His Turn as the Juice
02/06/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
LIKE 95 MILLION OTHER AMERICANS on the evening of June 17, 1994, actor Bobby Hosea and his wife, Marcia, were glued to their TV set, watching that white Ford 4X4 lead a squadron of police cars in surreal procession down the San Diego Freeway. Unlike most Americans, though, Hosea was already looking forward to the inevitable by-product of O.J. Simpson's ratings-busting Bronco ride. "I got that role, baby," Hosea, 39, told his wife. "That's my part. Ain't nobody going to play that part but me."
So far, at least, he's right. On Tuesday night, Jan. 31, just a week after the opening round of the Simpson murder trial, Hosea, a 6'1", 195-lb. former UCLA cornerback who bears a striking resemblance to the football hero turned actor turned murder defendant, stars in Fox's The O.J. Simpson Story. Shot in just three weeks last August and originally scheduled to air in September, three months after Simpson's arrest for the slayings of his former wife Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman, the TV movie was criticized—sight unseen—for its potential to prejudice would-be jurors. Fox executives decided to postpone the broadcast until the Simpson jury was sequestered earlier in January. Hosea, for one, is grateful. "I didn't want anyone to say this film affected the O.J. trial one way or another," he says.
But that hasn't quieted the controversy. Or controversies. Despite the postponement, some critics still find the project, and its timing, in bad taste, to say the least. "This is a business," Hosea declares, "and from a business standpoint, you have to strike while the iron is hot—and it's not going to be any hotter than it is now." Still, he's faced criticism from O.J. partisans and other black actors as well. "O.J.'s a beloved, cared-about person," says Hosea, who admits he's "captivated" by the trial, "and a lot of people have expressed disappointment that I'm playing him." Even some of Hosea's own relatives, he notes glumly, "haven't called me to this day. Lord have mercy, I don't know why. But yeah, I'm hurt."
Robert Lovenheim, the movie's executive producer, commiserates. "Good actors take risks," he says. "I think it was brave of Bobby to do [the role]."
"I put flesh and bones on O.J. and played him very real," the actor says. "He's not a superstar. He's a man who first made some good choices. And then some bad choices."
Hosea declines to spell them out. Still, he is keenly aware of the unhappier parallels between Simpson's life and his own—as well as some of the more fortunate divergences. Born Willie Samuel "Bobby" Hosea Jr. in Murfreesboro, Tenn., the son of an Air Force sergeant and a nurse, he adapted early to the nomadic life of a military family. He had difficulty learning in school and was eventually diagnosed as dyslexic. O.J. had a childhood bout with rickets; Bobby came down with tuberculosis in third grade but recovered nine months later. He starred in football at Wheatland (Calif.) High School, where he dated Marcia Hairston, who would later become his wife. Like O.J., Hosea first attended a junior college before going on to a four-year school. After winning a football scholarship to UCLA in 1976, Hosea entered a program that vastly improved his reading skills. "I'd thought I was stupid," he recalls. "But I discovered I was on the verge of being very intelligent."
His parents' divorce three years earlier had left Hosea so distressed, he says, that he turned to religion at his mother's urging. "I stood up crying," he recalls of an Easter Sunday service he attended. "I felt a release, and I knew I was saved." In 1978, a year after leaving UCLA, he attended Marcia's nursing-school commencement. The two had drifted apart, but now, she says, "we fell in love again." They married in 1980.
Four years later, Hosea gave up on pro football and decided to try his hand at acting. A chance encounter with actor Mark Harmon, a former UCLA quarterback, led to a meeting with an agent, and soon Hosea was picking up small TV roles in shows including China Beach, 21 Jump Street and 1st and Ten, the 1985 HBO series about a pro-football team. One of the stars of that show was...O.J. Simpson. "I liked him, I was even in awe of him," Hosea recalls. "But I was just a nobody to him."
Meanwhile, Bobby and Marcia's marriage was strained. On numerous occasions, says Hosea, "I was unfaithful to my wife." The couple finally separated in 1984, and Hosea was desolate. "I would sit up in bed and cry," he says, "because I wanted to be home. But I had to face up to what I'd done and accept responsibility for it." He and Marcia decided to try family therapy—and within a year Hosea came home for good. "It's been a struggle," says Marcia, 38. "But Bobby loves me, and he works hard to keep the family together." They have two children, Ranae, 14, and Steven, 9, and live in the L.A. suburb of Torrance.
Hosea views the life of the man he portrays as a cautionary tale. "I'm not O.J.," he says. "The difference is that I chose to deal with my problems. I don't put myself first anymore. My family, my children is what it's all about." He reflects a moment. "Whatever the outcome," he says of the real-life drama now being played out on TV, "this will destroy O.J. I wish to God he'd gotten some serious counseling. Maybe he'd have done things differently."
LYNDA WRIGHT in Torrance