Sam Simon, the acclaimed writer, director and producer who with James L. Brooks and Matt Groening developed the groundbreaking Fox TV series The Simpsons, has died. He was 59.
His death on Sunday at his home in Pacific Palisades was confirmed by his agent, Andy Patman. The nine-time Emmy winner and philanthropist was diagnosed with colon cancer in late 2012 and in May 2013 confirmed during a WTF with Marc Maron podcast that he had been given three to six months to live. He added that he planned to donate the bulk of his fortune to charity, largely through his Malibu-based Sam Simon Foundation, which feeds vegan fare to hungry families, and rescues stray and abused dogs.
Although Simon left The Simpsons in 1993, he held on to an executive producer title that earned him tens of millions of dollars a year. In the decades that followed his exit, Simon looked for ways to distance himself from the television industry, which he told Morley Safer during a 60 Minutes segment in 2007, turned him into a “monster.”
“I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. Not just talking about The Simpsons. I would say every show I’ve ever worked on ... I go crazy. I hate myself,” he said, explaining why he left the seminal animated series. Groening once said that Simon was “brilliantly funny and one of the smartest writers” he had ever worked with,” but that he could also be “unpleasant and mentally unbalanced.” The latter characterisation was repeated in saltier language by comedian George Carlin about Simon’s post-Simpsons role as co-creator and show runner of The George Carlin Show.
Nonetheless, Simon was instrumental in developing the wry sensibility that catapulted The Simpsons to ratings gold. With 530 episodes and counting, the show, which first aired in 1989, is currently the longest-running American sitcom in history. It’s beloved for its dark brand of satire, which tackles pop-culture absurdities and the complexities of modern life with razor-sharp wit.
After a few seasons, its eponymous family (Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie) became regulars in living rooms across the globe, and their popularity helped spawn the adult-animation revolution of the 1990s and 2000s.
Shows like Beavis & Butt-head, King of the Hill, South Park, Futurama and Family Guy followed, and suddenly cartoons were no longer just for kids on Saturday mornings. “Sam Simon, from Taxi to The Simpsons, was a one-man comedy revolution,” Brooks said in a statement. “He lived ahead of the curve. The Simpsons luckily bears his mark.”
Groening added on Monday in a statement, “We will miss Sam’s phenomenal talents, sharp intelligence, and sly sense of humour. He is gone from our industry too soon.”
Born in Los Angeles on June 6, 1955, Samuel Simon attended Beverly Hills High School and later went to Stanford University, where he studied psychology.
He knew a thing or two about Saturday morning cartoons, though, having cut his teeth on animation as a storyboard artist and writer for Filmation Studios in Reseda. He took the job after graduating from college in 1977, and worked on animated shows including The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.
Simon, however, wasn’t a fan of the light, kid-oriented fare he made. In a 1990 interview with the Toronto Star he refused to name the shows and dismissed them as “forgettable.” At the time Simon was 33 and had been successful in the world of TV for nearly a decade. At 23 he had been hired as a show runner for the ABC sitcom Taxi, which starred Judd Hirsch and Danny DeVito and was co-created by James L. Brooks.
It was Brooks who approached Simon with the idea of developing The Simpsons into a full-blown series. A primitive version of the show had been running since 1987 as a series of shorts during The Tracey Ullman Show. Groening had conceived the show and created its five main characters. Simon worked alongside Brooks and Groening as an executive producer and show runner for the first two seasons. He was also the show’s creative supervisor for its first four seasons, and is credited with assembling and leading its first team of writers.
After leaving The Simpsons and parting ways with Carlin, Simon worked as a director on shows including Men Behaving Badly, Friends and The Drew Carey Show. He also started working in radio with Howard Stern, eventually becoming a regular writer and participant on Stern’s show.
Simon was married twice, once to the actress Jennifer Tilly, and later to Playboy playmate Jami Ferrell. Both marriages ended in divorce, and neither resulted in children.
Simon and Tilly remained friends after their split, even appearing in celebrity poker tournaments together. Simon was an avid poker player and competed in the World Series of Poker every year from 2007 to 2011.
His love of sports did not stop with cards. He worked as a manager for heavyweight boxer Lamon Brewster from the late 1990s until Brewster won the WBO heavyweight championship in a 2004 fight with Wladimir Klitschko, which Simon once said was one of the best moments of his life.
But it was in philanthropy that Simon found his true calling. In 2002 he created the Sam Simon Foundation, which is on six acres in Malibu, and rescues and retrains stray and abused dogs. In 2011 he expanded his foundation to include the Feeding Families programme, which delivers vegan food to 200 needy families a day.
“Everything the Sam Simon Foundation does is supposed to help dogs and people,” Simon told the Hollywood Reporter in 2013. “The truth is, I have more money than I’m interested in spending. Everyone in my family is taken care of. And I enjoy this.”