If there was ever one person who defined the Hollywood tableau of wild success succumbing to even wilder excess, it was fabled producer Don Simpson. Though a driven and talented executive-turned-producer whose flair for churning out hit movies throughout the 1970s and 1980s was unparalleled, Simpson's enormous appetite for drugs, food and sadomasochistic sex wound up destroying his lucrative partnership with producer Jerry Bruckheimer and ultimately ending his life. At first glance, Simpson reveled in being a raving, solipsistic mogul whose ability to snort massive amounts cocaine was a natural extension of his glamorous lifestyle. But to peel back the layers was to reveal a dark and diseased soul. Though remembered mostly for his excesses, Simpson's true legacy was his work - he produced some of the most memorable and profitable movies to come off the studio conveyor belt, a contradiction that underscored his tortured, self-destructive nature.
Simpson was born Oct. 29, 1943 in Seattle, WA, but was reared in Anchorage, AK from the age of 2. His father, Russell Simpson, was a mechanic for Boeing and his mother, June, raised him and his younger brother, Larry. His upbringing was steeped in the fire and brimstone of his Southern Baptist parents - church was attended several times a week and the idea of eternal damnation was a constant - an environment he routinely described later in life as a nightmare of repression. According to Simpson, he was a well-behaved boy who ran afoul of righteousness when he discovered sex. Though no official records existed, Simpson claimed to have gotten into his share of juvenile trouble, prompting a local cop to lock him in a room and kick the crap out of him - an act that scared the lad straight. Other variations on the story were a hell-fire minister to whom Simpson confessed his libidinous dalliances and a rough-and-tumble county judge who gave the wayward youth a choice: college or prison. Whether or not these stories were true, it was obvious later in life that his tough love mentor - if one existed - had little to no effect.
Simpson eventually left rural Anchorage to attend the University of Oregon at Eugene, from which he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1966. He left for Hollywood soon after, landing at Warner Bros. where he worked in their marketing department on youth-exploitation films. In 1973, he was snatched away from Warner's by Paramount where his brash attitude and outspoken nature appealed to the likes of studio heads Robert Evans, Michael Eisner and Barry Diller. Eisner especially took a shine to the lad and gave him the opportunity to rise quickly up the ranks, thanks to Simpson's ability to boil down the plot of a film into a short and succinct sentence - what later became known as the high concept pitch. By 1975, Simpson was a production executive and, soon thereafter, became the studio's first president of production, even receiving screenplay credit on the all-star farce, "Cannonball!" (1976). He then began what would become his most valuable partnership - and his most important friendship - with Bruckheimer in 1979 when Bruckheimer was brought to Paramount to produce the Richard Gere film, "America Gigolo" (1980). The two hit it off immediately and soon formed a productive working partnership.
By the time Simpson began working with Bruckheimer, he was fully invested in his cocaine habit. So bad was his addiction, that Diller and Eisner quietly cut him loose. Paramount did, however, have affection for him and respected his talent, extending to Simpson the opportunity to stay on as a producer. In 1983, they handed him the reigns to "Flashdance," which prompted Simpson to ask for Bruckheimer's help. About a female steel worker (Jennifer Beals) moonlighting as an exotic dancer with dreams of going to a real dance school, "Flashdance" became a sensation, taking in over $90 million at the box office after being shot on a modest $7.5 million budget. With the success of this iconic film, Simpson and Bruckheimer were rolling. Though their next effort, "Thief of Hearts" (1984), a cheap and cheesy thriller about a professional thief (Steven Bauer) who stumbles upon a woman's diary and uses her private thoughts to seduce her, was easily forgettable, it was his next project that made Simpson king.
Simpson first pitched the idea of "Beverly Hills Cop" back in 1977 when he was still an exec at Paramount. Though his version was uninspiring in the initial stages, he managed to develop a strong fish-out-of-water story about a rough-and-tumble cop from Detroit forced to work with uppity Beverly Hills detectives. Simpson later boasted that the scripts saw over 37 drafts and 11 different writers before Eddie Murphy signed on to play Axel Foley. Again shot on a modest budget - only $14 million - "Beverly Hills Cop" took in a whopping $235 million at the box office, an astronomical sum in 1984. Thus the action-comedy was born.
