Hollywood producer Don Simpson infused films like Top Gun and Flashdance with a frenetic heartbeat that struck an electrifying chord with audiences in the 1980s and 90s. However, behind the scenes, Simpson thought his real life should be like watching one of his movies. He lived on the edge, had few familial commitments, and seemed to crave excess wherever he could find it. Movies, however, are not real life, and Simpson had to learn this lesson the hard way—over and over again.
Don Simpon was born in Seattle on October 29, 1943. His father was an airplane mechanic for Boeing and his mother was a housewife. For a man as debauched as Don Simpson, his childhood is shocking. Unlike his reckless future self, he was a self-described “straight-A Bible student.” When the family moved to Alaska, Simpson attended church four to five times every week.
But when you learn what the angelic Don Simpson turned into, you’ll wish he’d spent even more time in church.
Simpson eventually left Alaska and moved to Eugene, Oregon to study English literature at university. After school, he became a ski instructor in Utah, then landed in San Francisco. Somewhere between Alaska and California—I’m going to put my money on Utah—Simpson lost his faith. When he arrived in San Francisco, he got a scandalous new job: promoting adult films.
Don Simpson had lost his faith, but he found a new one: the movie industry. He soon moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles and, in 1972, got a job with Warner Brothers, who put him in charge of marketing exploitation films. Somehow the man who had attended church multiple times per week was now known as the go-to guy for B movies with disturbing or offensive content.
This was, however, just a brief stepping stone for the ambitious Simpson.
In 1975, Simpson managed to get an interview for a dream job with Paramount Pictures. He only had one problem: He had no way to get there! Thankfully, he’d made friends with another ambitious film guy, Jerry Bruckheimer, upon arriving in LA. Bruckheimer lent Simpson his car for his interview, and Simpson got the job. His first film with Paramount was Cannonball with director Paul Bartel.
The movie was a big hit, and Simpson was ready to move forward. But he was already walking a dangerous path.
Simpson used the success of Cannonball to get him into a new position: First, he became vice president of production at Paramount, before moving to president in 1981. This didn't happen by accident: During these years, Simpson worked himself to the bone, and it started taking its toll. He needed something to give him energy, and a Red Bull just wasn’t going to cut it.
In order to keep up with his heavy schedule, Simpson engaged in something else heavy: drug use. Simpson simply saw it as a necessary evil—like you might consider your morning latte. Unfortunately, Simpon’s morning jolt was going up his nose, and it certainly didn’t stop in the morning. Simpson was doing a dangerous high wire act, and things were already starting to unravel.
The studio put up with his childish tantrums while producing movies. What he did next made them question hiring him at all.
Sure, Simpson was burning the candle at both ends, and he obviously needed some help in the time management department. But more than this, the poor guy just needed some time to sleep. In 1982, Simpson was attending a studio meeting, and when it was his turn to speak everyone looked at him and collectively dropped their jaws: He was fast asleep.
Was it exhaustion? Was it his drug use? It didn’t matter which it was: Simpson was no longer wanted at Paramount.
It appeared as though Paramount felt bad about firing Simpson, because they gave him a little gift: a movie. Sounds like a nice gesture, but it was meant to be an anchor. Paramount had no hope in the movie they gave to Simpson, and many believe they hoped the movie would bomb and ruin his career. Except, they made a massive misjudgment.
The film they gave him was Flashdance, which ended up being one of the most financially successful movies of the 80s. Don Simpson wouldn't go down that easily.
Remember how Jerry Bruckheimer loaned his car to Simpson for an interview? Well, now Simpson was ready to pay Bruckheimer back for his kindness. Together, the two men produced Flashdance and made it into a colossal hit. It must have been sweet revenge for Simpson, as Paramount, still sure it would be a flop, had sold off a quarter of the film just before opening day. The total gross for the film was a whopping $150 million. But these boys were just getting started.
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Simpson and Bruckheimer wanted to continue their success, and they did it the next year with Beverly Hills Cop. They had a great script, which was an awesome marriage between action and comedy. They also had a big star who had just had a huge success with the boxing movie Rocky. Wait, Rocky? Oh, didn’t you know that Sylvester Stallone was supposed to be in Beverly Hills Cop?
Well, he was. How it ended up being Eddie Murphy is the stuff of Hollywood legend.
