Soon after O.J. Simpson was charged in January 1989 with assaulting his wife, Nicole, he placed a telephone call to a man in New York who had helped make him a household name.

Simpson told Hertz Corp. Chairman Frank Olson that the wife-beating charges were overblown, a Hertz source recalls. The former football hero said he and his wife had too much to drink at a New Year's Eve party and had gotten into a fight, and that the police had been called.

Nicole Brown Simpson then telephoned the Hertz chairman herself and repeated much the same story. "She told him the same thing O.J. had said, she belittled it and said it was not a big deal and there was nothing to it," recalled Brian Kennedy, Hertz's executive vice president of marketing and sales.

Olson was relieved. Simpson, at that point, had been Hertz's corporate spokesman for more than a decade. In the public's mind, O.J. was Hertz. Moreover, Simpson was just then in the middle of contract negotiations to renew his relationship with the nation's top car-rental company.

Hertz chose to stick with its star spokesman, despite the wife-beating charges. "There was still some concern and we watched it carefully ... but after the press didn't make a big deal about it, and the slap-on-the-hand outcome ... we elected to keep going with O.J," Kennedy said.

By April 1989, just months after he pleaded no contest to the battery charges, Simpson still was Mr. Hertz, racing through the nation's largest airport -- Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport -- to launch Hertz's No. 1 Club Gold.

"We regard it as a private matter," said Hertz spokesman Joseph Russo in May 1989, "to be treated as such between O.J.'s wife and the courts."

The Hertz chairman's 1989 discussions with the Simpsons were typical of the partnership that had evolved between the TV superstar and the giant company he had come to symbolize. It was a perfect commercial marriage -- with Hertz helping O.J. helping Hertz.

Now that marriage is in ruins, leaving Hertz officials to ponder whether the glitz and mutual back-scratching may have blocked a more candid appreciation of the athlete's problems. On Friday, Simpson was ordered to stand trial on murder charges in the deaths of his former wife and her friend Ronald Goldman.

"A hell of a lot more happened {with the Simpsons} than we knew," said Kennedy, when asked if Hertz should have done something different in 1989. "If there had been more press, we probably would have been at a different place completely. ... But how far can you go? I don't know."

Hertz's relationship with Simpson began back in 1975, when he was a star running back for the Buffalo Bills and the auto-rental company was searching for a new way to attract customers.

At the time Hertz's advertising stressed differences between the company and its competitors, said Ronald Romano, former executive creative director of New York's Ted Bates & Co., Hertz's advertising agency at the time. The focus was 54 "tough" standards -- from cleaner cars to easier paperwork -- that made Hertz better.

"It just did not spark anyone," recalled Romano, who had handled Hertz's account for many years. "So we decided we needed a unique selling proposition."

After polling its best customers, who were overwhelmingly white male businessmen, Hertz found that speed of service was their key concern. Because of it, Hertz officials wanted an ad campaign that showed Hertz being able to get its customers to the plane or out of the airport quickly.

Doodling around, former Bates artistic director Nick Pappas created a series of storyboards that showed an ordinary businessman dubbed "Mr. Joe Average" turning superstar and "juking" through an airport -- running over obstacles, jumping over everything and getting out first.

The slogan: "The superstar in rent-a-car."

Bates presented the concept at a meeting in early 1975 at Hertz's then-headquarters at 660 Madison Ave. in Manhattan. Hertz officials liked the concept, but as the meeting ended the executives from Hertz and Bates started talking about sports and tossing around the idea of using an athlete to embody its theme of speed, instead of Joe Average.

At that point, Pappas recalled he had seen a particular athlete -- O.J. Simpson -- on the ABC-TV show "Superstars," where well-known athletes competed in various events. So he and another top Hertz adman decided to go to the ABC studios to watch more than three hours of O.J. "Superstars" outtakes. They quickly realized they had found what they were looking for.

O.J. Simpson was the human embodiment of speed.

"We sat in that tiny screening room watching him on film and said to ourselves, 'This is it,' " remembered Mark R. Morris, former account supervisor with the Bates agency. "With O.J., we knew then we had everything we wanted."

The Bates team reworked the campaign to feature Simpson and presented it to Hertz. Their biggest worry was Simpson's race because Hertz was considered a conservative company. So the proposal went right to the top to the chairman and chief executive, Frank Olson.

"He is a cautious businessman and this was a big deal at the time to make a black man the corporate symbol for what was essentially a white company," a source at Bates said. "But Olson knew that people thought of O.J. Simpson as O.J. Simpson, not O.J. Simpson, the black athlete."

Other Hertz sources agree. "There was a nervousness at first, but also an excitement that we were doing something so bold and different," a former Hertz executive said. "And it was clear that everybody loved O.J."

