Don and Jerry’s Blue Period : They Were the Ultimate Hollywood Success Story. But in Tinseltown, Their Failure Was an Even Better Yarn.

<i> Los Angeles-based Richard Natale writes about the entertainment industry. His last piece for this magazine was "Rockin' Robin," about actor Robin Williams. </i>

“I know the headline to this story already,” says producer Don Simpson, with a Cheshire grin. “ ‘Whatever Happened to the Bad Boys?’ ”

Not a bad place to start.

Simpson and his partner, Jerry Bruckheimer, were the paradigmatic producers of the 1980s, as much a fixture of the gaudy decade’s legend and lore as Samuel Goldwyn was during Hollywood’s golden era. They were the ultimate players at their most successful and excessive. They molded overblown blockbusters like “Top Gun” and “Beverly Hills Cop” that reaped cash by the truckload, which they spent by the bushelful and bragged about to everyone.

How bad were the bad boys? They were baaaad! Simpson and Bruckheimer were so integral to Paramount Pictures’ profit margin that the studio spent a reported $6 million a year to fund their eponymous production company, which included a luxury office and primo parking spaces for their racy black cars. Black was their signature color--leather furniture, expensive jackets for the crew. For a time, Simpson wore black Levi 501s only until the first washing. He had scores of custom-made cowboy boots and worked on his biceps and his perma-tan at Arizona’s exclusive Canyon Ranch. Simpson was preeminently visible in Hollywood, A-list all the way--restaurants, parties, premieres--the de rigueur bombshell on his arm. Bruckheimer, the silent partner, enjoyed himself, from his premium perch at L.A. Kings hockey games, talking shop with other movie machers .

How good were the bad boys? Even their detractors admit that they were the best, producing four of the most profitable movies of the decade--”Flashdance,” “Beverly Hills Cop” (and its sequel) and “Top Gun,” cockeyed optimist epics all, in which style was substance and audiences left the theater buzzing from adrenaline rushes. Cumulatively, the quartet, which cost less than $100 million to make, grossed about $1.4 billion worldwide. The producers became fantastically rich (reportedly in excess of $10 million apiece from “Top Gun” alone) and inordinately famous (via some blatant self-promotion). Although today the business has shifted toward more character-oriented pieces, Simpson and Bruckheimer had the ‘80s pegged.


“They were strong producers in an era when Hollywood was producer driven,” says Michael London, a senior executive at 20th Century Fox, who worked for the pair in the mid-’80s. And when it came time to renew their contract, Paramount signed them to an unprecedented deal in 1988, promising more than $300 million in spending money for five films of their choice as well as a substantial cut of the gross receipts from the first dollar earned, a reward enjoyed by only a few Hollywood stars. The banns were announced in showy “visionary alliance” ads not just in the trades, but also in papers like the New York Times and USA Today. Forget the subsequent debate over who demanded the hyperbolic ads, the studio or Simpson and Bruckheimer. We’re all adults here.

The marriage soured after the difficult labor and birth of its first child, “Days of Thunder,” in 1990. The studio wanted “Top Gun” on wheels. It got a wildly careening vehicle that cost almost as much as the producers’ previous films combined, and it arrived just as Hollywood was 12-stepping its way back to fiscal sobriety. Though “Days” grossed a respectable $170 million worldwide, it didn’t deliver the huge profits the suddenly cost-sensitive Paramount executives demanded from the visionary alliance.

A year earlier, Simpson and Bruckheimer had been labeled “perfectionists.” Now they were “out of control.” Reports that the producers and actor Tom Cruise had ordered a $1-million private gym to be built on the “Days” Florida location--which they deny--didn’t help matters, nor did a female receptionist’s $5-million emotional distress lawsuit, replete with allegations of office drug use and pornography. Paramount chairman Frank Mancuso demanded that they renegotiate their profit participation. Simpson and Bruckheimer loudly requested to be let out of their contract. After some quibbling, Mancuso agreed.

But they were not homeless for long. The dynamic duo were soon berthed at Walt Disney Studios with a five-year deal much like the one at Paramount, except that they were not exclusive to the studio and their profit participation began only after Disney had recouped its investment, studio sources say.

Now, 2 1/2 years later, they’ve yet to produce a film. “Bad Boys,” the planned comedy drama, fell apart in December when star Dana Carvey quit, citing script differences. At last sighting, Simpson and Bruckheimer were impatiently awaiting scripts on 17 projects, fending off rumors of nervous breakdowns, drug use, dissolution of the Disney alliance and even their decade-long partnership. They recently signed on with Creative Artists Agency “to help break the logjam,” according to CAA agent Robert Bookman, and are working for less than their normal rate supervising a modest Disney project, “The Ref.”