Stallone was one of the biggest stars in the world after the smash success of Rocky, and it made him a little big for his britches. When he signed on to play Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop, he didn’t love the comedic aspects. So, he did something drastic: He completely rewrote the script, turning it into a straightforward, self-serious action movie.
Simpson and Bruckheimer did not appreciate the help, but now they had a problem: How do you get rid of a star like Sylvester Stallone?
Now, Don Simpson was famous for his outrageous tales, and this is certainly one of them. The Stallone story goes something like this: Simpson allegedly got rid of Stallone from Beverly Hills Cop by enrolling him in a European medical trial that would…get this…improve Stallone’s erectile capabilities. While Stallone was in Europe doing that, Simpson quietly replaced him with Eddie Murphy.
And who told that story? Well, Don Simpsons himself, of course! Clearly, he was not the kind of guy you wanted to cross...
At this point, Simpson’s life could not have been flying higher. Maybe that’s why his next film was the high-flying naval aviation flick, Top Gun. But there was something else high in Simpson’s life: himself. By this time, Simpson’s drug use was completely out of control, and even he knew it. Although Simpson had a reputation for being a hands-on producer, he was AWOL during the filming of Top Gun. So where was he? He’d put himself in rehab.
Top Gun was another big hit, but it seemed certain that—for Simpson’s health anyway—a big hit was the last thing he needed.
Flashdance, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop: these movies came to characterize the 1980s. They relied on adrenaline-inducing music, beautiful stars, and stories of fearless characters who lived on the edge. These films all had something else in common: They were box office successes that were made on the cheap. For that reason, Simpson and Bruckheimer owned Hollywood in the 1980s. Every studio wanted them.
But the more work Simpson got, the deeper he went into his dark side.
Paramount, who had fired Simpson for falling asleep at a meeting, was certainly regretting their decision. He’d turned the hopeless script for Flashdance into a huge moneymaker. Then he’d followed this up with more hits. Paramount had to swallow their collective pride and invite Simpson back. Of course, Simpson brought Bruckheimer with him and the two signed a five-year deal worth an incredible $300 million.
Don Simpson was back at Paramount—and you just know he was going to be petty about it.
Simpson’s deal with Paramount was out of this world big and Simpson couldn't really enjoy it without the ability to gloat a little. And how can you make sure that everyone knows about your amazing deal? Simpson and Bruckheimer forced Paramount to take out full-page ads in four major newspapers and two trade papers announcing their deal with Paramount.
The 1990s were set to be just as successful for Simpson as the 80s had been—or were they?
Simpson and Bruckheimer’s first film with Paramount was Days of Thunder, a Tom Cruise vehicle about…well…Tom Cruise in a vehicle. This was going to be Top Gun, but on a race track instead of the sky. Things got off to a bad start. Simpson and Bruckheimer had frequent on-set arguments with director Tony Scott. The disagreements weren’t the problem—it was that they were yelling at each other while the crew sat on their butts and collected overtime.
Very early in the filming, it became clear that Days of Thunder was going to be way over budget.
It wasn’t just the crew’s overtime that put Days of Thunder over its budget. The film was also way behind schedule. When the production manager brought this to the attention of the producers, Simpson and Bruckheimer told him something shocking: That there basically was no schedule. Simpson and Bruckheimer were acting like they were above it all, and could do whatever they wanted—and they expected Paramount to just pick up the tab.
How do you think that was going to shake out?
There was a lot riding on Days of Thunder; Paramount expected it to be that summer’s Top Gun. It was also meant to be Simpson’s triumphant return to the studio. And yet, with all that was going wrong with the filming of Days of Thunder—over budget, atrocious dailies, and script problems—Simpson was happy as a clam. He told a friend that at the set he was "having the time of his life."
Did he not see what was happening, or did he not care?
Maybe Simpson was having the time of his life, but his partner, Bruckheimer was forced to pick up the pieces. Simpson had a fairly predictable routine while in Daytona filming Days of Thunder. He slept most of the day, woke up, worked out at a gym, and then cleaned himself up for whatever woman he was meeting that evening. He also had a weekly habit that he couldn’t miss: watching Magnum PI on TV at 7:00.
In case you didn’t notice, none of his routine had anything to do with making a film: Bruckheimer was taking care of everything.
A big part of Simpson’s routine was exercise. It turned out that no gym in Daytona Beach met his incredibly high standards. So what did he do? He built one that did. The cost of building a private gym in his hotel came to $400,000—which I guess came out of petty cash. Included in the $400,000 was a neon sign on the wall that read: “Days of Thunder.” A better sign might have been: “Days of Plunder.”
