O.J. Simpson Was Passed Over For 'Terminator' Role For Being 'Too Nice'

Entertainment | September 15, 2019

Left: O.J. Simpson poses for a portrait in circa-1985 in Los Angeles, California. Right: Schwarzenegger in 'Terminator.' Sources: Harry Langdon/Getty Images; IMDB

Can you imagine O.J. Simpson making "I'll be back" a trademark line?

The Terminator and its sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day, both starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, are two of the most important science fiction movies of all time. Not only did they redefine the genre, but they made the careers of James Cameron and Schwarzenegger. If you’ve been sleeping in a cave for the last 30 years (or if you were sent back in time by a resistance group and you don’t know anything about the ‘80s or ‘90s cinema) Cameron went onto to direct some of the biggest blockbusters ever made and Schwarzenegger became the greatest action star of a generation before becoming governor of California.

Cameron and Schwarzenegger’s reign over action cinema almost never happened. When the director was seeking funding for the film in the early ‘80s, he was an unknown quantity. Moreover, the studios wanted the film to star someone whom they could bank on, a leading man with a name that they recognized -- not some Austrian guy whose name might not even fit on a marquee. They wanted a star and for a brief period O.J. Simpson - yes that O.J. Simpson - was under consideration.

Fortunately for the careers of Cameron and Schwarzenegger, and for the movie franchise, producers concluded that Simpson was too nice to play a relentless robot assassin.

It Was An Uphill Battle To Get 'The Terminator' Financed

source: orion pictures

It’s not that anyone thought The Terminator was a bad idea -- producers thought the concept was amazing and that the script was fantastic. Even the executives at Orion Pictures who didn’t get James Cameron’s whole thing figured the film had legs. They just didn’t want to put any money into it without the right actor.

Cameron had the opposite idea from the suits at Orion and wanted Lance Henricksen to play the Terminator opposite a cast of unknowns. Orion wasn’t hot on the idea, even if it kept the budget down to a manageable number. They wanted a name above the title that would bring in an audience. 

Orion Pitched O.J. Simpson As The Terminator

source: pinterest

Cameron wanted to fill out the film with unknowns in order to give it a sense of realism, something that science fiction had been lacking for a while.

If Cameron was going to fill out his film with unknowns, Orion was at least going to put a star in the title role, and initially, they thought Hertz spokesman and former NFL star O.J. Simpson would be perfect in the role. In 2014 Cameron told Entertainment Weekly

[A producer] came to me and Gale and he said, "Are you sitting down? You must sit down. I want O.J. Simpson for the Terminator and Arnold Schwarzenegger for the good guy, whatever his name is."

 Why O.J. Simpson?

source: pinterest

Why would anyone want O.J. Simpson for the role of the steely T-800 cyborg? It’s hard to comprehend how he could play the role now after Schwarzenegger defined the role, but in the early ‘80s Simpson was transitioning from football to film and television, and he was athletic, which was really the main reason he was considered. Producer Mike Medavoy explained:

At the time, O.J. Simpson had one of those commercials for Hertz where he jumped over a counter and ran to get a rental car. It was all of that athletic stuff, which I thought the Terminator should have.

Cameron Took A Hard Pass On O.J. 

source: pinterest

Clearly O.J. Simpson didn’t star in The Terminator, and even though the higher-ups at Orion thought he was a good fit Cameron felt that not only was the former football player the wrong guy for the job, but the implication of Simpson chasing Linda Hamilton around with a knife didn’t sit well with him. He told Entertainment Weekly:

Gale [Anne Hurd, co-screenwriter] and I just looked at each other and thought, ‘You’ve got to be f*cking kidding me.’ Mind you, this was before O.J. was actually a killer. We might have reconsidered after he had killed his wife. 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. 

Schwarzenegger Won The Role By Criticizing It

source: Orion Pictures

To hear James Cameron tell it, the casting process for The Terminator was the most stressful portion. Not only did he have to tell the people funding his movie that he thought the actor they wanted for the robot killer was too nice, but he had to fire some Austrian guy that Orion wanted to play Kyle Reese. When they met over lunch Cameron realized that Schwarzenegger should play the cyborg, but when he pitched it the European muscle man initially balked. Schwarzenegger told Entertainment Weekly that he didn’t want the role because he didn’t want to be a villain and he wanted more lines, but once the director convinced him that the character was “cool” he took the role. 

Would 'The Terminator' Have Been As Successful With Simpson In The Lead Role?

source: pinterest

There are a million woulda-shoulda-coulda scenarios in the film industry, but this is one of those stories that feel like the casting never would have come together regardless of what parallel universe it occurred. Maybe it’s because Schwarzenegger made the role his own, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else in this role - especially O.J. Simpson. If Simpson had taken the role the film definitely wouldn’t be the cultural touchstone that it is today, and it would honestly be impossible to watch after the crimes that Simpson allegedly committed. This is one of those classic Hollywood stories where producers very well nearly ruined a perfect film. 

Tags: Arnold Schwarzenegger | Cast Lists From Popular Movies | James Cameron | Movies In The 1980s | OJ Simpson | Rare Facts And Stories About History | The Terminator

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.