Movie Legends Revealed: Was O.J. Simpson Originally Going to Play The Terminator?

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: O.J. Simpson was originally cast as the Terminator in the 1984 sci-fi classic.

Over the years, I've come across plenty of interesting reasons why actors weren't given (or nearly weren't given) certain film and television roles, from Brandon Tartikoff not wanting Michael J. Fox on "Family Ties" because he couldn't envision Fox's face on a lunch box to CBS executives fearing Meg Foster made Cagney and Lacey seem like lesbians to an actor losing out on the chance to play John Lennon because he had the same name as the musician’s killer. However, few reasons quite strain the limits of irony as the alleged reason why O.J. Simpson wasn’t cast as the cyborg assassin in James Cameron's 1984 sci-fi classic "The Terminator."

As the story goes, Simpson had the role until the studio feared audiences wouldn't believe the former athlete as a killer. Is that true?

Amazingly enough, the gist of the story is true.

In the film, a cyborg assassin known as the Terminator (model T-800, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent back in time to kill the mother of the man who, in the feature, will lead a revolt against the machines that have taken over the world. The future rebels also send back a soldier, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to defend the young woman, a waitress named Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton). Writer/director James Cameron and his producer/co-writer (and, at the time, wife) Gale Anne Hurd originally saw the movie as a low-budget film, and planned to shoot it almost guerrilla-style (filming on location with whatever happens to be on location at the time, often not even telling people that you're filming a movie). However, Orion Pictures became interested in funding the feature, but as part of the agreement the studio insisted it feature a star a “name” actor.

Originally, Cameron and Hurd planned to have Lance Henriksen play the Terminator. However, Orion Pictures President Mike Medavoy pitched Schwarzenegger as the "name" actor, but for the role of Kyle Reese. For the Terminator, he suggested none other than Orenthal James "O.J." Simpson, former star NFL running back and, at the time, perhaps best known for his popular series of commercials for Hertz Rent-A-Car.

Medavoy saw Simpson not only as a "name" (he had been in a few movies by that point) but also, more importantly, as an athletic person who could be physically imposing. Medaovy even approached Schwarzenegger at a screening and told him Simpson had been cast and, that the studio wanted Schwarzenegger as Reese.

Schwarzenegger talked with Cameron about playing Reese, although the director had gone into the meeting hoping the conversation wouldn't lead anywhere. Instead, he found himself impressed by Schwarzenegger, especially his insightful ideas about how the Terminator should come across on film. Cameron liked him so much that he suddenly decided the Terminator should be a really big guy, someone like, well, Schwarzenegger.

However, Schwarzenegger wasn’t so sure about the role, as the Terminator doesn't have a lot of dialogue and he is, you know, the villain of the movie. The bodybuilder turned actor really wanted lead roles, following in the footsteps of his hit 1982 film "Conan the Barbarian." But Cameron convinced him he would be shot in such a way that he’d be THE star of the film, and that rather than hate him for being the villain, audiences would love his character for being such a badass.

As for Simpson, I'm a bit iffy whether he was actually cast as the Terminator. I don't think he was; Cameron never agreed to it. It seemed as if Medavoy was speaking out of turn when he approached Schwarzenegger.

However, in explaining WHY he never would have agreed to Simpson, Cameron recalled:

This was when everybody loved him, and ironically that was part of the problem—he was this likable, goofy, kind of innocent guy. Plus, frankly I wasn’t interested in an African-American man chasing around a white girl with a knife. It just felt wrong.

So that element of the story is true, and that's the ironic part, as obviously, a decade after "The Terminator" was released, Simpson was tried for the murders of his ex-wife and her friend (he was found not guilty).

The legend is ...

STATUS: Basically False (with a lot of True mixed in)

Thanks to Brian P. for suggesting this one (and for debating whether this one should be ruled "False" or not). Thanks to Joe McGovern for the great oral history he did for Entertainment Weekly about "The Terminator," and thanks to Cameron, Schwarzenegger and Medavoy for their input to McGovern's article.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!

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