But Simpson's outrageous spending was just getting started.
There was another expense that Simpson added to the budget of Days of Thunder—and it was a strange one. Simpson wanted to have a closet full of designer dresses by Donna Karan on hand. Was Simpson into wearing women’s clothes? Well, maybe. But these were for something else: gifts to attractive women on the beach. He used the dresses to lure women to parties he threw in the evenings when filming was over.
When Donna Karan dresses didn’t get enough women to the party, Simpson tried something more reliable: cold hard cash. In order to populate his parties with beautiful women, Simpson flew in dozens of working girls. The parties were pretty basic: not much food and drink, no music, but lots of gorgeous women. The average Joe, like the crew who were supposed to be the party’s guests of honor, didn’t get much of anything.
All the women ended up in a VIP section whose population of men was just three: Simpson, Bruckheimer, and Tom Cruise.
Simpson also had a small role to play in casting Days of Thunder. One audition with a young and promising actor was more than a little suspicious. The actor was Donna Wilson and she got a very small role as “pit girl,” and yet had an incredible 54 days on the set. It’s unclear why Simpson had a part in casting such a small role in the first place.
The answer to this mystery became clear shortly after the shoot started: Simpson and Wilson started dating. Oh, but it gets more twisted from there.
Simpson wasn’t the only hot shot on Days of Thunder who had a say in casting. Tom Cruise had seen Nicole Kidman in her Australian movie Dead Calm and wanted her as his love interest. Just like Simpson, Cruise did eventually start dating Kidman, which suggests it may have been an “I scratch your back you scratch mine” kind of audition. Cruise ended up marrying Kidman, but what about Simpson and Wilson? Ironically—and with some humiliation—Simpson lost Wilson to Days of Thunder director Tony Scott.
The reason for this was also humiliating: Apparently, Simpson was unable to perform in bed due to his constant drug use.
In spite of losing Wilson to Scott, Simpson continued living it up while filming Days of Thunder. One of his assistants alleged that she had two tasks that she found repellent. She had to remove evidence of Simpson’s drug use by dusting up the powder. She also had to schedule and reschedule his appointments with call girls. There was more: The assistant also said that Simpson nicknamed her “garbage brain.” The assistant eventually brought her allegations to an LA court, but they quickly threw her case out.
Simpson didn’t seem to have time for allegations from a mere assistant—he was on his way to superstardom. Or, at least he thought so.
Simpson also took himself to the casting couch. Well, at least he offered himself a role in Days of Thunder. He played a driver named Aldo, the rival of Cruise’s character. Once the daily’s were in, however, something became very clear: Simpson could not act. At all. But how do you tell the film’s producer that he’s stinking up his own film? Director Tony Scott had an idea—and it was pure evil.
Once Scott saw that Simpson couldn’t act, he knew he had to get him off the film. Allegedly, Scott purposefully shot Simpson’s scenes with odd angles and bad lighting. When they explained to Simpson why he ended up on a cutting room floor, they could show him that the scenes didn’t look good and it wasn’t his bad acting. Sheer genius.
Like most things with Don Simpson, however, there's another story about the end of his role in Days of Thunder.
One source on the set of Days of Thunder says it was someone else who ended Simpson’s career as an actor. This source says that Simpson’s part was a last minute inclusion in the film and Tom Cruise had had it with the constant rewrites. Cruise demanded that they cut Simpson’s scene, and when no one had the guts to tell Simpson, Cruise decided he’d do it himself. The source says that Cruise marched over to Simpson’s trailer and found the producer already in makeup and rehearsing his lines.
This didn’t stop Cruise, who delivered the bad news—which left Simpson devastated. Oh well, he'd probably forget about it within a day or two.
While Simpson was busy licking his wounds, things on the set of Days of Thunder couldn’t have been worse. They were still filming scenes during the month the movie was supposed to come out! Then, once they’d shot all of the principal photography, someone realized something awful. They’d forgotten to film a single scene where we actually see Cruise’s character cross the finish line. In a film about car racing. Whoops.
Simpson’s partying, laziness and general absence from the set were clearly having a very negative effect on the film.
