Frank Olson, Executive Who Linked O.J. Simpson With Hertz, Dies at 91

Frank A. Olson, who as a top executive of Hertz cast the running back O.J. Simpson as the star of the company’s commercials — a corporate marriage that shined up both parties and that lasted two decades, until Mr. Simpson was charged in a double homicide in 1994 — died at his home in Palm Beach, Fla., on Wednesday, the same day Mr. Simpson died. Mr. Olson was 91.

The cause was complications of Covid, his sons, Christopher and Blake, said.

The coincidental timing of the deaths of Mr. Olson, who had steered Hertz through years of corporate turbulence, and Mr. Simpson, the athlete turned pitchman turned infamous criminal defendant, linked the two men in a way that Mr. Olson had once embraced but that he later distanced himself from.

More than business partners, Mr. Olson and Mr. Simpson, both San Francisco natives, forged an alliance, beginning in the 1970s, that spoke of that mutually beneficial zone where corporate and social life intertwine. Mr. Olson, an avid golfer, sponsored Mr. Simpson for membership in the private Arcola Country Club in Paramus, N.J., where in 1992 Mr. Simpson, a former Heisman Trophy winner and Pro Football Hall of Famer, became the first Black member.

In a letter that Mr. Simpson left at his Los Angeles home before his arrest in the stabbing murders of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald L. Goldman, he listed friends he was sending “love and thanks to.” Mr. Olson was one of them.

“I took him places where I think very few Black men had ever been,” Mr. Olson said in the acclaimed 2016 documentary “O.J.: Made in America.”

Mr. Simpson was 76 when he died of cancer at his home in Las Vegas.

The idea of featuring him in Hertz commercials to symbolize speedy service, beginning in 1974, originated with the company’s ad agency. But because Mr. Simpson was Black and most Hertz customers where white businessmen, the choice made the agency nervous, according to a 1994 article in The Washington Post. So the decision was kicked up to Mr. Olson, who at the time was executive vice president and general manager of the rental-car division. (The company also rented trucks.)

Mr. Olson approved. The ads, featuring Mr. Simpson hurtling through airports on his way to a rental car, were a hit. Hertz claimed that the campaign lifted sales in its fierce rivalry with Avis and other competitors.

Mr. Olson continued to personally negotiate Mr. Simpson’s contracts, which expanded to include personal appearances. The two played in golf foursomes with major Hertz clients, and during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Mr. Simpson and his wife hosted a lavish party for Hertz executives at their estate in the Brentwood neighborhood.

In 1989, Mr. Simpson reached out to Mr. Olson after he was charged with assaulting his wife on New Year’s Day. Police had found Ms. Simpson hiding in the bushes outside her home, badly beaten.

On the telephone, Mr. Olson said years later, Mr. Simpson played down the incident. After Mr. Simpson’s no-contest plea to battery charges generated scant publicity, Hertz kept him on as its celebrity pitchman.

“We regard it as a private matter” between the Simpsons, a Hertz spokesman said at the time.

Five years later, on the night Ms. Simpson and Mr. Goldman were murdered outside her condominium, Mr. Simpson was scheduled to travel to Chicago to play golf with Hertz executives and clients. He was arrested several days later.

The company quickly announced that it was dropping him. Nor was the relationship rekindled after his acquittal in a criminal trial that riveted the country and exposed the polarized views of Black and white Americans about the criminal justice system.

Later, when Mr. Simpson was found liable in a lawsuit and ordered to pay the victims’ families $33.5 million, Mr. Olson was a witness. He testified that when Mr. Simpson called him in 1989 about his arrest on battery charges, Mr. Simpson lied about the severity of the attack.

“If I had any idea at the time that this was the circumstance that it was, O.J. Simpson would never have worked another day for Hertz,” Mr. Olson testified, as quoted by The Associated Press.

Frank Olson was born Frank Albert Johnson on July 19, 1932, in San Francisco to Fred and Edith Mary (Hazeldine) Johnson. His mother, an immigrant from England who worked as a stenographer, had a series of husbands, including Alfred Olson, a railway conductor, who adopted Frank.

In addition to his sons, Mr. Olson is survived by his wife, Sarah Olson, whom he married in 1957; a daughter, Kim Olson; and seven grandchildren.

Mr. Olson began his career in the rental car business at the age of 18 as a night manager at San Francisco International Airport.

Following his graduation from City College of San Francisco, he founded a car rental business of his own. He sold it to Hertz in 1964 and joined the company’s ranks.

He quickly ascended the corporate escalator: He was put in charge of Hertz operations in California and Arizona; moved east to head the New York City division in 1967; was named Eastern regional vice president two years later; and became general manager of all Hertz rental-car operations in the U.S. in 1970.

In 1974, he joined the board of Hertz, then owned by the RCA Corporation. In 1977, he was named Hertz’s chief executive. In 1980, he became chairman.

When Hertz was sold in 1985 to UAL Inc., the parent of United Airlines, Mr. Olson was made a UAL board member. He later became chairman of the company — by then renamed Allegis — and presided over a stormy period in 1987, fighting an attempt by United’s pilots to take over the company.

That year, Ford Motor Company paid $1.2 billion for Hertz. Mr. Olson stayed on as chairman. He retired as chief executive in 1999 but retained the title of nonexecutive chairman.

His sons said he never spoke with or about Mr. Simpson after the court cases involving the 1994 murders.

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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