Before Jerry Bruckheimer became the stand-alone superstar brand he is today, he was partnered in another superstar brand known as Simpson-Bruckheimer Films. The late Don Simpson and Jerry go way back. The former roommates came up through the trenches together and eventually produced a crazy string of culture-changing hits—from Flashdance to Top Gun to Beverly Hills Cop. As a duo they were unstoppable at the box office.
One would’ve thought I was a perfect fit to write for them. Well, a few of my agents thought as much. So from time to time they’d bring my name up to their development team, headed by a revolving door of former studio execs. Yes, the job was demanding as were both Don and Jerry. But the producing team’s success was so enormous that their shingle acted as a launching pad for one executive after another, sending most to bigger and better gigs.
I recall having lunch with one of those executives. Let’s call him Mr. Beanpole.
“I really like your stuff,” said Mr. Beanpole. “But I’m not sure you’re quite the fit for something at Simpson-Bruckheimer.”
“Why so?” I asked.
“You and Don,” he said. “I can’t see the two of you in a room together.”
“I’ve heard he’s pretty tough,” I said. “But I have a pretty thick skin.”
“I’m sure you do,” said Mr. Beanpole. “But he chews writers up and spits them out. You’re a really good writer. I don’t know that you’re fast on your feet though.”
“Never know unless you give me a chance.”
“Someday,” he said. “But if I serve you up and you’re not right, it’s my ass that gets kicked.”
Mr. Beanpole refused to introduce me to Don.
Yes. Don did have a bit of a rep. As both a maverick and certified son-of-a-bitch. I’d heard stories from Danny Petrie who’d written Beverly Hills Cop. Don’s brain worked at warp speed and he didn’t suffer anyone who couldn’t work without a seatbelt.
A few years later, I was summoned to the Paramount lot and the offices of Simpson-Bruckheimer. Their current president of development was somebody I knew from his days at another studio. A fan of my work. I was excited that I’d have a chance to finally break through the Simpson-Bruckheimer ceiling.
The exec – who I’ll call Mr. Weekend Warrior – wanted to talk to me about a book adaptation. We met in his office. I listened to his pitch on a sophisticated thriller. I loved the concept for a movie, then had just one comment.
“Not the usual Simpson-Bruckheimer fare,” I said.
“Oh, it’s not for Simpson-Bruckheimer,” said Mr. Weekend Warrior. “They already passed on the book. My contract is up in a couple of months and I wanted to know if you’ll partner with me on the book.”
“So,” I said just confirming. “This isn’t about writing a Simpson-Bruckheimer movie.”
“Hell no,” said Mr. Weekend Warrior. “You and Don Simpson? That’s not a combo anybody wants to see.”
“Heard that once before,” I said.
“You are way too combative. Don needs a writer who will listen and go away and come back with gold.”
“Feel like I’m being painted with the wrong brush,” I defended.
“Trust me. A gig here is not what you want. You and Don would be bad cocktail.”
“Has he ever read me?”
“Maybe,” said Mr. Weekend Warrior. “You want me to slip him something of yours?”
“Seems fair enough.”
“Fine. But I’m doing it only because I’m on my way out. Otherwise, I might get crucified.”
“You like me,” I said. “You want to work with me. But you’re sure your boss won’t?”
“Trust me. Don’s an acquired taste.”
A month later I received a call from Mr. Weekend Warrior.
“Do you want the good news or the bad news?” he asked.
“Gimme good news,” answered the eternal optimist in me.
“Okay,” said Mr. Weekend Warrior. “Remember that book I gave you?”
“The agent that reps it says it’s mine to take to the town.”
“Good for you,” I said. “So what’s the bad news?”
“I gave Don your writing sample and he said – and I quote – ‘this guy can’t write.’”
After a beat, I broke out laughing.
“No. Seriously,” said Mr. Weekend Warrior. “That’s what he said.”
“I don’t doubt it,” I concurred.
In a town where “yes” means “no,” “maybe” means “not-on-your-life,” and “I love your work” means “go fuck yourself,” my laughter meant I was merely appreciating Don Simpson’s candor. So what if he says I can’t write. At least he’s firm and brutally honest. Refreshingly so.
