Simpson was born in Seattle, Washington and grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. He attended West Anchorage High School, and went on to attend the University of Oregon. After graduation, he moved to San Francisco where he worked for a theatrical advertising agency and did public relations for the First International Erotic Film Festival.
In the early 1970s, Simpson moved to Los Angeles and got a job marketing exploitation films for Warner Bros. In 1973, Simpson got a job at Paramount Pictures. While there, he co-wrote the 1976 film Cannonball, in which he also had a small role. By 1981, he was named president of production at Paramount.
Simpson left Paramount in 1982 and forged a partnership with fellow producer Jerry Bruckheimer. The two would go on to produce some of the most financially successful films of the 1980s: Flashdance (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Top Gun (1986) and Beverly Hills Cop II (1987). In 1985 and again in 1988, he and his producing partner, Jerry Bruckheimer, were named Producers of the Year by the National Association of Theatre Owners.
In 1990, Simpson and Bruckheimer signed a five-year deal with Paramount worth a reported $300 million. However, the duo’s first film for Paramount, 1990’s Days of Thunder, received mixed reviews and did poorly at the box office. Simpson and Bruckheimer blamed Paramount for the film’s failure stating that Paramount rushed the planning and release of the film. Paramount blamed the film’s failure on Simpson and Bruckheimer’s overspending. The duo mutually parted with Paramount shortly thereafter.
In 1991, the two signed with Disney. Their first film for Disney, The Ref (1994), was a financial flop. Their following films, Dangerous Minds, Crimson Tide, and Bad Boys, all released in 1995, brought the pair back to success.
As Simpson and Bruckheimer’s success grew, so did Simpson’s reputation for being a brash “party animal”. He had been taking cocaine since the 1980s but his usage increased over the years. His excessive spending (in both films and his personal life) and erratic moods caused by his drug use were well known within the Hollywood industry by the 1990s. According to screenwriter James Toback, both David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg had attempted to get Simpson to go to rehab for his drug use.
Simpson refused to admit himself into a traditional rehab facility and instead employed Dr. Stephen Ammerman, a doctor from Pacific Palisades who had a history of drug abuse. Ammerman believed that in order for Simpson to quit drugs, he had to use other drugs to combat the effects of painful withdrawal symptoms. Ammerman designed a “dangerously unorthodox” detox program, which included the use of several medications (including morphine), for Simpson to do at home to kick his drug habit. On August 15, 1995, Ammerman was found dead in the pool house on Simpson’s estate. It was later determined that Ammerman died of an accidental overdose of cocaine,Valium, Venlafaxine and morphine.
Frustrated with Simpson’s escalating drug use and declining work, Jerry Bruckheimer terminated their partnership in December 1995. The two agreed to finish work on The Rock, which was already in production. The Rock was released after Simpson’s death and is dedicated to his memory.
Simpson was never married. His personal life has been documented in a number of sources. A chapter in the book You’ll Never Make Love in This Town Again (which describes four prostitutes‘ stories about their sexual encounters with Hollywood celebrities) discusses his preferences for S & M.
On January 19, 1996, Simpson was found dead in his bathroom of his Bel Air, Los Angeles home. His death was initially reported as “natural“. An autopsy and toxicology report later determined that Simpson had died of heart failure from combined drug intoxication (cocaine and prescription medications). At the time of his death, there were 21 different drugs in his system including antidepressants, stimulants, sedatives, and tranquilizers. In August 1996, investigative reporter Chuck Philips of The Los Angeles Times revealed that Simpson had been obtaining large quantities of prescription drugs from 15 different doctors and that police found 2,200 prescription pills in his home.
|1975||Aloha, Bobby and Rose||–||Writer, uncredited|
|1976||Cannonball||Assistant District Attorney||Writer
Credited as Donald C. Simpson
|1984||Beverly Hills Cop||–||Producer|
|1984||Thief of Hearts||–||Producer|
|1987||Beverly Hills Cop II||–||Producer|
|1990||Days of Thunder||Aldo Bennedetti||Producer|
|1994||The Ref||–||Executive producer|