Don Simpson: Keep it simple, stupid

Don Simpson: Keep it simple, stupid
Hollywood superproducer Don Simpson in his home with some actors and partner Jerry Bruckheimer.

New York Times article by Bernard Weinraub on Hollywood’s most notorious producer Don Simpson and his role in creating the high concept blockbuster model that came to dominate the film industry.

On Friday night, Jake Bloom, a Hollywood lawyer with numerous clients in the movie industry, phoned Michael Eisner, chairman of the Walt Disney Company.

He was calling to inform him of the death of Don Simpson, one of Hollywood’s most prominent producers and a one-time colleague of Mr. Eisner’s.

The Disney chairman quietly told Mr. Bloom, “I’ve been waiting for this call for 20 years.”

Mr. Eisner’s words mirrored many other comments heard as the news of Mr. Simpson’s death at the age of 52 spread across Hollywood. Paramedics who responded to a 911 call from business associates of Mr. Simpson’s found his body slumped on a bathroom floor in his Bel Air home. Although one of his lawyers, Robert Chapman, said the death was due to natural causes, a police investigation is under way. It has been an open secret in Hollywood that Mr. Simpson had a recurring drug problem and was a binge eater whose weight fluctuated wildly.

“He was in some dark underworld,” said Dawn Steel, the former studio executive and producer, who was a friend of Mr. Simpson’s. “None of the rehabs worked. We had long phone conversations. He didn’t want to see me because of the way he looked. He got really heavy. I’d say, ‘Come on over,’ and he’d say, ‘I don’t really feel good.’ ”

Shortly before Christmas, Jeffrey Katzenberg, a co-owner of Dreamworks and former president of Walt Disney Studios, and James Wiatt, president of International Creative Management, were among several friends who spoke to Mr. Simpson’s doctors and sought some sort of rehabilitation or hospitalization for him. But Mr. Simpson was reluctant to leave his home. “He was very sad,” said Mr. Katzenberg. “Sad and depressed.”

Little known outside Hollywood, Mr. Simpson and his longtime partner, Jerry Bruckheimer, helped define 1990′s pop culture with such blockbusters as “Flashdance,” “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Top Gun.” Beyond the hits he helped make, though, Mr. Simpson symbolized the kind of extravagant, excessive, larger-than-life figure who is drawn to Hollywood, one whose personal demons grow hand in hand with successes and personal fortunes.

He grew up in Anchorage, a child of strict Fundamentalist parents. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Oregon in 1966, he left almost immediately for Hollywood, where he became a marketing executive. He worked first at Warner Brothers and later at Paramount, where he rose quickly in the ranks and was named president of worldwide production in 1981. He held that position for two years and was instrumental in the making of “Urban Cowboy,” “An Officer and a Gentleman,” “48 Hours” and “Beverly Hills Cop 2.”

Mr. Simpson spoke of his childhood as nothing less than a nightmare of repression. He decided to work in movies after seeing “The Greatest Show on Earth” as a youngster, he would recall. Hollywood represented, among other things, personal freedom, which he embraced with a vengeance. His night life, at least in the 1980′s, was often a regimen of drugs, parties and fast cars, according to people who knew him well. Although wealthy and good-looking, Mr. Simpson, by most accounts, had only one or two relationships with women that lasted beyond several weeks. He recently told one close friend: “I don’t think I can live a normal life. I’ve given up trying.”

He was a loner who sometimes called executives or associates at 2 or 3 in the morning to chat. “I don’t think he understood how to balance his life because I don’t think he was ever truly happy,” said Mr. Wiatt. “Except when he made a successful movie. Then he was happy.”

Those who worked with him say that Mr. Simpson could take scripts and make them commercial. “He understood scripts the way no one did,” said Ms. Steel. “He had this fantastic sense of story, of what worked and didn’t work.” Before the filming of “Beverly Hills Cop,” for example, he helped overhaul a script that was originally planned for Sylvester Stallone and turned it into an Eddie Murphy vehicle.

He also had a sense of wardrobe, soundtrack and style for a film. But his talents, acquaintances say, were shadowed by “an enormous self-loathing that none of us could understand.”

“He had these explosive rages that were really out of control,” said one executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He was an abusive and angry man. He sometimes saw writers as easy targets, saps, ripe for exploiting. You talk about Hollywood in the 80′s: that whole brittle, cynical, caustic attitude and style. Well, Don was the kingpin. A kingpin with demons that tormented him.”

By all accounts, his demons worsened in the 1990′s, beginning with “Days of Thunder” (1990), a big-budget disappointment that starred Tom Cruise as a racing-car driver. After that, the Simpson-Bruckheimer team seemed paralyzed, unable to produce movies for several years.

In 1994 they returned with an unlikely film, “The Ref,” a relatively low-budget dark comedy with Denis Leary, Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis. The movie was intended to serve notice that Simpson-Bruckheimer were not only back in business but also would focus on edgier and less expensive films. At the time Mr. Simpson, sitting in his elegant study, told a reporter, “The days of drugs, sex and rock-and-roll are long over, at least for us old guys.”

Although “The Ref,” too, was a box-office disappointment, the team was soon on a roll with several big hits: “Crimson Tide,” “Bad Boys,” and “Dangerous Minds.” It was known in Hollywood that Mr. Bruckheimer, a quieter, tightly wound and unflamboyant figure, had carried the brunt of the producing chores on those movies. Executives said that Mr. Simpson’s behavior and moods had been erratic, that he had sometimes been incommunicado and that he had spent time at drug rehabilitation centers and at the Canyon Ranch spa in Arizona to lose weight.

The relationship grew increasingly strained. “Much of Jerry’s time was taken up with ways to avoid or circumvent Don’s tantrums,” the former executive said.

Five months ago, Stephen Ammerman, a 44-year-old doctor, died of a drug overdose in a pool-house shower at Mr. Simpson’s home. Dr. Ammerman’s father told The Los Angeles Times two months later that his son had been treating Mr. Simpson for drug problems. By then Mr. Bruckheimer had broken off one of the most successful film making partnerships of recent years.

Mr. Bruckheimer was described by friends as devastated by the news of Mr. Simpson’s death. “He’s as grieved as any spouse can be,” said one friend.

Acquaintances say Mr. Simpson had recently seemed intent on picking up the pieces of his professional life. Last Thursday, he met with Mr. Bloom, Mr. Wiatt and a lawyer to discuss setting up his own production company.

“For the first time in months I saw him really excited,” Mr. Wiatt said. “He talked about which studio to make a deal with. He had gone through depressions but he didn’t seem that way at all.”

The next day Mr. Simpson was dead.

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