Sam Simon is a name I’ve seen hundreds, possibly thousands, of times, written on an animated chalk board. As one of the co-creators of The Simpsons, he’s there on the credits, partly responsible for the greatest, most enduring, most subversive comedy series that’s ever been on television (see past columns). But now we have reached the end of Simon’s own story, one that’s every bit as quirky, interesting and edgy as an episode of the show itself.
Simon died on Sunday at the age of 59, finally succumbing to colon cancer more than two years after he was given just three months to live. Last year, Simon described having cancer as “the most amazing experience of my life”, and it’s true that, in having time to prepare for his death, he was able to use that time profitably, luxuriating in the support of his family and friends, and raising awareness of his passions, and the causes he supported.
And it’s this aspect – even more than his contribution to an American cultural institution – that Simon wanted as his legacy. Even though he left The Simpsons team after the show’s fourth series as a result of the breakdown of his relationship with co-creator Matt Groening, he had a lucrative royalty deal, which netted him more than $10m a year. It is thought he was worth $100m when he died, and his wish was that this fortune would go to animal rights charities, including the Sam Simon Foundation, an organisation he set up which rescues dogs from animal shelters and trains them to assist disabled veterans. In life, he helped shut down roadside zoos, he drew attention to the cruelty of dolphin-hunting, and he funded a dog rescue in Malibu. In death he has been fortunate enough to ensure that this work goes on.
“The thing about animals that speaks to me so much,” said Simon recently, “is that my passion for the animals and against animal abuse is based on the knowledge that these creatures which think and feel can’t speak for themselves, and they’re dependent on us for that.” A dog lover – he died in the company of his beloved Irish wolfhound – Simon’s impulses may have been informed by a sentimental attachment, but he was nothing if not a rounded individual. Through his foundation, he also financially supported a Los Angeles food bank that provided vegan food for hundreds of hard-pressed families.
Animal rights, particularly in its more extreme manifestations, arouses distinct passions, but what is undeniably admirable about Simon is the way he dealt with his own impending death. He was fortunate in not having to work and yet still having enormous pay checks rolling in, but his ability to find happiness in the most desperate of circumstances is an example to us all.
He told Time magazine last year that, even with a terminal illness, he was the happiest he’d ever been. “Somehow, I ended up surrounded by people that love me and take care of me and will do anything for me,” he said. “It’s a good feeling. That’s called happiness.”
This is a really thoughtful, interesting proposition. At a point when we have to accept an inexorable medical reality, when the day-to-day anxieties of existence subside, and when the material aspects of life have no meaning or significance, it may be possible to achieve true happiness in the things that really matter, the causes we believe in, the people, and the living creatures, we love, and love us back.
I don’t want this to sound like Thought For The Day, but there is something profound about the way that Sam Simon lived and died. His lasting fame may be as the man who made a cartoon series, but, for me, the lesson he leaves is that we shouldn’t wait until our own final credits are rolling before we pursue the things that really matter.