Simpson and Bruckheimer are not the first producers to take a long hiatus. But then not every producer team was as heralded and as kowtowed to as they were. When they were on top of the heap, they sparked great envy and enmity. As they try to regroup, Hollywood seems to be daring them to make a comeback, suggesting they were crippled by their own success and hubris.


So, is this the end of the bad boys or just a lull?

“In Hollywood, it’s either I love it or I hate it. It’s the best script I ever read, it’s toilet paper. He’s a great guy, he’s a total schmuck. Nothing allows for a moderate response.” --SCREENWRITER JAMES TOBACK (“BUGSY”)

Decades are deceiving. The ‘80s were concentrated in a five-year span from 1982 to 1987, post-recession and pre-Wall Street crash, the period during which Simpson and Bruckheimer produced their four big hits, and one minor disappointment, “Thief of Hearts.” During that era, no other studio’s films were as consistently identifiable--or as successful--as Paramount’s. The studio produced Oscar winners like “Ordinary People” but it’s remembered for trendy, kinetic, popcorn entertainment like “Flashdance” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” in which character and nuance took a back seat to breathless momentum, and rugged individualism reigned. Simpson and Bruckheimer were masters of that style. Simpson helped create it when he headed production at Paramount (along with then senior executives Michael Eisner and Barry Diller), launching such rebel-yell romances as “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

“Don invented the high-concept formula for the ‘80s--announce the big idea in the first act and resolve in the next two acts, often with a contest,” says “Fisher King” producer Lynda Obst, who brought them a script called “Flashdance.” “All (Simpson’s) successes are built on that formula.” “Beverly Hills Cop” was developed from a stock action script in which Sylvester Stallone was to have starred; transformed, it became the biggest-grossing comedy ever until “Home Alone,” making Eddie Murphy a superstar. Bruckheimer and Simpson brought the studio one of its biggest worldwide hits (nearly $300 million), “Top Gun,” which boosted Cruise over the top.

Their critics contend they created only one film from scratch, “Top Gun,” though Simpson insists that “Cop” was his idea. Even if the original tunes weren’t all theirs, they made them sing after drastic re-orchestration--”Cop” (37 script drafts) and “Top Gun” (19 drafts). “We obsess,” says Simpson carefully, rolling words around in his mouth like marbles. “We’re not anal, but we’re certainly not loose in our approach.”

London, the 20th Century Fox executive agrees. “Their imprint was on everything they made.” And they knew it. And they wanted credit for it. In print. In large letters. “Don was a big advocate (of courting the press),” says Bruckheimer, “because he felt, and he was right, that unless you say, ‘I made this movie,’ it will be Paramount’s ‘Top Gun.’ It will be a studio movie.”

And so he did, provoking antagonism in a town severely ambivalent about success. “The great paradox in Hollywood is that there’s a tremendous need for self-inflation and promotion,” says Toback, himself no alien to controversy. “It’s respected, too. At the same time, it’s considered garish and tasteless.”

But Dawn Steel, producer and former Columbia studio chief, understands. “Reviewers don’t mention producers. For them not to be considered filmmakers was frustrating,” she says. “So they courted publicity. It backfired.”

“People in this business are driven and mono-maniacal. Well-rounded individuals live in Dubuque, Iowa.” --WRITER/PRODUCER/DIRECTOR MICHAEL MANN (“THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS”)

Simpson and Bruckheimer became the Bonnie and Clyde of the movie business. They didn’t rob banks. But they talked like outlaws, to the press. Mostly Simpson. Especially Simpson--whom his partner likens to a walking billboard with a target on it. In a 1984 Times article, they were posed like another pair of bandidos , Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

“Don likes that bad boy image, or rather the gestalt of a bad boy,” says megaproducer David Geffen, who produced the soundtrack on “Days of Thunder.” “That’s part of his legend.”

Mad-bad-and-dangerous-to-know gossip adheres to Simpson like lint to velvet. A few years back a rumor circulated that he’d gone deep cover because there was a hit out on him for dating a Mafioso’s girlfriend. Even now, seated safely in the soothing warm woods of his neighborhood haunt, the Hotel Bel-Air bar, when he is asked about the story, he says, “next question,” and uncharacteristically casts his eyes downward. His usual tough-guy body language momentarily goes soft. But he soon recovers, laughs infectiously and shakes the question out of his head. He extends his leg and crosses his cowboy boots and is once again imperturbable.

