08/01/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
ON A BALMY NIGHT IN MARINA Del Rey, Calif., some six weeks ago, Ron Goldman sat in a restaurant twirling pasta in cream sauce and pouring out his dreams. The rich food that he and his date, Tiffany Starr, were sharing was a sinful indulgence for the body-conscious couple—and it seemed to make Goldman expansive. As Starr, 24, a fledgling model and actress he had dated once before, listened eagerly, her handsome companion spoke about how he longed to get married and have a son and open his own restaurant. The place would have no name, he said, but, like the rocker once called Prince, would be represented by a symbol: the Egyptian ankh, a symbol of eternal life. "He was putting it all together," says Starr sadly. "Of course I saw myself in the role of the wife. I adored him."
Five days later, on June 15, Starr, who had been away on a photo shoot and was oblivious to the details of the Simpson murder three days before, called Mezzaluna, the chic Brentwood trattoria where Goldman waited tables, to remind him they had plans for that evening. It was then she heard the news. "I never realized it was Ron [who was murdered]," says Starr. "I have been crying ever since. I kept calling his answering machine just to hear his voice."
Clearly, this summer was not Ron Goldman's time to die. He was 25 years old, and his most marketable commodities were his youth, his good looks and his rippling physique. At first glance, Goldman resembled so many other starstruck young men and women who lead marginal Melrose Place-type existences in faded apartment buildings just blocks away from the grand estates of Brentwood. He surfed and Rollerbladed, played volleyball on the beach and hit the tanning salons in the winter. He spent his free nights in the clubs and his mornings at the Gym in Brentwood, seeking the well-defined abdominal muscles that separate the slackers from the studs. Indeed, in 1992, Goldman actually appeared on the TV show Studs.
Still, there was something special about Goldman—something that made him stand out. "He was not a classic Hollywood wannabe," says Philip Cummins, owner of the Renaissance, a Santa Monica dance and supper club. "He seemed to work a little harder than most and had his head on straighten" In fact, what other people called clubbing, Goldman thought of as networking. Once he got the idea of opening a restaurant, he was always on the lookout for backers; he even took a job with a group that ran parties in private clubs. "He had a huge stack of business cards from these nights," says Jeff Keller, an actor friend. "He used to say he only needed one investor."
It was Keller who introduced Goldman to Nicole Simpson at Starbucks coffee shop two months before the murders. For a while, the two young men did not know Nicole was O.J.'s ex. "We just thought she was some celebrity's wife," says Keller. "She had that well-tended look."
Goldman gradually became pals with Nicole. She let him drive her white Ferrari. She invited him to her table at the Renaissance, where she dined with a handful of friends on Thursday nights.
Did the pair become lovers? That seems unlikely, his friends say. "Ron was starstruck," says Janet Murrill, a screenwriter and former platonic housemate. "If he was sleeping with Nicole, he would have been bragging about it." His reason for seeking out Nicole seems, in the end, to have been that he enjoyed her company—and that his affection was reciprocated. "The thing about Ron was that people really liked him," says Cummins. "He was very genuine. You could see the mid-western background in him."
Goldman grew up in Buffalo Grove, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. His father, Fred, and his mother, Sharon, divorced in 1974. Ron and his sister Kim, 22, were largely reared by their father and, as they got older, seldom saw their mother. Neighbors remember Ron as a dependable kid whom they trusted to baby-sit their children. Ron played soccer and tennis but did not star in any sport at Stevenson High School. He was a class cutup, but not in the in-crowd. "In ninth grade," says former classmate Stephanie Keyes, now of Castle Rock, Colo., "Ron was this tiny, scrawny guy, really kind of dorky-looking. When we saw him on Studs, it was like, 'Oh my God, he's huge!' "
Goldman began his transformation in 1987, after his family moved to Agoura Hills, a wealthy Los Angeles suburb. After a year at Illinois State, he plunged into the California scene. Already adept at tennis, he and buddy Craig Clark gave private lessons for $35 to $50 an hour, depending on what kind of car the client drove.
Goldman did some modeling for Giorgio Armani, but mostly he kept himself afloat working as a waiter at places like Truly Yours and the California Pizza Kitchen. He found time, however, to pitch in at the Thousand Oaks United Cerebral Palsy residence. Goldman turned his floor there into a beauty parlor. He moussed the residents' hair before outings to the movies or the beach. "He was fun, spontaneous, larger than life," says staff member Dolores Montero.
Fun was essential to Goldman. When he was a waiter at Truly Yours and his father and stepmother, Patti, would stop in for dinner, "Ron would act like this was a five-star restaurant," says Murrill. "He'd put a towel over his arm and call his father sir. It was very funny. He always said, 'Hey, do what you want. You might never get another chance.' That's how Ron lived his life."
On the last Friday night of his life, Goldman was brimming with energy and, it seemed, eager to make plans. After dinner, he and Tiffany Starr took a stroll through Venice Beach. Walking along Main Street, they came upon a boutique that had in its window a metal ankh. The day of Goldman's funeral, Tiffany went back and bought it. "I wear it all the time now," she says.
BRYAN ALEXANDER in Chicago, VICKIE BANE in Castle Rock, MARIA EFTIMIADES, JOHN HANNAH, DANELLE MORTON in Los Angeles