Fade to Black

updated 02/05/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/05/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

DON SIMPSON WAS PUMPED, AND as he talked animatedly into the night of Jan. 18 with screenwriter James Toback about their planned film project, Harvard Man, the story of an Ivy League undergrad who fixes a college basketball game, his longtime friend was encouraged. The man on the phone was vintage Simpson—the larger-than-life producer who, with former partner Jerry Bruckheimer, had built a fortune with such high-octane '80s hits as Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop I and II and Top Gun. Gone, it seemed, was the Simpson of the past several months, whom depression had turned into a virtual recluse at his lavish Bel Air home. "Don sounded like an evangelist," Toback recalls. "He was exuberant."

A few hours later, the 52-year-old producer was dead; an assistant found his body sprawled on Simpson's bathroom floor. Although autopsy results won't be available for several days, friends were saddened but not surprised by the news. Whether he was dealing with Heidi Fleiss or his drug supplier, Simpson reveled in excess. "He felt he was immortal," says Tom Pollack, vice chairman at the MCA movie group and a longtime Simpson pal. "Don pushed the envelope always, and the envelope pushed back."

Simpson's rebelliousness, friends say, seemed rooted in his strict Christian fundamentalist upbringing as the eldest son of a hunting guide in Anchorage. "It drove his excesses," says director Paul Schrader. "He spent a good part of his life trying to burn that world." Looking back, Simpson himself once mused, "I grew up with no magic in my life. All I wanted to be was a magician. Movies permit me that."

After graduating from the University of Oregon in 1967 with a journalism degree, Simpson moved to L.A. and eventually took a job in the Warner Bros, marketing department. While rooming with Bruckheimer, whom he had met through a mutual friend, producer Steve Tisch, Simpson wrote screenplays, including 1976's Cannonball. But Simpson's real magic seemed to lie elsewhere. Hired as a development assistant at Paramount in 1976, he rose to production president in five years.

In 1983, he formed a production company with the buttoned-down Bruckheimer. "Jerry brought the discipline of producing," Tisch explains. The volatile Simpson, he says, "brought the lack of discipline of the dreamer." With matching black Ferraris that sat side by side outside their office on the Paramount lot, the pair proceeded to make a string of pictures that mirrored the mood of the go-go decade. Together, Flashdance, the first two Beverly Hills Cop films and Top Gun grossed $1.4 billion worldwide, each partner pocketing $10 million from Gun alone.

Unfortunately, money fueled the fires that consumed Simpson. "The drug use was always there," Schrader says. "But once the megahits started, his impulses became relatively unrestrained." Schrader says Simpson "was into forms of bondage and pain," and that the producer liked to share his fantasies, opening up to receptive listeners "like a toilet seat." Fleiss, whose call-girl operation catered to the stars, called Simpson "not just a customer but a close friend." Simpson offered no apologies. "You don't come to Hollywood to get married," he once said. "All I need is room service, maids and a bank account."

When the Tom Cruise vehicle Days of Thunder stalled at the box office in 1990, Simpson and Bruckheimer got a taste of serious trouble. As former colleagues turned their backs on the duo, "they experienced how destructive people are in this town," Tisch says. "Don was haunted by that at times." It took the partners several years, but they bounced back in 1995 with Bad Boys, followed by Crimson Tide and Dangerous Minds.

Despite his renewed professional success, Simpson was losing the battle with drugs. Last summer he apparently tried to detox at home with the help of his physician and friend, Stephen Ammerman, 44. But in August the doctor himself died of a drug overdose in Simpson's pool house, deepening the producer's depression. Friends urged Simpson to enter some kind of rehab program but he resisted, believing, according to Toback, "that he knew how to handle his life." Then, just before Christmas, with The Rock, starring Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage, in production for a summer release, and more than 40 other movies in development, the pair announced that their golden partnership was over.

With the new year, Simpson seemed eager for a fresh start, working on a script for Bad Boys II and discussing a production deal with Disney, but the clock ran out. He surely would have claimed, credibly or not, to have no regrets. "There's very little I haven't done," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. "And I'm sorry for none of it."

MICHAEL ARKUSH and F. X. FEENEY in Los Angeles

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