“Let’s face it, Don is not the Wally Cox of movie producers,” says Art Linson, who produced “This Boy’s Life.” “He’s never been modest. But he’s always been smart.”

Part of it is braggadocio. “Don has never been accused of not having enough testosterone,” says Bruckheimer. And part is pure exhibitionism. Simpson admits he likes to hear words and phrases collide in midair--even if they explode in his face or come back to haunt him years later like the time he bragged to a reporter: “I’ll slit someone’s wrist or throat in two seconds if they f--- with me.”

“What hurt Don was his own quotes,” says one top agent, “especially after the Paramount deal. Nobody else had that deal and the nature of it incited people to attack. Don’s the producer’s version of Hollywood Schadenfreude .”

In the business, a facade of humility is considered the appropriate response to success. “People use humility as a self-glorification technique,” says Toback. “The people who survive in the media are those who are congenitally innocuous, who say nothing but seem to be saying something.”

Like success, publicity can become a runaway train. For Simpson, it jumped the tracks early. In 1985, journalist Lynn Hirschberg wrote an aggressive Esquire profile of the producers, focusing almost entirely on Simpson, implying that he was under the weather most of the time. He denies he was taking any illegal substances. In the article, which appeared just after the surprise performance of “Beverly Hills Cop,” it was clear that Simpson reveled in the attention and power that accompanied a “hot” producer. To anyone who knew him, Simpson’s quotes were deliberately provocative and naughty, typical bad boy stuff. To everyone else, the irony didn’t play in black and white. He came off sounding like Dr. Strangelove Goes to Hollywood. The profile has since become a prototype of Hollywood babble-on stories about sleazy industry types. And it devastated him, Simpson claims, though he’s never before said this for publication.

“It has been the bane of my existence,” he moans ruefully, shaking his head like a disappointed father. “She (Hirschberg) put words in my mouth. She made up quotes and managed to mark me for life. She’s a sad person.”

“That’s patently absurd,” responds Hirschberg. “The interviews were taped. And I wrote what I saw and heard.”

Simpson’s not the first Hollywood personality to believe that the media should draw a line between public and private lives. It’s not as if I’m running for public office, celebrities often protest. “Oh, but they are,” says Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg. “They’re just not running for elective office. The Hollywood hierarchy is the equivalent of the royal family and suffers the same slings and arrows. It comes with the territory. You’d think after all these years Don would let it run off his back. But it (the publicity) genuinely humiliates him.”

The Simpson legend has taken on a life of its own. When the former receptionist, Monica Harmon, sued for wrongful dismissal and emotional distress, it somehow came to be perceived in the media as a sexual harassment suit. The case was thrown out of court and later, Paramount bought up Harmon’s right to appeal for a mere $2,500, according to the producers’ legal representative, Bertram Fields. Earlier this year, a personals ad in Los Angeles magazine, “Wealthy Hollywood Bad Boy,” was a ringer for Simpson. “Ain’t me, babe,” he asserts. “But it sure sounds like me. For better or worse, I ain’t yet at a place in my life where I’m going to take out ads in newspapers to meet members of the distaff gender. My dance card’s pretty full.”

And what about all the plastic surgery he’s alleged to have undergone?

His 44-year-old tanned visage is buffed and wrinkle free. Yet, he says, he’s never had a nip or tuck, adding with a mischievous grin, “but I will. I see nothing wrong with striving to look as good as you can.”

Sex. Drugs. Alcohol. In excess. All have been associated with Simpson. “I am a child of my times,” he declares. “There’s very little I haven’t done. And I’m sorry for none of it.”

“Don has a life outside the movie business,” says Geffen. “And he’s allowed to do what he wants. We like these characters. We like them to exist. And then we shit on them.”

“They’re not shy. There are people they’d be happy to have as enemies. They’re careful who they do business with.” --MARK CANTON, CHAIRMAN, COLUMBIA PICTURES

The summer of 1990 was the worst of summers. The industry was buffeted by the recession. The cost of movie production was up; attendance was down. Paramount had pinned its hopes on two releases, “Another 48 Hours,” starring Murphy, and Cruise’s “Days of Thunder.”

“Days” was brought to Simpson/Bruckheimer by senior studio consultant Ned Tanen, who had developed it with Cruise. The producers threw out an early draft and, sensing a shift in the audience’s mood toward meatier material, sought a less roseate approach. They brought in Oscar-winning “Chinatown” writer Robert Towne.

