Was OJ Simpson Originally Cast as the Terminator?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the Movie urban legends featured so far.

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: OJ Simpson was originally cast as the Terminator robot in “The Terminator.”

Over the years, I’ve come across plenty of interesting reasons why actors weren’t given (or almost weren’t given) certain roles in films and television shows, from Brandon Tartikoff not wanting Michale J. Fox on “Family Ties” because he couldn’t see anyone putting Fox’s face on a lunch box (Fox’s “revenge” on Tartikoff years later was hilarious) 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 in a film because he had the same name as the guy who assassinated John Lennon, but few reasons could quite strain the limits of irony as the alleged reason why OJ Simpson was not cast as the cyborg assassin Terminator in James Cameron’s 1984 sci-fi classic, “The Terminator.”

As the story goes, Simpson had the role until the studio feared that audiences just wouldn’t believe Simpson in the role of a killer.


Is that true?

Amazingly enough, the basic gist of the story is true.


“The Terminator” is about a cyborg assassin known as the Terminator (model T-800, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) being sent back in time to kill the mother of the man who will, in the future, 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 called Sarah Conner (played by 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, with a plan 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 film, but as part of their agreement to fund the movie, they insisted that the film have a “name” in it. Originally, Cameron and Hurd were planning on having Lance Henriksen play the Terminator.

The president of Orion Pictures, Mike Medavoy, however, pitched Arnold Schwarzenegger as the “name” actor for the movie, but first as Kyle Reese. For the Terminator, he suggested none other than Orenthal James “O.J” Simpson, former star running back in the National Football League and at the time perhaps best known for his popular series of commercials for Hertz Rent-A-Car.

Medavoy saw two things with Simpson. First off, he was a “name” (although less of a name for movies, but he had been in a few movies by this point) but more importantly, two, he was a very athletic guy and could be very imposing physically. Medaovy even approached Schwarzenegger at a screening and told him that they had OJ cast and that he wanted Schwarzenegger for Reese.

Schwarzenegger met with Cameron about playing Reese, but Cameron went into the meeting hoping that it wouldn’t go anywhere. Instead, Cameron found himself very 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 that the Terminator should be a really big guy, someone like, well, Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger was iffy about the role, because the Terminator doesn’t have a lot of dialogue and he is, you know, the villain of the movie and Schwarzenegger really wanted to do leading man roles, following in the footsteps of his hit 1982 film, “Conan the Barbarian.” Cameron convinced him that he would be shot in such a way that he would be THE star of the film and that rather than hate him for being the villain, people would love his character for being such a badass.

As for Simpson, an area where I’m a bit iffy on is the whole “was OJ ever actually CAST as the Terminator?” I don’t think he was. Cameron never agreed to it. It seemed like 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 part of the story is true and that’s the most amusing part of the story, as obviously, a decade after “The Terminator” was released, Simpson was tried for the murders of his ex-wife and a friend of hers (he was found not guilty at the trial).

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.

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