Obituary: Don Simpson
Tuesday 23 January 1996
Simpson himself claimed that he was "recruited by Warner Bros in 1971 as marketing executive specialising in [the] youth market" (he had been in the company's San Francisco sales office) - which was translated by Julia Phillips in her 1991 memoir You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again as "Don Simpson has made a name for himself being the hot, happening young person on their staff; they count on him to relate in a meaningful fashion to films made by people under the age of 40."
It was the era when each studio was looking for its own Easy Rider. At Warners Simpson supervised the handling of Woodstock (1970) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). He also worked as a writer on Aloha, Bobby and Sue (1975), the story of a couple turning to crime while on the lam from the police, and Cannonball (1976), about a comic motor rally. Neither was very original, but neither cost a great deal of money.
It was not a good time for Simpson. "He hustled up tennis games on the neighbourhood courts when he needed a quick buck," recorded Entertainment Weekly. He was rescued by Paramount, and in 1980 became senior vice-president in charge of production. The company was on a roll with Airplane! (1980), the first Abrahams/ Zucker spoof movie, and Urban Cowboy (also 1980), which took John Travolta from the dance-halls of Saturday Night Fever to further his icon image in the modern West. Travolta had turned down American Gigolo to do it, which went to Richard Gere, who had a second big hit at Paramount with An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). This is a mixed batch of films, but it defined the then Paramount image as firmly as Hope and Crosby 40 years earlier: loud rock and a modern, gritty, anything- goes America.
It was in this climate that Simpson, unhappy behind a desk, formed a company with Jerry Bruckheimer to produce independently for the studio. Phillips had recalled Simpson as "a twinkly presence and a simian physiology: twinkly eyes, twinkly cheeks, even a twinkly beard that is close-shaven, so you can see it as an accoutrement, not a camouflage". Now she said, "It is hard to put this brusque, preoccupied, unhealthy-looking presence with good old twinkly-simian-I'm-a-triple- Scorpio Ach! Seempson".
The twinkle returned when Flashdance (1983) took over $36m in the US. Directed by Adrian Lyne, with Jennifer Beals and Michael Nouri, it was basically Saturday Night Fever redone in Pittsburgh from the girl's point of view.
When Michael Eisner, the new head of Paramount, was stopped for speeding, he demanded a story centred on the Los Angeles police. Simpson and Bruckheimer came up with Beverly Hills Cop (1984), directed by Martin Brest, which made a star of Eddie Murphy. Paramount's investment of $14m saw a return in the US alone of $108m. Beverly Hills Cop II (1987) cost $28m and took $80m. Meanwhile its director, Tony Scott, had had a gigantic hit with Top Gun (1986), another Simpson-Bruckheimer opus, about an officer and a gentleman, Tom Cruise, the sort who is free with four-letter words and wears thigh-hugging jeans. This was an $82m earner - the highest of the year.
With Top Gun Cruise replaced Murphy as America's highest-paid star and most desirable male. Cruise starred in Days of Thunder (1990), directed by Scott, which was supposed to do for racing cars what Top Gun had done for MIG fighters. Stung by criticism that they made only mindless action epics with high body-counts, the producers had hired the estimable Robert Towne for the script and Robert Duvall (who had just won an Oscar) to support Cruise. During the production Paramount signed Simpson and Bruckheimer to a new five-year deal, reputedly worth $300m and described by the trade press as a "visionary alliance". But the film didn't have an easy shoot. Badly in need of a big summer movie Paramount threw an extra $10m at it, to a total of around $65m. A domestic take of only $83m and contemptuous reviews resulted in an acrimonious end to the Paramount agreement.
Eisner, who had moved to Disney, signed them to a non-exclusive deal, and then waited three years as they sifted through the 35 projects they had brought with them. The Ref (1994), was a Home Alone variant (burglar gets bested by his victims) which few liked.
Simpson's temper was as notorious as his vanity (he was constantly tempted to act in his own films). His sex life got a going-over in 1995 when the convicted madam Heidi Fleiss described him as "not just a customer but a close friend", and another tell-all book, You'll Never Make Love in This Town Again, featured a call-girl called Tiffany who described what it was like with him. His intake of substances was famous - it led to Bruckheimer's breaking off the partnership last year. Simpson engaged a Dr Stephen Ammerman to help him detox, but the good doctor himself died of an overdose at Simpson's Bel Air mansion. When Simpson's body was found in his bathroom clutching a book and his glasses, the police said he died of natural causes. "Don Simpson was fighting drug addiction but girding for new ventures," said the Los Angeles Times.
His last year was, in other ways, spectacular. Dangerous Minds, the most serious film he and Bruckheimer had attempted - Michelle Pfeiffer as a schoolteacher - was 12th at the US box-office with a take of over $84m. Crimson Tide, another buddy-bonding action movie - Denzil Washington and Gene Hackman - took over $91m. Disney had put Bad Boys on hold when Simpson and Bruckheimer wanted to cast two black actors. Sony - Columbia - badly needing a success, agreed to go with Martin Lawrence and Will Smith as Miami cops chasing drug dealers. And that - a rehash of Beverly Hills Cop, which Simpson himself called "the same old dick love-story" - gave them three movies in the year's top 25 box-office successes.
Donald Simpson, film producer: born Anchorage, Alaska 29 October 1945; died Los Angeles 19 January 1996.
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