In most cases, the making of the film is far more interesting than the finished product. In the case of “Days,” it took on shades of “Rashomon.”

“We started with a release date, a budget and a script,” says then-Paramount chairman Mancuso. Towne says there was no finished script when shooting began in January, 1990. Simpson and Bruckheimer insist that there was no fixed budget. But everyone agrees there was a release date. About 45 days into the shoot, Mancuso phoned the producers and groused that the film was going over budget. What budget? Simpson protested. “It was made without a commitment to a number. It was always ballpark,” he says. Mancuso insists that the only budgetary variances were from content changes due to rewrites. “I’ll be the first to acknowledge that Frank lost his temper and I lost my temper,” says Simpson.

“The way ‘Days of Thunder’ came together was unfortunate,” says a former Paramount executive. “It was an unrealistic schedule and resulted in tremendous overages which didn’t impact Don and Jerry” because no matter how far over budget the film went, the producers (and Cruise) would collect their profit percentage. “They needed to produce a substantial amount of product (to justify the costs), and it was clear the promise was not being fulfilled,” he says.

After the wound came the salt. The producers say they asked Mancuso for a “very substantial bonus” for Towne, who worked through production. They were stonewalled. So they paid him out of their own pockets.

“Frank never forgave me for that,” says Simpson, who speaks warmly of Mancuso despite their past differences. “His position was that I hurt him in the eyes of the artist. He and Robert were great friends. I did hurt him, but not intentionally. I wish he had paid the bonus.”

But a bemused Mancuso has no recollection of the bonus. “I never had a conversation with them about it,” he says.

More salt. And then vinegar. Bruckheimer asked to hire a book scout in New York, at a cost of about $250,000 per year. The studio agreed, he insists. A former senior Paramount executive maintains that there was no agreement and no need for them to have an East Coast office. “I got a call a week later and was told we couldn’t have that office,” says Bruckheimer. He was so upset that he asked the studio to let them out of their deal, he says.

It all finally came apart when the film arrived in June, costing $62 million, without advertising, about $12 million more than what the studio claims was the original budget. Mancuso reportedly demanded a $9-million refund from the producers’ percentage of the box office. The producers put their pugnacious lawyer, Jake Bloom, on the case to get them out of their contract. The studio was leaning toward letting them go, but decided initially to play hardball, rebuffing Bloom and adding, “We’re going to make their lives difficult,” according to Simpson.

“Ludicrous,” responds the former senior executive.

“Don and Jerry shut down their communication,” the former executive says. “If they’d come in excited with another project. . . . But they were devastated that ‘Days’ didn’t do as well as everyone hoped and we saw a period of several years of non-productivity. The relationship had run out of juice.”

By the end of 1990, the visionary alliance was history.

“I am extremely candid. And much of that is a product of having, for the first 15 years of my life, been put in a box and nailed shut. “ --DON SIMPSON “I grew up in a house where you could touch the walls if you stretched your arms across. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a bigger house or a nice car. Why work this hard and not realize another part of your dream?” --JERRY BRUCKHEIMER

Jerry Bruckheimer walks into Art’s Deli on Ventura Boulevard wearing a charcoal gray crepe trench coat and a cordial smile. He slides onto the bright orange banquette, and the sight of a tape recorder on the table causes his Adam’s apple to involuntarily wriggle. The smile is gone and doesn’t return until the tape recorder is clicked off.

It calls to mind something a top agent said about him: “The nature of Jerry’s personality is not to be known.” When he’s with Simpson, he usually lets his partner speak, occasionally clarifying a point. It’s a great way to deflect heat-seeking missiles.

Bruckheimer says an agent recently asked him how he has been able to sustain his working relationship with Simpson. It wasn’t the first time the question had been posed. Lately he’s been hearing it more and more. “People have tried to split us up,” says Bruckheimer. “But I’m a loyal guy and so is he. There’s a real camaraderie and love between us.”

They’d been roommates when Bruckheimer was a producer on the rise and Simpson was out of work after a stint in promotions at Warner Bros. in the early ‘70s. Every night, when Bruckheimer came home from work, Simpson pestered him for details about his day, hungry for information about the business. Bruckheimer loaned Simpson his sports coat for his job interview at Paramount. And after Simpson rose through the ranks--from Eisner’s assistant to head of production--Bruckheimer produced pictures like “American Gigolo” and “Cat People” there.