While Simpson was making Days of Thunder, his ex-assistant at Paramount, Jeffrey Katzenberg, was making Dick Tracy for Disney. The two films were in an unofficial competition to be that summer’s biggest movie. Simpson was so sure that his film would win that he sent a fax to Katzenberg that simply read: “You can’t escape the thunder.” Katzenberg replied with his own fax: “You won’t believe how big my dick is.”
The competition was on, but who would win?
After all the arguments, indulgences, and wild parties that happened during the filming of Days of Thunder, what was the result? The critical reception was lukewarm, but we already know that producers like Simpson are more concerned about the box office anyway. This too was disappointing. It appeared at number 12 for money-making films of 1990. And what about Dick Tracy? Sitting pretty at 8th place. Neither was a sensation, but Simpson had definitely lost—and it was only going to get worse.
Paramount tallied what Simpson had spent, looked at the result, and then made a decision.
Again Paramount was unhappy with Simpson, and again the two parted ways. It was the second time that Simpson and Paramount had a disagreement and at the bottom of both was Simpson’s bad behavior. So what could Simpson and Bruckheimer do? They’d shown the film world that they were two party boys who, given all the money in the world, couldn't produce a hit movie.
Who would want to work with them? I’ll tell you who: Disney.
Simpson and Bruckheimer’s first film with Disney was 1994’s The Ref. Simpson had blamed the failure of Days of Thunder on Paramount, and The Ref was supposed to prove him right. Unfortunately for Simpson, The Ref was neither commercially nor artistically successful. Simpson had to face up to something: maybe Paramount had been right about how his excesses were turning him into a bad producer. But was it too late to right the ship?
The fact that The Ref was a cinematic failure weighed heavily on Simpson’s fragile ego. After the dust had settled, Simpson started dabbling in plastic surgery. A friend said that this included a few face lifts, a chin implant, and even placenta injections. Simpson seemed as if he wanted his old face to disappear—the one associated with films that flopped.
But this was just the beginning. No one was ready for what Don Simpson had planned next.
Most guests at Canyon Ranch Spa stay a few days, have a few spa treatments, and then go on home feeling renewed. It turned out that Simpson felt he needed to go deeper than that. He reportedly disappeared for months at the exclusive—and crazy expensive—spa center. He told friends that he was finding himself. What he was really doing, however, was much more radical: transitioning himself from Hollywood producer to Hollywood star.
Simpson really did want to be an actor—and having no talent wasn’t about to stop him. He decided that he needed to behave just like the actors he was constantly dealing with. So, he began making all kinds of very detailed demands—and going ballistic when they weren’t met. He screamed at—and sometimes fired—assistants for the following reasons: putting cream in his coffee when he was dieting, eating one of his bagels, buying the wrong mustard, renting a dirty limousine, and letting clouds obscure his view...from a private jet.
It was at hotels, however, where Simpson served up his most bizarre and demanding behavior.
Simpson was in Hawaii when he woke up in his hotel room and wanted a snack. Simpson called an assistant in LA and demanded that she order him room service. When the food arrived late, an outraged Simpson threw it into the hotel hallway. At another hotel, Simpson sent his precious black jeans out for laundering and they came back pressed and starched. Simpson lost his mind. Guests could hear his voice bellowing in the hotel: “Fluff and fold, fluff and fold.”
When a window in one hotel room wouldn’t open, Simpson took the problem into his own hands: he threw a chair through it. Could it be that Don Simpson was finally started to unravel?
Despite his diva behavior, Simpson still didn’t feel like a movie star. That’s when an odd idea occurred to him. While flying to a film festival in France, Simpson made a truly unhinged request: He wanted a mob of screaming fans to rush up to him at the airport. The assistant couldn’t make this happen, and later made the mistake of telling someone about Simpson’s ridiculous demand.
When Simpson found out, he fired her. Surprise surprise.
Though Simpson spent his days preparing for his rebirth as an actor, he filled his nights with something else. While most people knew that Simpson was heavily into call girls, not everyone knew what he was doing with them—for a while. But it's impossible to keep secrets this juicy in Hollywood: Simpson was into S&M. The real story, however, was how his penchant for rough play came into common knowledge.
In 1996, a book called You’ll Never Make Love In This Town Again hit the shelves. The writers were four ex-call girls and they wrote about their experiences with Hollywood celebrities—mostly in the bedroom. Many big names came up, and Don Simpson was one of them. Believe it or not, they didn't have much nice to say about him.
The word was out: Simpson was a major creep. But there was actually more to it than that.
