Lawrence Schiller, the facilitator-author behind O.J. Simpson's book, "I Want to Tell You," has a tendency to turn up in the vortex of any hyperbolized historic moment.
In a city where professional hyphenates are de rigueur, Schiller, 58, demands semicolons, ellipses and parentheses. The award-winning director-producer-photographer is also an author (collaborator may be the better term), interviewer, packager and deal maker.
Often when Schiller has charged in buying life-story rights, conducting interviews, concocting deals in connection with Jack Ruby or Lenny Bruce, the Manson family or Lee Harvey Oswald, the respectable media have tried to drive him off with invective. "Hearse chaser" and "a carrion bird," they've called him, and most recently, in a New York Magazine headline: "O.J. Simpson's Newest Sleazy Friend."
But often, respectable journalists come away with a reluctant respect for him.
The day before Simpson's "I Want to Tell You: My Response to Your Letters, Your Messages, Your Questions" appeared, Schiller sat in the living room of his leased North Hollywood home, repeating a spiel that he also fed to Barbara Walters and Larry King.
Twenty-five years ago, Schiller and his first wife, Judy, had lived near Simpson in an area called Bel-Air Skycrest, he says. His children played touch football in the street with the Juice. His daughter, Suzanne, was a babysitter for Simpson's older children, Arnelle and Jason.
Schiller had also once directed O.J. in a music video as a favor to their mutual friend Robert Kardashian. Those facts gave Schiller entree into the jail as a material witness, and 30 hours with the man every reporter in America wanted to interview.
Schiller acknowledges that after the first visit, the next 15 were solely for the purpose of writing the book -- Simpson's taped and edited responses to thousands of letters. Schiller figures he probably began learning his dedication and salesmanship watching his father woo customers at the family's camera, appliance and sporting goods store in San Diego's Pacific Beach. At 12, Schiller placed a piece of glass under a porcelain Bambi, creating the illusion that the fawn was surrounded by water. That first photograph inspired a hobby. The hobby led to scholarships, which led to an early career shooting landmark photos of Madame Nhu, Richard Nixon and the pope for Life, Look and Paris Match.
The book that most fully fleshes out Schiller is "The Executioner's Song," Norman Mailer's 1,056-page examination of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore's death by firing squad in Utah.
In 1976, with a number of documentary film successes on his resume -- including the Oscar-winning "The Man Who Skied Down Everest" -- Schiller showed up in the midst of the morbid media circus surrounding Gilmore. Moving fast, he worked the phones, fired off telegrams and knocked on doors to tie up life-story rights and exclusive interviews.
Schiller also managed to land an exclusive tete-a-tete with Gilmore on death row -- by presenting himself to prison officials as a "consultant" to Gilmore's attorneys.
Reviewers practically yodeled their praise for the "true life novel" that Schiller's rights agreements and extensive interviews made possible. The book won Mailer a Pulitzer Prize, and the TV movie, which Schiller produced and directed, earned critical acclaim and an Emmy for actor Tommy Lee Jones.
Schiller's personal and professional wakes are strewn with litigation, arbitration and embittered adversaries.
In June 1991, Schiller's second wife, Stephanie, filed for divorce after almost 14 years of marriage. Two months later, Schiller filed for bankruptcy. The divorce became a battle marked by shouting matches, late-night phone fights and vituperative exchanges between attorneys, court files show. Some creditors remain rankled.
Schiller attributes his financial woes to the fact that he, like many producers, was heavily leveraged. When two companies that owed him money went belly up, he says, the reverberations hammered him.
Meanwhile, in January 1993, Schiller married Ludmilla Peresvetova, whom he had met while doing research in the Soviet Union. In July 1994, he filed to dissolve that marriage, stating his occupation as film director, unemployed, and his net disposable monthly income as $138. The court declared that marriage over on Jan. 17. Ten days later, on Jan. 27 of this year, the first truckloads of "I Want to Tell You" (Little, Brown and Co.) passed through scanners at bookstores, music stores and supermarkets nationwide, fueling what some publishing sources say is among the most lucrative book launches ever. The book has hit the top of most bestseller lists. Schiller declines to specify how much money he stands to make on his collaboration with Simpson. He says the deal calls for higher-than-standard royalties rather than the biggest possible advance.
Even then, early rumors put that advance as high as $4 million. He is more forthcoming in discussing how he conducted the interviews with Simpson. At the suggestion of Kardashian, Schiller entered the jail last Halloween, and the two had an introductory conversation.
Schiller was back in the jail the next day. His first question: "Was Nicole a good mother?"
"I've gotta tell you," Schiller says, "what came out was like water washing through a barrel, bursting through. . . . I was just amazed. He had so much he had to start talking about. The range of it. It was not organized at all. It wasn't clear. It was fragmented. In one sentence he'd swing to different subjects."
Is he proud of the Simpson book?
"I'm not unproud of it," he says. "These are not my words. It's not my voice in the book. But I am proud of what I did on the book. Genuinely proud. No question."
Attorney Gloria Allred, who represents the Brown family, takes a different view. Echoing the sentiments of many, she calls the book "offensive . . . an appalling exploitation of these tragic murders . . . a cynical attempt to manipulate public opinion in support of Mr. Simpson."
So, does Schiller think Simpson did it?
"If O.J. did it," he says, "it no longer exists in his mind. I have interviewed a lot of people who have committed antisocial acts, and I've never found one of these people who could hide it. . . . I believe that he didn't do it -- based on the time I spent with him, not based on the evidence."