Twenty-five years ago today, the hugely successful Top Gun premiered. Today we look back on one of its producers, the late Don Simpson, whose career both symbolized and helped define 1980s Hollywood.
Donald Clarence Simpson had an unlikely start for a Hollywood producer. Born in Seattle to strict Fundamentalist parents, he grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and later attended college at University of Oregon. After graduating, he headed to San Francisco, landing his first film-related job: marketing a program billed as “The First International Erotic Film Festival.”
Simpson soon moved to Hollywood and was hired by Warner Brothers to help market pictures targeted at teenagers. In 1973 he was lured away by Paramount, then under the leadership of legendary producer Robert Evans (at Paramount, Simpson would also labor under bigwigs Barry Diller and Michael Eisner). An aspiring actor and writer, Simpson did both for 1976’s Cannonball!, before eventually becoming vice president of production at Paramount.
But studio brass, worried about his outsized personality – and well-known cocaine abuse – fired him in 1982. That didn’t stop them from signing a sweetheart distribution deal with Simpson when he announced his production partnership with his friend Jerry Bruckheimer in 1983. Over the years, Simpson and Bruckheimer would fall into good cop, bad cop roles – Simpson the big idea guy and tantrum-throwing egomaniac, Bruckheimer more conservative, practical and diplomatic. Their first film together was Flashdance, which grossed $95 million in the U.S. alone. In a sign of things to come, its soundtrack also sold 700,000 copies in its first two weeks of release.
It was the first in a string of charged Simpson-Bruckheimer productions as subtle as the dual lightning bolts that formed their company logo. Their films typically received mixed critical reactions but made huge money not just at the multiplex but in record stores too, ushering in the most profitable period for the movie soundtrack, a trend Simpson is largely given credit for engineering. Cited as the first Hollywood producer to really understand MTV (Flashdance was reputedly first pitched as “MTV on the big screen”), he used music videos as a crucial marketing component for his films.
He also had a great instinct for story.
“Simpson had this very strong conviction that to have a hit movie, the central character, before triumphing – and he had to triumph – must first be reduced, psychologically, and almost destroyed, before the comeback," said screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, who worked with Simpson on Flashdance. Producer Lynda Obst (The Fisher King, Sleepless in Seattle), goes one step further. "He created the three-act structure that we all use, the one that Robert McKee and Syd Field use and take credit for," she told Entertainment Weekly. "Don made up this logarithm. There is the hot first act with an exciting incident, and the second act with the crisis and the dark bad moments in which our hero is challenged, and the third act with the triumphant moment and the redemption and the freeze-frame ending."
The next big Simpson-Bruckheimer film, Beverly Hills Cop, was a smash hit, becoming the highest grossing R-rated film until 2004’s Passion of the Christ (later eclipsed by 2009’s The Hangover).
But their biggest film was yet to come.
To back up a little – while at Paramount, Simpson had approached the U.S. military about cooperating on a film he was overseeing called An Officer and a Gentleman. The military, sick of the way it was routinely depicted onscreen in the late '70s and early '80s, refused to allow him any special access, only to see An Officer and A Gentlemen show the military in a positive light. Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, when it was approached by two successful producers looking to make a movie about “rock and roll rebels in fighter jets,” it granted them unprecedented access, giving them use of many authentic F-14 and VF-51 Screaming Eagle fighter jets and letting them film at a decommissioned Naval training center.
The result was the era-defining Top Gun, a loud, adrenaline-fueled, amusement park ride of a movie that would gross over $300 million dollars worldwide, make Tom Cruise a global movie star and help increase Navy enlistment 500 percent in the years following its release.
But just as the movie helped define the '80s, Don Simpson’s lifestyle became increasingly emblematic of the era’s excesses. His drug use was legendary, he was an unapologetic womanizer (who even showed up in the records of notorious Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss) and he was the subject of a suit by a former employee who claimed he was verbally abusive and forced her to view pornographic materials in the workplace. Simpson had a number of plastic surgeries, started abusing prescription drugs and saw his weight fluctuate wildly as he went on overeating binges and crash diets.
When 1990’s Days of Thunder (“Top Gun with racecars”) underperformed, it was the beginning of the end of the Simpson-Bruckheimer partnership. They would make a few more successful films (The Rock, Dangerous Minds) but with a $60,000-a-month chemical dependency, Simpson was increasingly a producer in name only. Bruckheimer tried to get him help, arranging for detox and rehab stints, but nothing worked. The situation worsened when Simpson’s personal physician died of a drug overdose at Simpson’s home. Not long after, Bruckheimer dissolved their producing partnership.
When Simpson died of a prescription drug overdose on January 19, 1996, nobody in Hollywood was shocked. When first told, a saddened Michael Eisner said he’d been expecting the bad news for the last 20 years. Simpson’s friends gathered at Morton’s to swap stories of the outsized producer who made outsized movies.
“Don lived exactly the life he wanted to live," director Joel Schumacher told Entertainment Weekly. "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."