Two days after Simpson first called O'Dea, Dr. Stephen Ammerman, an emergency room physician and aspiring filmmaker who was reportedly treating Simpson for his drug dependency, died of an accidental drug overdose at the producer's house. After Ammerman's death, Simpson's drug use and attendant health and emotional problems took hold of him. Colleagues say that Bruckheimer became increasingly frustrated at his partner's lack of day-to-day participation in their company. What Simpson had called "a perfect marriage" was headed for the rocks. "I told Don, 'You must avoid taking any stimulant drugs. It's like playing with a loaded gun,'" says O'Dea. "I was trying to scare him. And he said, 'The company is breaking up, and I have to focus, but it's difficult for me. If I have to, I will do these drugs.'"
But the drugs were no help: On Dec. 20, Daily Variety announced that the producers were dissolving their partnership. The Rock, an action film now shooting with Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage, and Bad Boys II would be among the last projects to bear the Simpson/Bruckheimer credit.
Bruckheimer, who issued a statement expressing shock at the death of the man he said was "like a brother to me," declined to comment further. But Simpson's friends say that for the last month of his life, he swung between feelings of betrayal and determination to get his career on track; he talked not only of beginning his own company but of directing and even acting. "He was so excited. He had so many plans," says Simpson/Bruckheimer director of development Jennifer Krug. "'This new company,' he was saying, 'will be my next 20 years.'" But a friend speculates, "I think Don died of a broken heart. He was very hurt by the split up with Jerry. The partnership was all he had. It was his only family. There was no girlfriend, no marriage, no kids."
On the last night of Simpson's life, Toback spent six hours on the phone with the producer. Toback says that Simpson, who was at home, sounded more tired than usual but assured him that if Disney's Joe Roth wouldn't finance Toback's Harvard Man Simpson's first film without Bruckheimer he would turn to producer Steve Tisch, an old friend, for help. He told Toback he planned to inform Bruckheimer about his plans the next day. The two hung up around midnight. "He made a few references to drinking wine," Toback remembers. "But I think it was a combination of things. Wine, speed...I think he just forgot what he'd been taking, and it got hold of him and took him out."
The next afternoon, after Simpson failed to show up for a meeting, his assistant found the producer's body, a book by his side, in a bathroom at his home. As Simpson's friends prepared to come together at a private gathering at Mortons, many chose not to focus on his downfall. "Friends are dropping by and talking, doing what Don would have wanted, relating funny anecdotes," says director Michael Mann (Heat). "Whatever his private life was, I am sure of one thing," says director Joel Schumacher. "Don lived exactly the life he wanted to live. He had all the opportunities, all the intelligence, all the friends, all of the knowledge to have changed his life at any time. And he didn't want to."
(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Wells)