Olson approved the idea -- but only for a year, with a renewable option. A back-up campaign also was ordered in case the O.J.-as-superstar idea turned out to be a loser.

Now, it was time to ask Simpson, who at the time was filming a movie in South Africa during the football off-season. Morris contacted him by telephone because, at the time, Simpson represented himself.

"He was happy that such a big recognized company wanted him and was flattered by it," Morris said. "He also said, I remember this, 'I will never work for anybody but number one and you are that.' "

A deal was struck that paid Simpson $175,000 for nine days of his time. Three commercials had to be completed before the Bills' training camp began in mid-July. The spots had the charismatic Simpson, dressed in a business suit and carrying a briefcase, gracefully dashing through airports on his way to pick up a rental car, with fans cheering as he sprinted.

Hertz and Bates executives said that, in contrast with some celebrity endorsers, Simpson's image didn't need much polishing.

"It was a little tough at first as he learned about the process, but he lightened up right away," Romano said. "What you saw in the camera was what was there already, and we did not have to add much."

Morris agrees. "Clearly, he was a handsome and charismatic man," he said. "So he projected himself in a magical way."

O.J. proved magical enough to send Hertz business upward after the ads aired. By 1977 Simpson was named Advertising Age Star Presenter of the Year, and in 1984 he was pegged as the most popular athlete spokesman by the consumer research firm Video Storyboard Tests. The ads were so well-known that a recent MCI commercial parodied them, using Simpson's mother Eunice, who leaped across her house to answer a telephone call from her son.

O.J. never dropped the ball for Hertz.

After the initial success of the ad campaign, which thrilled Olson, Simpson was signed on for three years for $200,000 a year. Part of the deal was that Simpson would also make personal appearances for Hertz. He would attend various Hertz events, such as the annual Hawaiian Open golf tournament -- where Hertz was a sponsor -- and meet-and-greets with Hertz troops. And he was a regular member of golf foursomes with Olson and major Hertz clients.

His closeness to Hertz was underscored with events like the lavish party he hosted for the rental car company during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. O.J. and Nicole Simpson planned the party and lent their now-infamous Brentwood estate, packing it full of movie stars and star athletes to impress hundreds of top corporate executives who were Hertz's "platinum" customers.

The first five years of the Hertz-O.J. relationship were the most beneficial for the company, according to advertising analysts. But Hertz continued to use Simpson for many more years, long past the point that most companies would have switched gears.

Hertz shifted its ad account in the early 1980s to New York's Scali, McCabe, Sloves, which came up with the slogan, "Where winners rent." To liven up the campaign, the agency developed ads that showed Simpson flying Superman-style through an airport, chatting at the counter with sales reps, and joking in a jovial partnership with golfer Arnold Palmer and then later with actress Jamie Lee Curtis. At one point, he was taken out of advertising for a short time.

"We knew we had a lot of strength and investment in O.J. and Hertz wanted to really use that as fully as they could for as long as they could," said Murray Gaylord, formerly an account supervisor at Scali, McCabe, Sloves.

The main driver of Simpson was Olson himself, who remains Hertz chairman today, even though the company has been acquired by Ford Motor Co. According to many insiders, Olson had developed a close working relationship with the football hero. The Simpson-Hertz relationship was so important to the company that it was negotiated personally by Olson, a Hertz source said.

"Olson definitely enjoyed rubbing shoulders with O.J.'s glamorous world and having the ability to use him to schmooze with clients,"one Hertz source said. "Olson always said that O.J. was part of the Hertz family."

The Hertz link brought fame and wealth to Simpson, allowing him to shift from the end of sports with grace -- a move that many athletes cannot make.

With his Hertz visibility, Simpson garnered other endorsements, including TreeSweet Product Co.'s orange juice (which expired in 1990, when doctors said acidity in orange juice was bad for O.J.'s arthritic knee), Acme Boot Co.'s Dingo boots, Hyde Athletic Industries' Spot-Bilt athletic shoes. He has also been the national spokesman for General Motor Corp.'s Chevrolet division, Foster Grant sunglasses, Schick shavers, Royal Crown Cola Co., Napa Naturals soda and Wilson Sporting Goods.

He has served on boards, including Infinity Broadcasting Corp., which he joined in April of 1992. The affable and well-known image built at Hertz also was integral to getting him his job as a sportscaster at NBC-TV, many said.

Simpson is president and chief executive of O.J. Simpson Enterprises, which owns hotels, restaurants and real estate. Holdings include such franchises as Honey Baked Ham and Pioneer Chicken stores. When he was divorced from Nicole in 1992 his assets were pegged at $10 million and his annual income hovering above $1 million.

Half of that was from Hertz, which by then was paying him $550,000 annually.

Most who worked with him at Hertz considered Simpson a dream celebrity -- tireless, good-natured, never one to make a fuss because of his star status. To do the commercial that had him "flying" through an airport, for example, a good-natured Simpson hung all day from an uncomfortable harness 30 feet up in the air without a complaint.

