Don Simpson: Movie partnership made in hell

Don Simpson

Boscutti - Don Simpson - Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Producer Don Simpson at their partner desk at Paramount

New York Times article by Eric Pace on Hollywood’s most deranged producer Don Simpson and his partnership with super producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

Don Simpson and his longtime partner, Jerry Bruckheimer, formed a production company in 1983 and became known as the archetypal Hollywood producers of the 1980′s, when they were associated with a succession of Paramount Pictures hits. In 1985 and 1988, they were named Producers of the Year by the National Association of Theater Owners.

Around Hollywood, before their partnership broke up in recent months, the partners were referred to simply as Don and Jerry.

They started out together with a 1983 movie, “Flashdance,” about a welder turned ballet dancer, That won an Academy Award for its title song and became a hit.

They went on to produce blockbusters adhering to what has been called a high-testosterone, low-subtlety formula. One of them, “Top Gun” (1986), starred Tom Cruise as a recruit at an elite training school for Navy flyers. It became one of Paramount’s most profitable movies and contained yet another Oscar-winning song. They also produced the first two of the three “Beverly Hills Cop” movies.

But their big-budget 1990 movie, “Days of Thunder,” starring Mr. Cruise as a stock-car racer, proved a disappointment at the box office. It marked the start of surprisingly hard years for the partners, whose films reportedly reaped more than $2 billion in theater revenue and sales of record albums and videocassettes by 1991.

Mr. Bruckheimer, looking back in 1994 on his career with Mr. Simpson, said: “Our purview was too narrow. We pigeonholed ourselves into making these blockbuster movies, which we never set out to do in the first place.” He added that later, he and his partner had said to themselves, “Let’s just do what we started to do when we came here: make movies we like.”

The partners switched from Paramount to Walt Disney Studios and went on to produce films that included “Dangerous Minds,” starring Michelle Pfeiffer, which opened in August and has been a commercial success, though not a critical one. The movie is based on the life of a former marine, LouAnne Johnson, a teacher at a high school whose students are one misstep away from the welfare rolls, pregnancy or prison.

Another film — a bleak, low-budget comedy called “The Ref” — was No. 4 at the box office in mid-March 1994.

In the movie industry, Mr. Simpson was popular and well-respected. He was considered a brilliant developer and analyst of scripts, with a knack for zeroing in on a flaw in a screenplay.

His clothes were casual, his speech was quick and his moods were volatile. He fought a weight problem with repeated slimming programs. Over the years, he acquired a reputation for high living and personal excesses. He loved parties, and in Julia Phillips’s 1990 book about Hollywood, “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again” (Random House), he was depicted as abusing drugs.

But in a 1994 interview, Mr. Simpson said with a laugh, “The days of drugs, sex and rock-and-roll are long over — at least they are for us old guys.”

He was born in Seattle to relatively poor, sternly religious parents. He grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and received a degree in 1966 from the University of Oregon, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

He arrived in Hollywood early in the 1970′s, writing screenplays and working for Warner Brothers. He became an executive at Paramount in 1975 and rose to be its president for worldwide production from 1981 to 1983.

In 1988, he and Mr. Bruckheimer signed a lucrative multifilm production deal with Paramount. But during the filming of “Days of Thunder,” there were reports of out-of-control behavior and spending, which Mr. Simpson and Mr. Bruckheimer denied. Nonetheless, Paramount insisted that the partners renegotiate the 1988 deal — and the pair moved on to Disney.

Other films produced or co-produced by Mr. Simpson include “American Gigolo (1980), “Urban Cowboy” (1980), “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982), “Thief of Hearts” (1984), “Crimson Tide” (1995) and “Bad Boys.”

He is survived by his parents, Russ and June, and a brother, Larry.

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