Guest column, 1st run 23 October 1994 in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Copyright 1994 Ben S. Pollock Jr.
“Come on, baby, light my fire. Come on, baby, light my fire. Light my fire. Light my fire. Ooh. Ooh.” — Jim Morrison.
Not infrequently, especially in Hollywood, that quasi-mythical land of broken cliches, talent continually appears but often is quenched as quickly as damp fingers snuffing a paper match at a nouvelle restaurant that bans smoking.
Now that it’s irretrievably spent, the acting career of football legend Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson — the “Juice” — only seems to have been as brief as a flame. Actually it wasn’t short at all. Simpson had major roles in some 11 films spanning an even 20 years.
Even if he is acquitted in his trial for the murders of his former wife and a waiter, we have to conclude: No more movies for O.J. The loss is American culture’s.
Simpson years ago retired from professional athletics to endorse products with smiling, just barely madcap commercials for rental cars and the like.
He also made money as a ball game commentator.
Then there were the thrillers and comedies.
After his first role in the 1974 schlock classic “The Towering Inferno,”it seemed that for every noble film, he sank in a clunker. There was “Roots” in 1977, the exploitative “The Klansman” in 1979. The brilliant 1978 satire “Capricorn One” almost was overshadowed by duds like “The Cassandra Crossing” of 1976.
An argument could be made that the “Naked Gun” trilogy comprised not only the finale of Simpson’s movie career, but also his finest thespian work.
O.J.’s tragedy lies in these comedies.
In each movie — 1988’s “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad,” 1991’s “Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear” and this year’s “Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult” — Simpson took the character of Detective Nordberg and nimbly trotted it down the sideline of taste.
Simpson soberly played one of the comic foils for the lead, Leslie Nielsen as Lt. Frank Drebin. The former jock gamely recited straight lines for the racial jokes and the athletic puns.
Even in the movie poster of the last farce, Simpson could be said to have exploited himself, his image, his race and his libido, albeit good-naturedly. Below his photo as Officer Nordberg on the three-sheeter, the caption reads, “That really is a gun in his pocket.”
If you can spare a bar stool and another glass for me, I’ll concentrate on one memorable scene with some technical foreign words.
Image. French for set-up. In the opening dream sequence of “Naked Gun 33 1/3,” the Police Squad of Nielsen, Simpson and George Kennedy (as Capt. Ed Hocken) prepare to arrest Mob figures in a grandiose metropolitan train station. It would be a film noir if not for the color film stock.
Collage. French for collision. Mothers with babies in perambulators arrive at a huge staircase. Drebin, Nordberg and Hocken stop their law enforcement preparations to move the babes from the expected line of fire.
Homage. French for honor among thieves. The scene is a bow toward Brian DePalma’s 1987 “The Untouchables,” whose babies-on-stairs sequence itself is artistically linked to the Odessa beach scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 “The Battleship Potemkin.”
Montage. French for splice of life. In a sequence of brief shots, the editing itself a quote from both earlier classics, Drebin and Hocken are shown throwing the babies to Nordberg, a nod to Simpson’s football days. No lives are lost. Touchdown!
Simpson’s deft handling of this slapstick shows how his athleticism evolved into an actor’s instinct. Perhaps Simpson was hired among these acting veterans because he was a known black face, but one who wouldn’t upstage the white leads. Then again, the satirists behind “Naked Gun” surely used their casting as a send-up of Hollywood’s covert racism.
With the trial, no one ever again will think of Simpson as a funny policeman. He also has lost credibility as an action hero. He needs another career.
If he only would sing.