As he strode into a Santa Monica restaurant last spring, Don Simpson was the picture of a rightful heir returning to Hollywood’s throne. Wearing a navy blue blazer, tan from a vacation in Hawaii, his ever-roller-coastering weight dropping toward a still-stocky low, the producer scarcely took a breath while he talked about his future and brushed off rumors about his past. Jerry Bruckheimer, his partner of 12 years, sat quietly beside him. For the first time in five years, Simpson’s famous bluster had substance to back it up: That weekend, the duo’s action comedy Bad Boys had opened in first place.
Simpson knew that every ticket sold would help erase the industry’s less-than-favorable memory of the team’s last few years, a period that had done nothing to offset Simpson’s reputation as an overspender with a taste for excess, both on screen and off. Those who stopped by his table to praise him included people who, not long before, wouldn’t have returned his calls. But with Bad Boys a success and Crimson Tide and Dangerous Minds to follow, he was justifiably optimistic. ”This is only the beginning, the beginning of the beginning,” he said. ”It’s not the middle, and it’s certainly not the end.”
If his life had been a Simpson/Bruckheimer movie, like Flashdance, or Beverly Hills Cop, or Top Gun, Don Simpson would have made sure that the soundtrack music swelled and the credits started to roll. But Simpson’s passion for fairy-tale endings belied his own long downward trajectory. When the 52-year-old producer was found dead at his Bel Air mansion on Jan. 19, few of his colleagues could claim to be surprised. While Simpson appears to have died of natural causes (autopsy results are pending), those who knew him had watched for years as he abused drugs and food, plummeting over and over into depression and physical crisis. Each new success seemed only to augment his unhappiness.
Don Simpson had flown far from his family’s working-class roots in Anchorage when he arrived in L.A. more than 20 years ago. At first, he got along by snagging small-time acting gigs and betting on his tennis skills on the neighborhood courts. When he sold a screenplay called Cannonball, he began networking in Hollywood. Even in a city of would-be players, Simpson’s shrewdness and brazen ambition set him apart. ”The first time I met Don,” said Columbia TriStar chairman Mark Canton last year, ”he was asking how he could get a nice suit like I had at the screening of ‘Rocky”.”
When he interviewed at Paramount in 1975, Simpson didn’t even own a sport coat; he borrowed a jacket from Bruckheimer, whom he’d met at a screening of The Harder They Come, and who was living with him after a divorce. Simpson got the job and eventually became president of production, earning a reputation for being brilliant and blunt.
In 1982, Simpson left Paramount and joined forces with Bruckheimer. Between the two of them, they made one extraordinary producer. Simpson had an innate ability to recognize what would sell a story and what would sink it — and an explosive temper that made the mellower Bruckheimer the good cop. ”I watched my career go down the toilet the Saturday before we began shooting,” says Bad Boys director Michael Bay, telling an all-too-familiar story. ”Don came in with 40 pages of dictation and slammed the script down and said, ‘We’re taking our names off this project,’ and Jerry just said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll fix it.”’
Critics hated their bigger-is-better aesthetic and glossy style, but the duo knew what sold: Flashdance, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, and its first sequel together earned more than $1.4 billion. The two were so close they shared a desk. Simpson was the “idea man,” which allowed him to indulge in substance abuse while using all the built-in excuses Hollywood reserves for the creative. Bruckheimer acted as a liaison to the sets and the studios, running the show while Simpson disappeared to Canyon Ranch, an elite Arizona spa, to battle his weight and recover from his benders.
The pair seemed infallible when, in January 1990, they signed a five-year deal with Paramount, said to be worth $300 million and egocentrically touted in trade ads as no less than a “visionary alliance.” But only two weeks later, on the set of Days of Thunder, it began to fall apart. The producers later claimed that when Paramount asked them to rush through production for a summer release, the budget escalated and the studio balked; other reports suggested that the producers were spending money with reckless glee. When Paramount and the producers acrimoniously parted ways soon after, Simpson and Bruckheimer found they were no longer granted the latitude to which they’d become accustomed. “We do everything without consulting with anyone or asking anyone’s permission,” Simpson had said on the Thunder set. That would never be true again.
Increasingly, Simpson, who had never bothered to employ tact in his dealings with journalists or colleagues, found himself held to a harsher standard. Articles focused on his status as a “party animal” and “wild man” — see-through euphemisms for a drug-dependent producer who cared more about staying up late than getting to work the next day. Simpson didn’t seem to grasp the repercussions of his actions, chafing at every unflattering piece. “He had an idealistic, adolescent sense of what was fair,” says screenwriter Robert Towne, a friend.
