times said he was one of only two performers “to escape with something like dignity”. Watching O.J. in the film, it’s clear that he is genuinely trying; that he genuinely wants to become a good actor; that he knows that doing so will one day make him a lot of money.
But it’s also obviously impossible to watch The Klansman, or think at all about O.J. Simpson, without thinking about the fact that he almost certainly murdered two people, and very certainly committed many crimes in the years after those murders. It’s hard not to think about O.J.’s legacy, as a black man who was, for a while, absolutely beloved by white America, and then reviled as the murderer of a white woman. It’s hard not to think about “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”
At one point in the movie, O.J.’s character Garth watches from a distance as klan members interrupt a protest march in the town’s main square. When things get heated in town, O.J. shoots a klan member to death from his distant perch. Moments later, it turns out that he has fled the scene in the back of a somewhat Bronco-looking SUV. Life imitates art, I guess. In this case, the truck is being driven by Burton’s character, the benevolent white liberal, and in the front seat next to him is a young black woman whose family lives on his land. Her name is Loretta Sykes, and she is played by the musician Lola Falana. Her character is home visiting from Chicago, where she has a good job, and is involved in the civil rights movement.
Burton and Falana are talking about race and violence, when O.J. reveals that he’s been hiding in the backseat the entire time. He then proceeds to deliver a pretty long and sincere monologue about racism in America, and how violence is the only way to stop it, all the while holding a gun to Burton’s head.
“You may be some kind of John Brown up on that hill of yours,” O.J.’s Garth tells Burton’s Breck Stancil. “But you ain’t shit here. You’re just a peg leg honky with a gun in his head. Ya dig?”
This is The Klansman at its best and most ridiculous. O.J. sounds nothing like a man from a small town in Alabama. His character Garth gets no backstory, no explanation, no nothing. But sure, he’s a militant vigilante. Let’s go with it. It doesn’t have to make sense because nothing else does in the movie.
The Klansman was a failure at the box office, but it did manage to merit a friendly writeup in Ebony’s December, 1974 issue. The article delicately dances around the fact that the movie is incoherent. Toward the end of the article, the writer sneaks in this long and tortured quote from the director Terence Young.
“I’ve made this picture because I believe pacifism is the only hope of the world. It is a denunciation of all the crass, stupid bigotry and intolerance. It is a cinematic statement against terrorism of any sort--black or white. I hope what The Klansman bares to public view will bring people to their senses before Americans find themselves as irrevocably committed to national destruction as the people of Northern Ireland.”
The movie ends with most of the main characters dead, or at the very least ruined after an underwhelming final showdown. There’s some very heavy-handed symbolism. It *seems* like Young wanted to argue that racism is also bad for racists--and for the white people who may not be racists. That’s true, of course. Being a racist is not healthy. It’s bad for everybody. But it’s very clearly worse for some people than others.
Here’s a Spoiler Alert: at the end of The Klansman, the two main white characters played by Richard Burton and Lee Marvin die noble deaths. We’re meant to believe that this is a great, senseless tragedy. But come on. A movie in which the two noble, vaunted victims of racism are white men is definitely getting something very wrong about racism.
Then again, maybe I’m over-analyzing. Nobody involved in making The Klansman seemed to concerned about any of this. O.J., for one, was just happy to be there. The same summer he filmed The Klansman, O.J. also filmed a star-studded disaster movie called The Towering Inferno. The cast included Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and Robert Wagner, a celebrity who unlike O.J., would never go to trial for the murder of his famous wife, the actress Natalie Wood.
The Klansman would help launch a respectable movie and TV career for O.J. He did what he set out to: made a lot of money doing something other than playing football. He was in The Naked Gun movies. He was everywhere. His final role, as a Navy SEAL team leader in a TV movie called Frogmen, was filmed just before the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. It was never released.
Many of his co-stars probably wish The Klansman suffered the same fate. (Lee Marvin used to call it The Clownsman.) But in a sense it did. O.J. notwithstanding, the movie basically disappeared into a memory hole. And that’s probably where it belongs.
Related Watching (and Reading)
The Klansman is streaming online for free as part of the public domain. You can watch it by clicking here.
I hesitate to recommend watching this movie, or reading about it for that matter. But if you must read, there are anecdotes to be found everywhere. I’d start with O.J. Simpson’s Playboy interviews, which can be found for a dollar on Amazon.
There are two Lee Marvin biographies that touch on the movie: Lee Marvin: His Films and Career by Robert Lentz, and Lee Marvin: Point Blank by Dwayne Epstein.
For some more academic type criticism on The Klansman, you can check out Riche Richardson’s book Black Masculinity and the U.S. South: From Uncle Tom to Georgia. Richardson is genuinely interesting and thoughtful, but I also think some of her reading gives more credit to the movie than it deserves in terms of its intentions. This was not necessarily a cohesive piece of art -- it was just a broken product of a broken system in what was and remains a somewhat broken country. For some score settling and backstory regarding this particular broken product, you can check out Samuel Fuller’s memoir, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking.
A Black Sheriff?
When I saw O.J. appear in klan robes, I couldn’t help but think about Blazing Saddles, the Mel Brooks movie that sees the black sheriff of a small western town played by Clevon Little (accompanied by Gene Wilder) try to infiltrate a group of bad guys by dressing up as a klansman.
I wondered if Mel Brooks was gently teasing this terrible movie. But it turns out, Blazing Saddles came out six months before The Klansman, in February of 1974. That means O.J.’s dramatic vigilante appearance had literally already been the subject of a gag in a movie.
One other thing The Klansman and Blazing Saddles have in common? The actor David Huddleston has roles in both films as a racist small-town mayor. He’s honestly one of the “best” parts of The Klansman. Huddleston would later become famous to another generation of moviegoers as The Big Lebowski himself.
The Sports Stories Story
As I was writing this week’s newsletter, I realized that I had sort of backed myself into a corner. The Klansman did not turn out to be the kind of story I expected, and honestly, the story of O.J.’s acting career was pretty boring. But the way we put these things together, by the time I actually watched the movie, it was too late to pivot.
Sports Stories is something we do for fun. Adam and I share this interest in weird history and sports. In the past, we’ve collaborated on a couple baseball zines. (Adam is like the Rickey Henderson of zines.) Sports Stories was meant to be a way to bring those zine vibes onto the internet, and to a bigger audience. But it’s also something we produce for free in our spare time. It goes like this: we talk about ideas and we share them in our big Google Doc. Each week, we pick a topic. Adam does the drawing, and I do the writing. It’s a mad scramble over the weekend to finish. Then, on Tuesday, after we hit send, we start again.
So when the topic takes us somewhere unexpected, well, that’s the nature of this thing. You end up with The Klansman, and a Sports Story that isn’t really about sports. Our definition of “sports” is obviously pretty loose. We hope that’s something you are cool with. We’re on this journey together, after all.
This has been Vol. 4 of Sports Stories by Eric Nusbaum (words) and Adam Villacin (art). If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please reply to this email or contact email@example.com. We’d love to hear from you.
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