But it was his next movie, "Top Gun" (1986), that put Simpson over the top. Born when Bruckheimer found an article about naval flight schools and excitedly pointed it out to Simpson, "Top Gun" - the story of a maverick fighter pilot (Tom Cruise) who attends the top flight school and falls in love with his instructor (Kelly McGillis) - became a sensation, turning Cruise into the biggest star in the world. By the time "Top Gun" hit the theaters, however, Simpson was drowning in his cocaine addiction. He tried rehab while the film was in production, but relapsed upon returning to set. It seemed the more successful a producer he was, the worse his demons became.
"Top Gun" took in $176 million at the box office, dealing Simpson and Bruckheimer yet another winner. Simpson returned to the well for "Beverly Hills Cop II" (1987), and though it proved less successful as its predecessor, the dye, had been cast. Simpson and Bruckheimer were given an unprecedented production deal with Paramount: several hundred million dollars to finance movies, a large cut of the box office take, and no prior approval from the studio. In essence, Paramount handed Simpson a blank check, inflating his already enormous ego beyond all reason.
The regret was felt through the Paramount halls of power almost immediately upon the release of "Days of Thunder" (1990) - a disaster of a movie from start to finish and the beginning of Simpson's personal unraveling. All indications prior to production indicated a massive hit: Tom Cruise starring in a race car movie - "Top Gun" on wheels. But cost overruns ballooned the budget from $45 million to $70 million. To make matters worse, aside from the constant rewrites to satisfy an unhappy star, Simpson inserted himself as an actor, playing Italian NASCAR driver Aldo Benadetti. The producer's uncontrollable appetite for junk food and prescription drugs - he was known to take growth hormones for their supposed sexual performance benefits - helped him pack on the pounds, causing him to undergo multiple reconstructive surgeries. He even received injections of fat into his penis!
Though in public he was extremely confident that "Days of Thunder" would be a hit, privately he was deeply concerned. His fears proved correct when the movie took in a paltry $82 million in ticket sales. The disaster prompted Paramount to nix their deal with Simpson and Bruckheimer. After shopping around for a new home, the duo found a new haven with the unlikeliest of studios: Disney, where old boss Michael Eisner was CEO. It would take a few years to get his next project off the ground - though in development on a couple dozen projects, Simpson could not get one into production. Meanwhile, he was descending into a delirium of sex and drugs that made all around him concerned. Rumors were rampant about his deranged predilections - extreme sadomasochistic sex with high class call girls being chief among them, one that later proved to be true. As drugs and junk food took their toll on his body, Simpson - who prided himself on his sexual conquests - found it impossible to perform, forcing him to just sit and watch. He had a penchant for disappearing, sometimes to his Bel Air home where he'd lock himself away from the world, other times to parts undisclosed, causing concern from those closest to him.
By 1994, when Simpson and Bruckheimer released their next film, "The Ref" (1994), an action comedy starring Denis Leary as a burglar who kidnaps a feuding couple (Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey) after a robbery, the magic was gone. Simpson was too far lost to his own depravity to be an effective producer. Though he was involved in several hits in his last year of life - "Bad Boys" (1995), "Crimson Tide" (1995), "Dangerous Minds" (1995) and "The Rock" (1996) - Simpson was barely involved in the productions, turning over control to his clean-living partner. In August of 1995, friend and noted physical trainer Stephen Ammerman was found dead in Simpson's pool from a drug overdose - toxicologists found cocaine, morphine and Valium in his system. Reeling from the death and its proximity, Simpson spent weeks hiding out in his mansion, refusing to deal with anyone. By this time, Bruckheimer began trying to sever his professional partnership with Simpson - even he was fed up with his problems. The two officially dissolved their creative union in December 1995, but vowed to complete projects already in production. Just a month after their partnership ended, Simpson was found dead in his Bel Air mansion from an apparent heart attack. Autopsy reports later confirmed that Simpson had dozens of prescription drugs in his system, including Thorazine, Valium and Morphine. He was also steeped in large amounts of alcohol and cocaine. Instead of going out in a blaze of glory, Simpson pulled an Elvis, dying on the toilet while reading James Riordan's biography on Oliver Stone, Stone: The Controversies, Excesses and Exploits of a Radical Filmmaker. He was only 52.