Simpson and Bruckheimer form an enviable complement. As was once said of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, “she gave him sex appeal, he gave her class,” Simpson elevated Bruckheimer from the ranks of producers who competently run the nuts and bolts of filmmaking to one who creates films from the ground up. He gave him class.

“Don gave Jerry a larger destiny,” says one longtime colleague. “Jerry’s identity is with Don, as part of a legend that can come back. Otherwise, he’s a very rich producer for hire. And there’s no pride in that.”

In turn, Bruckheimer is the gray in Simpson’s black and white world. To Don, you’re either devil or angel, friend or foe, what producer Lynda Obst calls a sense of “Manichaean good and evil.”

Simpson was raised in Juneau, Alaska, by strict Baptist parents and attended church four or five times a week. By the age of 12 he’d memorized long passages from the Bible. But when puberty hit, he railed against his strictures and the Scriptures. “The environment I grew up in was a more sedate form of the wacko from Waco. I do not take well to orders or being told what to do,” he says as both a statement of fact and a challenge.

That anger informs his life. At times when his more sanguine energies are focused, Simpson can be compelling. He’s a voracious reader and a facile raconteur. But the California-casual denim duds and the air of unflappability cannot distract from his hands clasped tightly in his lap like an impatient schoolboy’s, the way his cool eyes often sit in judgment, giving him the stern paternalistic mien of a preacher. It’s almost as if he’s afraid to relax--even in this cozy corner of the hotel bar--that if he lets his guard down for a moment, his dark side will surface. And there’ll be hell to pay.

“You can’t separate a man’s demons from his better angels,” explains Towne. “Don’s stuck with both. We all are.”

Bruckheimer, 47, the son of Jewish immigrants, recalls his youth as a happy one in an extended clan in Detroit. Bruckheimer has worked steadily since he was 9 and almost went into his family’s meat-supply business. He chose advertising instead, his sole act of rebellion. While he is amiable and often gracious, there’s a tentative quality to Bruckheimer. He studies situations cautiously before venturing an opinion, like someone who has ventured into a party on another person’s invitation and is on his best behavior.

Whereas Simpson claims his dance card is full, Bruckheimer has one waltzing partner, Mirabella editor Linda Bruckheimer, with whom he’s lived for 16 years and whom he married over Easter weekend this year. They have a daughter from Linda’s first marriage and mutual passions--hockey and the opera. When they’re together, there’s a synchronous hum between them that can come only from years spent learning each other’s breathing patterns.

“I’m extremely happy that Jerry and Linda are together and at times envious because she’s so extraordinary on every level,” says Simpson. “I’ve never been with someone who (I thought) would be my soul mate forever. I knew from the time I was 12 I wanted to be involved in motion pictures. And I was willing to sacrifice a number of things to make it happen. Now I have to deal with the sacrifices I’ve made. That’s show biz.”

With Simpson, what you see is what you get. Bruckheimer is “lightning in a bottle,” Towne says. “If you have difficulty with him, there’s a real problem because he’s non-confrontational. He has an iron will. Nobody outlasts him. And Don knows it.”

Those contrasts are precisely what feed the relationship, says Toback, one of the writers of “Bad Boys.” “They do a good stand-up routine when they work. The sessions are hilarious--great timing, facial expression and lines.”

Even as un-Hollywood-friendly a writer as John Gregory Dunne, author of the wonderfully vitriolic “The Studio,” contends “they’re as good as anyone I’ve ever worked for. Jerry has an overview and Don is enormously detailed, and his notes are almost always on the money. He always knows the soft part of a scene.”

“I don’t know if it’s paralysis, but there’s definitely some intense perfectionism going on with them. I really think their next movie will be an enormous hit, and we’ll all have to wear the damn jackets.”


Great success in Hollywood can feel like failure. Producer David O. Selznick anguished his entire life over his inability to top “Gone With the Wind.” Similarly, industry insiders say, Simpson and Bruckheimer are suffering from the top-this mentality. Perhaps, jokes Linson, they’re getting lazy sitting on their laurels and are “scared to pull the trigger.”

“If I was in their shoes I would be thinking how are we going to reinvent ourselves for the next 10 years,” says director Michael Mann. “They’re the authors of their own future. They don’t have to cave in to other people’s expectations.”

“The easiest thing for them to develop would be endless genre movies,” says Lucas Foster, head of Simpson and Bruckheimer’s production company. “They could do that and have a couple of sophisticated versions of what they’ve done. But they’re in a more luxurious position and can vote their conscience on some level.”

