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Behind the scenes of ''The Rock''

Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage star in the upcoming Alcatraz thriller

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”Mr. Connery, I’ve got terrible news for you.”

Sean Connery stiffened at the words.

It was late on the afternoon of Friday, Jan. 19, three months into production on the action film The Rock. For days, Connery had been hip deep in water, fighting through a maze of tunnels constructed in the old Esther Williams swim tank on Sony’s Stage 30 in Culver City, Calif. Playing a onetime Alcatraz escapee now leading a commando squad (played by actual Navy SEALs) back into the island fortress through its labyrinthine tunnels was proving to be tiring, debilitating work. He hated the smoke machines and the noisy fans used to blow the clouds toward the camera; he hated the fact that all the background din would mean the dialogue would have to be looped in postproduction.

But as soon as the deferential young assistant spoke those words, all that went out of his mind. He immediately feared something had happened either to his wife, Micheline, or his son, Jason.

Instead, the PA continued, ”Mr. Simpson’s dead.”

Don Simpson, 52, producer of Flashdance, Top Gun, and Beverly Hills Cop, had been found hours earlier, slumped on the floor of the upstairs bathroom of his Bel Air home. Though his death was initially attributed to natural causes, an autopsy would later show that he had died of heart failure caused by a lethal combination of cocaine and nearly a dozen different sedatives, antidepressants, and antipsychotics.

”Having only met him briefly” — Simpson had made a rare visit to the set just that week — ”I was not completely surprised,” Connery recalls. ”He did not look well.”

Word on the set spread quietly but quickly. Jerry Bruckheimer, 52 — Simpson’s producing cohort from 1982 until a month earlier, when the breakup of their partnership had been announced — would have been forgiven if he’d called a halt to the day’s work. But he soldiered on, trying to keep a lid on the news, ordering that director Michael Bay not be told.

”Someone accidentally told me,” remembers Nicolas Cage — cast as the FBI chemical-weapons expert who joins Connery to battle a band of terrorists threatening to launch a lethal gas attack from Alcatraz. ”It’s difficult to concentrate when one of the conductors dies and you’re still doing the piece.”

As he tried to guide Cage through the scene, Bay sensed something was wrong. Why’s Nick screwing up? he wondered. His energy’s missing.

”Nick, what’s going on?” he asked.

”Oh, I heard some bad news.”

”What are you talking about?” Bay asked.

”Don’s dead.”

”I sat down in my chair and freaked out,” Bay says. ”It was just tragic. We just shot that one shot. And then I went into Jerry’s trailer and just sat there for a couple of hours.”

It wasn’t supposed to have ended that way.

Though not without the Sturm und Drang that goes into making any high-stakes, high-testosterone summer action movie, The Rock had moved fairly swiftly from initial conception to near completion. Unlike so many other Simpson/Bruckheimer projects that took ages to get off the ground — 1995’s Bad Boys, for example, had morphed over several years from a cop comedy starring Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz to an MTV-paced thriller with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence — the $70 million production of The Rock was speeding smoothly toward its June 7 opening.