Fast forward a couple of years. I’d just walked out of Jerry Bruckheimer’s office after having agreed to do the production rewrite on Simpson-Bruckheimer’s buddy cop movie, Bad Boys. I was a last-minute emergency hire and, from what I could tell, Don Simpson wasn’t anywhere in sight.
“So I’m a Jerry hire,” I said to their current production prez, Lucas Foster.
“Mine and Jerry’s,” Lucas corrected.
“So where’s Don on this?” I asked.
“Don is out of town.”
“So he doesn’t have a clue I’m on the movie.”
“No,” said Lucas. “Why? Is that an issue?”
“For you, maybe. Your predecessors used to say that Don and I would make a lousy cocktail.”
“Well, you’re not their call anymore. It’s mine and Jerry’s.”
“Don said I couldn’t write. And that’s a quote.”
“Well, you can and you are,” said Lucas. “And what Don doesn’t know, well, Don doesn’t know.”
Less than a week later I was off to hot and sticky Miami, shacked up at the old Biltmore and cranking script out of a corner office in an abandoned teleconferencing center-turned-production office. Then late one day, a ripple rumbled through the space. Don Simpson had landed and would soon be joining the show. For the first time on the picture, Lucas appeared nervous.
“I thought he was staying in L.A.,” I said. “Supervising Crimson Tide, right?”
“You and everyone else,” he said. “Guess twelve weeks in South Beach was too much to resist.”
“Should I be worried?” I asked him.
“You’re an independent hire,” he replied. “You get paid no matter if he fires you or not. I’m the one who should worry. It’s my ass on the line.”
“Think I’ve heard that one before,” I said.
“Listen,” said Lucas. “I dunno how Don’s gonna be. Dunno if he’s gonna love you or hate you. But there’s nothin’ either of us can do about it now.”
Evening fell and darkness blanketed the hotel. I recall sitting in my office with the lights down low, the words I was writing blinking back at me, each balky phrase screaming to be polished into a better joke. I heard voices approaching. Before I knew it, my doorframe was filled with a block-of-a-man in a three-thousand-dollar suit. Flanked by both Jerry and Lucas, I knew this was the one and only Don Simpson.
“Doug?” intro’d Jerry. “This is Don Simpson.”
I was already on my feet, extending my hand toward the mogul. Our hands clasped. And I was looking Don in the eye, ready to offer my own greeting. I saw his steely headlamps tilt curiously upward toward the ceiling above my computer.
“Nice to meet you, sir,” I found myself saying.
“You, too,” said Don, his gaze still fixed at thirty-two degrees above my scalp line.
I looked up, realizing Don was momentarily mesmerized by the dozen or so number two pencils impaled in the acoustic tiles.
“Oh, that,” I said. “Yeah. Old habit. I like to sharpen a box of pencils, lean back, and you know, see if I can stick ‘em all.”
“Uh huh,” said the producer. “Right.”
With that, he turned, gestured to Jerry and they moved on.
Nice first impression, moron, I said to myself.
I don’t think I got much more work done that night. It was an odd encounter which I was certain I’d failed at. My guess was that I only had a matter of days – if that – before all those predictions about Don and I mixing like fuel oil and pink lemonade were to come true.
Lucas eventually returned, wide grin stuck on his face.
“He loved you,” said Lucas.
“He what?” I asked.
“Well, maybe not loved. He liked you a lot.”
“What?” I asked, shocked. “And how the hell could he tell anything about me? Because of the pencils in the ceiling tiles?”
“Because you called him, “sir,” said Lucas. “He really appreciated that.”
“Jeez,” I said. “That’s just how I was raised.”
“Don’t matter. You made a great impression. Think Don’s gonna be good with you.”
For the record, Lucas was correct. Don was good with me. And I with him. In fact, after all the hard tales I’d heard about writers being chewed up by the maverick, I got along with the man and greatly enjoyed what an amazingly keen mind he possessed.
In fact, I got along so well with him he let me write him out of the movie. But that’s another story.
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