At commercials, Simpson would stay longer hours than necessary to finish shoots and never threw the kind of tantrums that most in advertising expect of celebrities. At some of the commercial shoots he was accompanied by Al Cowlings, who was his partner last month in the infamous ride along the Los Angeles freeway. The pair, sources said, played gin rummy together during breaks.

"O.J. was a dream in public, very gracious and very appreciative of what Hertz had done for him even after he was not as involved with them," said Gaylord, the Scali adman.

That attractive and appealing image was the reason why Hertz never monitored Simpson's personal life, sources said. "Once you got to know O.J., the idea of any background check seemed silly," a Hertz source said. "That something could happen is always in the back of your mind when you use a celebrity, but with him it was never an issue because by the time the wife-beating arrest happened he was such a win to the company."

Indeed, the 1989 charges that he had assaulted his wife and threatened to kill her garnered little attention both inside the company and outside. Hertz said little at the time.

Kennedy said that Hertz looked into the incident seriously and was swayed when NBC renewed his contract and other sponsors followed. He also pointed out that Nicole's father ran a Hertz franchise and did not seem concerned.

"Both parties said it was nothing, and the press did little with it, so we thought what happened was pretty much what they said," Kennedy said. "We had major concerns about continuing, but we think we looked into it in a responsible way."

But others chide Hertz for not dumping Simpson at the time for battering his wife.

"If O.J. Simpson had pleaded no contest to drug charges instead of spousal abuse, is there a snowball's chance in hell that Hertz would have used him in commercials and NBC employed him as an on-air analyst?" Anna Quindlen wrote in a recent New York Times column.

Kennedy added that Hertz did surveys one year after the wife-beating incident to gauge lingering negative feeling toward O.J. by Hertz customers. "There was not any," Kennedy said.

Simpson's luster as a corporate spokesman did eventually begin to dim. When the company moved its advertising account from Scali to Wells Rich Greene BBDP in 1989, Simpson was used less frequently in Hertz ads. The move reflected a decision to try a new approach -- rather than any effort to move him out of the limelight because of the wife-beating charges.

"There was his age, a wear-out factor," said Hertz's Kennedy, who also noted that tracking surveys of the commercials done over the many years still consistently gave Simpson solid ratings and spurred automatic recall from customers. "It was our most memorable advertising ... he always had a strong appeal."

So Simpson still was used periodically, such as a short promotional spot in 1992 to demonstrate the advantages of Hertz's frequent renter program. In the ad, Simpson strolled, rather than ran, through an airport and urged customers to "beat the rush hour."

Also that year Simpson was featured as star in Hertz's Claim Management's subsidiary in ads aimed at claims managers nationwide. The slogan: "O.J. for HCM ... because we want you to know us as well as you know Orenthal James Simpson."

And Simpson continued to do numerous public appearances for Hertz, as well as give motivational speeches.

In fact, Simpson was on his way to a golf outing with Hertz executives and some of their big corporate clients in Chicago the night his wife and Goldman were slain. He was called back by police.

At first, in a move much criticized by marketers, Hertz made no comment, not even confirming that Simpson still worked for them. Kennedy said that all top executives were on business in Europe at the time Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman were slain and initial Hertz reaction was done by junior executives.

"They said no comment and should not have," Kennedy said.

After Simpson's arrest, Hertz issued a short statement rendered on a plain piece of white paper without a corporate logo that said the company was "shocked and saddened by this development."

Because of the charges, "Obviously, Hertz has no plans to utilize Mr. Simpson in advertising." The company statement, released by Russo said Hertz "will not make further comment."

Kennedy said Simpson is technically under contract until 1997 to Hertz, and it has not been canceled. But Hertz officials said it is likely the contract soon will be terminated.

Hertz also is monitoring intense correspondence from customers, who either chide the company for not acting in 1989 or complain that Hertz has not given its loyal spokesman a break.

"It's certainly a difficult and unfortunate situation," Kennedy said.

According to industry experts, it will not be over for a long time for Hertz.

Hertz's well-known slogan "Go, O.J., Go!" now is a national joke after the bizarre police chase and last week's gavel-to-gavel coverage of Simpson's sensational preliminary hearing's daily tales of blood and knives. More will undoubtedly emerge in months ahead.

If Simpson is found guilty, several analysts said, Hertz will be forever linked with a brutal murderer. And if he is found not guilty and it appears to have abandoned a man so loyal to them, Hertz could look even worse.

Mark Morris still sees some positives in Hertz's marriage with O.J. "Ultimately its success in raising the awareness of the company in an image-oriented business made it a plus," he said. "I still think it was one of the more perfect matches in the advertising, even if it ended so, so very badly."