Don Simpson

Active - 1976 - 1996  |   Born - Oct 29, 1943 in Seattle, Washington, United States  |   Died - Jan 19, 1996   |   Genres - Action, Drama, Romance, Comedy

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Biography by Sandra Brennan

Noted producer Don Simpson was a co-founder of the prestigious Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer Productions, a company responsible for a number of highly successful features of the '80s through the early '90s, including Flashdance (1983), Top Gun (1986), and Crimson Tide (1995). Born in Seattle, WA, but raised in Anchorage, AK, Simpson began his highly successful career in San Francisco representing Warner Bros. as an account executive at the Jack Woodell Agency. He moved to Warner Bros. in 1971 and became a marketing executive. His first assignment was to promote the studio's quasi-sequel to Woodstock, Medicine Ball Caravan (1971).

It was not until Simpson became friends with producer Steve Tisch while the latter was moving from New York to L.A. that Simpson became interested in the nuts and bolts aspect of the film industry. Tisch provided much support while Simpson struggled to find a niche as a producer. He got his first real break when Tisch introduced him to Jerry Bruckheimer. Next the well-connected Tisch introduced Simpson to Paramount's vice president of production during the mid-'70s, Richard Sylbert. Simpson impressed Sylbert enough to get hired as a production executive. By 1981, Simpson had been promoted to Paramount's president of production. After that, Simpson and Bruckheimer began their successful partnership with American Gigolo (1979).

The two producers proved dynamite together, but like the explosive, they were volatile. Bruckheimer was the outgoing one and did not hesitate to do whatever it took to promote a film, even if it meant standing atop a submarine in the midst of Venice Harbor to tout their 1995 film Crimson Tide at that year's Venice Film Festival. Simpson, on the other hand, was quiet and complicated. His tendency toward substance abuse began interfering with his professional life in 1990, after they signed what they called a "dream deal" with Paramount. Blaming the duo's tendency toward extravagant spending, the studio destroyed their contract after only nine months. The two signed with Disney in 1991, but Simpson was seldom seen around the offices. Knowing that his partner was caught up in drug abuse, but not willing to throw away such a lucrative relationship, Bruckheimer and Simpson's many powerful friends covered for the errant producer at Disney. Simpson was allegedly undergoing drug rehabilitation with his doctor and long-time friend, Stephen Ammerman, when the latter was found dead of an overdose in Simpson's poolhouse on August 14, 1996. After that, Simpson fell into a deep depression and was unable to assist Bruckheimer with the production chores on their latest film, The Rock (1996), starring Sean Connery. Still Bruckheimer remained loyal and said nothing of Simpson's problems until December 1995, when he publicly announced that while he and Simpson were still good friends, their partnership would be dissolved. Simpson was busy planning new projects at Disney when he was found dead in his Bel-Air home on January 19, 1996. At first the cause of death was unknown, but later police deduced that the 52-year-old producer probably died of heart failure.

Movie Highlights

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  • Began his movie career working in the marketing department at Warner Bros.
  • Didn't even own a sport coat when he interviewed for a job at Paramount in 1975, and had to borrow one from friend Jerry Bruckheimer.
  • Went to rehab for cocaine addiction in the middle of production on Top Gun, but relapsed upon returning to the set.
  • Died unexpectedly of a drug overdose in 1996, following a six hour phone conversation with screenwriter James Toback.
  • The last film he worked on, The Rock (1996), is dedicated to his memory.