As he strode into a Santa Monica restaurant last spring, Don Simpson was the picture of a rightful heir returning to Hollywood's throne. Wearing a navy blue blazer, tan from a vacation in Hawaii, his ever-roller-coastering weight dropping toward a still-stocky low, the producer scarcely took a breath while he talked about his future and brushed off rumors about his past. Jerry Bruckheimer, his partner of 12 years, sat quietly beside him. For the first time in five years, Simpson's famous bluster had substance to back it up: That weekend, the duo's action comedy Bad Boys had opened in first place.
Simpson knew that every ticket sold would help erase the industry's less-than-favorable memory of the team's last few years, a period that had done nothing to offset Simpson's reputation as an overspender with a taste for excess, both on screen and off. Those who stopped by his table to praise him included people who, not long before, wouldn't have returned his calls. But with Bad Boys a success and Crimson Tide and Dangerous Minds to follow, he was justifiably optimistic. ''This is only the beginning, the beginning of the beginning,'' he said. ''It's not the middle, and it's certainly not the end.''
If his life had been a Simpson/Bruckheimer movie, like Flashdance, or Beverly Hills Cop, or Top Gun, Don Simpson would have made sure that the soundtrack music swelled and the credits started to roll. But Simpson's passion for fairy-tale endings belied his own long downward trajectory. When the 52-year-old producer was found dead at his Bel Air mansion on Jan. 19, few of his colleagues could claim to be surprised. While Simpson appears to have died of natural causes (autopsy results are pending), those who knew him had watched for years as he abused drugs and food, plummeting over and over into depression and physical crisis. Each new success seemed only to augment his unhappiness.
Don Simpson had flown far from his family's working-class roots in Anchorage when he arrived in L.A. more than 20 years ago. At first, he got along by snagging small-time acting gigs and betting on his tennis skills on the neighborhood courts. When he sold a screenplay called Cannonball, he began networking in Hollywood. Even in a city of would-be players, Simpson's shrewdness and brazen ambition set him apart. ''The first time I met Don,'' said Columbia TriStar chairman Mark Canton last year, ''he was asking how he could get a nice suit like I had at the screening of 'Rocky".''
When he interviewed at Paramount in 1975, Simpson didn't even own a sport coat; he borrowed a jacket from Bruckheimer, whom he'd met at a screening of The Harder They Come, and who was living with him after a divorce. Simpson got the job and eventually became president of production, earning a reputation for being brilliant and blunt.
In 1982, Simpson left Paramount and joined forces with Bruckheimer. Between the two of them, they made one extraordinary producer. Simpson had an innate ability to recognize what would sell a story and what would sink it and an explosive temper that made the mellower Bruckheimer the good cop. ''I watched my career go down the toilet the Saturday before we began shooting,'' says Bad Boys director Michael Bay, telling an all-too-familiar story. ''Don came in with 40 pages of dictation and slammed the script down and said, 'We're taking our names off this project,' and Jerry just said, 'Don't worry, we'll fix it.'''