When Simpson and Bruckheimer moved to Disney in 1991 under a new, nonexclusive production deal, three filmless years followed, which only increased the industry’s perception of the two as relics. When they finally managed to get one movie — the Denis Leary comedy The Ref — on screen in 1994, its unimpressive grosses did little to increase confidence.
The tide began to turn with Columbia’s Bad Boys, a signal to Hollywood that in the leaner ’90s, the pair knew how to produce a film for less and still sell tickets. Their luck only improved: Last summer’s Crimson Tide made $91 million, and Dangerous Minds was a classic Simpson/Bruckheimer winner — a brutal reedit after test screenings, a hit soundtrack, terrible reviews, and a pundit-defying box office tally of $85 million.
But Simpson’s personal troubles were mounting. “He’d been taking uppers and downers,” says Towne. “He took speed to work, and then he’d take downers to come down. Speed up, slow down, speed up, slow down. Sooner or later, the body rebels.” Says screenwriter James Toback (Bugsy), “I know that both [David] Geffen and [Jeffrey] Katzenberg had pressured him to go into a program.” Last August, Simpson asked endocrinologist Dr. John O’Dea to make a house call; his weight, a friend estimated, had ballooned to 235, and he was depressed. Although Simpson canceled that appointment, he later told O’Dea he had not done illicit drugs for six to eight months but was taking prescribed medication, including an anti-manic drug and an amphetamine derivative.
Two days after Simpson first called O’Dea, Dr. Stephen Ammerman, an emergency room physician and aspiring filmmaker who was reportedly treating Simpson for his drug dependency, died of an accidental drug overdose at the producer’s house. After Ammerman’s death, Simpson’s drug use and attendant health and emotional problems took hold of him. Colleagues say that Bruckheimer became increasingly frustrated at his partner’s lack of day-to-day participation in their company. What Simpson had called “a perfect marriage” was headed for the rocks. “I told Don, ‘You must avoid taking any stimulant drugs. It’s like playing with a loaded gun,'” says O’Dea. “I was trying to scare him. And he said, ‘The company is breaking up, and I have to focus, but it’s difficult for me. If I have to, I will do these drugs.'”
But the drugs were no help: On Dec. 20, Daily Variety announced that the producers were dissolving their partnership. The Rock, an action film now shooting with Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage, and Bad Boys II would be among the last projects to bear the Simpson/Bruckheimer credit.
Bruckheimer, who issued a statement expressing shock at the death of the man he said was “like a brother to me,” declined to comment further. But Simpson’s friends say that for the last month of his life, he swung between feelings of betrayal and determination to get his career on track; he talked not only of beginning his own company but of directing and even acting. “He was so excited. He had so many plans,” says Simpson/Bruckheimer director of development Jennifer Krug. “‘This new company,’ he was saying, ‘will be my next 20 years.'” But a friend speculates, “I think Don died of a broken heart. He was very hurt by the split up with Jerry. The partnership was all he had. It was his only family. There was no girlfriend, no marriage, no kids.”
On the last night of Simpson’s life, Toback spent six hours on the phone with the producer. Toback says that Simpson, who was at home, sounded more tired than usual but assured him that if Disney’s Joe Roth wouldn’t finance Toback’s Harvard Man — Simpson’s first film without Bruckheimer — he would turn to producer Steve Tisch, an old friend, for help. He told Toback he planned to inform Bruckheimer about his plans the next day. The two hung up around midnight. “He made a few references to drinking wine,” Toback remembers. “But I think it was a combination of things. Wine, speed…I think he just forgot what he’d been taking, and it got hold of him and took him out.”
The next afternoon, after Simpson failed to show up for a meeting, his assistant found the producer’s body, a book by his side, in a bathroom at his home. As Simpson’s friends prepared to come together at a private gathering at Mortons, many chose not to focus on his downfall. “Friends are dropping by and talking, doing what Don would have wanted, relating funny anecdotes,” says director Michael Mann (Heat). “Whatever his private life was, I am sure of one thing,” says director Joel Schumacher. “Don lived exactly the life he wanted to live. He had all the opportunities, all the intelligence, all the friends, all of the knowledge to have changed his life at any time. And he didn’t want to.”
(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Wells)