While Simpson did like to pay for companionship, some say it actually was for, you know, companionship. One source said that Simpson actually loved to talk to the women he hired. He liked to know about books they were reading, and to hear stories about their families. But one nice fact doesn't make you a nice guy. In fact, Simpson’s friends could all tell that his lifestyle was leading him to a very dark and dangerous place.
Even while sinking deeper into his love of all things forbidden, Simpson’s career actually had an upturn. After the disappointing first film with Disney, Simpson and Bruckheimer got back in the saddle and made three hit films: Crimson Tide, Dangerous Minds, and Bad Boys. Three very different films with one thing in common: they made money. While Simpson’s dream of becoming an actor had seemed to disappear, at least he was making successful movies again.
But old bad habits were resurfacing.
Just like on Days of Thunder, Simpson seemed to be leaving all the heavy lifting to Bruckheimer. But this wasn’t totally true. Yes, Simpson seemed physically absent from the production of these films, he did, however, continue to give input remotely. Even when he was back at Canyon Ranch where he was dealing with his weight issues, Simpson answered every email and returned every phone call. Congrats Don, gold star!
But it made people wonder: If Simpson wasn’t physically present, what the heck was he doing?
Though he put on airs, Bruckheimer was pretty sure that Simpson was still living a reckless and dangerous lifestyle. Many of Bruckheimer’s friends and family tried to convince him to end it with Simpson. You see, Bruckheimer actually had a relatively normal home life. Simpson, on the other hand, was a loose cannon, and Bruckheimer was his only friend left.
Bruckheimer was reluctant to split with his friend; He worried what it would do to Simpson—or what Simpson would do to himself.
Actually, Simpson had one "friend" aside from Bruckheimer: Dr. Ammerman. Some say that Ammerman was helping Simpson with his drug problem, but nothing could be further from the truth. Ammerman was a wannabe writer who had a major addiction problem of his own. He wanted Simpson’s help in launching his career in movies. That sets the scene.
Then, on August 15, 1996 something awful happened at Simpson's Bel-Air home.
Dr. Ammerman ODed while staying with Simpson. But the debaucherous producer didn't call an ambulance. Allegedly, there was another doctor on Simpson’s premises who took control of the situation. One defendant in the lawsuit said that Dr. Nomi Frederick, or perhaps others at the home, administered morphine to help Ammerman.
Unfortunately, the morphine only made matters worse. Soon Ammerman’s lifeless body lay in the pool house.
Don Simpson's life finally hit rock bottom. Once the authorities got to his home, they discovered some pretty shocking things. The place resembled a prescription drug warehouse; it even had a home detox center! There was also a small armory filled with firearms of...questionable origin. And as a cherry on top, authorities also found out that the drug Ammerman had taken wasn’t his own: It was a prescription for Simpson.
Bruckheimer and Simpson’s partnership had already been on the rocks. Bruckheimer had had it with doing all the work while his friend partied like there was no tomorrow. The incident with Ammerman was the kick in the pants that Bruckheimer needed. On December 19, 1995, Simpson and Bruckheimer announced their split.
Friends and associates stood back and waited to see what the fragile Simpson would do next.
As 1995 passed into 1996, Simpson seemed to get over the horrible incident with Ammerman—and his split with Bruckheimer. In fact, he had plans to reinvent himself yet again. He spoke to his agent and lawyers about new movie ideas, and he was still considering acting. He’d put on considerable weight, but had a plan to go back to Canyon Ranch to take care of that. In short, Simpson was bouncing back—but fate had other ideas.
On January 19, 1996, Simpson had a five-hour phone conversation with a screenwriter named James Toback. The two men spoke about Toback’s script called Harvard Man and then, at around one am, Simpson fell asleep. The next morning, Simpson got up, went to the bathroom...and that was it. The autopsy said it was heart failure and the toxicology report was legendary.
Simpson had filled his body with antidepressants, sedatives, tranquilizers, and stimulants—and that was just the prescription medicine found in his body.
People who knew Simpson and his lifestyle weren’t that surprised at his passing. Authorities discovered a cache of pills in Simpson’s home. There were 2,200 pills lining his closet, and they were arranged perfectly in alphabetical order. Journalist Charles Fleming determined that Simpson’s pharmaceutical bill was around $60,000 per month.
Fleming went on to call Simpson a “supercharged and simple-minded creature.” Which kind of explains his success with Hollywood blockbuster movies.
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