“I could make another ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ right now,” Simpson says. “But I’ve gotten politicized in my 40s. I’m trying to make a movie about something .” Among other things, he is exploring “hard-edged” and “controversial” themes, about “smart women and the sexual politics of the ‘90s.”

“I’m trying. I’m trying to grow up,” Simpson says. “Like all quasi-human beings, we change.” In the ‘80s, he told a reporter that money gives you freedom. The more money, the more freedom. In the ‘90s, he amends that: “Money gives you the freedom to find out how much pain you’re in.”

Active producers today have found it wise to be more eclectic. For every “Addams Family,” producer Scott Rudin develops more personal dramas such as “Regarding Henry.” And Linson, who produced the flashy “Point of No Return,” was responsible for the darkly comic “This Boy’s Life.” Indeed, Disney has become attentive to the need to have more variety in the marketplace as its recent acquisition of Miramax Films (“Crying Game”) and its production deal with Merchant Ivory Productions (“Howards End”) demonstrate.

Simpson and Bruckheimer’s upcoming projects mirror the audience’s and their own tastes. The stories still reflect their loner-against-the-world ethos, but also contain serious social underpinnings--the problems of the inner city, governmental corruption, dysfunctional families. And many of them pit an innocent against a hostile environment in a world much darker than that of the sun-suffused “Beverly Hills Cop.”

Simpson and Bruckheimer are courting top screenwriting talents like Towne, Toback, Dunne and Joan Didion. In fact, they’re working on a script by Dunne and Didion, “Zone of Silence,” about the government’s research into UFOs, “not because I’ve been abducted or seen one,” Simpson says jokingly. “I don’t want it to be another Spielberg. That’s why we hired John and Joan.” The film, which Simpson describes as a cross between “All the President’s Men” and “Z,” is expected to be made next year.

Simpson and Bruckheimer are also planning their tandem directing debut on Towne’s FBI corruption tale, “Witness to the Truth,” for Disney.

The producers make no attempt to conceal their frustration at how slow the development process is but Simpson adds that “it comes from the sorts of pictures we want to make which aren’t from a conceptual base, but a thematic and character base.” Disney is also stymied because “the development process has not produced a script that anyone could be excited about,” says Ricardo Mestres, president of Hollywood Pictures, the Disney division at which Simpson/Bruckheimer made their deal.

The project that came closest to realization was “Bad Boys.” “I don’t see us as paralyzed by our success, but having ‘Bad Boys’ fall through hurt us badly,” says Simpson. The project was a go, with pay-or-play deals for Carvey ($2 million) and Jon Lovitz ($750,000). After nearly six months of intensive rewriting, it fell apart. Carvey waived his fee for a better offer at MGM (reportedly $3 million) to do the comedy “Clean Slate.” Lovitz was paid in full.

Disney dropped the project. “Without the Carvey-Lovitz pairing, the film is not unique, it’s too ordinary,” says Katzenberg. The producers disagree. They’re recasting and trying to set it up at another studio. “I wish them luck,” Katzenberg says. “I live for the day someone writes us a check.”

The “Bad Boys” breakdown also created flurries that the Disney deal is in trouble, especially since Katzenberg and company are not exactly considered a haven for independent-minded producers. “Disney is the producer slayer,” says a producer who has worked there, “an entrepreneurial animal that devours. They’ve attracted Don and Jerry and Dawn Steel and (former Fox head) Joe Roth but they can’t accommodate them.”

To allay those perceptions, Simpson and Bruckheimer asked to work on “The Ref,” a comedy starring Judy Davis and Dennis Leary as a burglar who winds up as a mediator in a dysfunctional family he’s taken hostage. “It’s about marriage and its sickness and what it takes to tell the truth in marriage,” Simpson says.

The pair asked to work on the project “because they are our friends and we have a sense of responsibility to them, they should be paid back,” Simpson says of Mestres and Katzenberg. Others say putting them on “The Ref,” which starts filming this month, is Katzenberg’s way of saving face, that the deal hasn’t been canceled yet because his ego is on the line. “OK,” laughs Katzenberg. “I’m a good victim to silly potshots. If that fulfills somebody’s wish fulfillment, it’s all right with me.”

Mestres and Katzenberg, in exactly the same words, reiterate their commitment to the producers. Still, Simpson and Bruckheimer know full well that Disney’s resolve might waiver. “They could say, ‘Guess what, we’ve got X dollars in you guys and no return on it,’ ” says Bruckheimer. “ ‘We want to stop the deal now.’ We would feel badly about it, but we would pack our bags.”

And go where?

“It depends on the configuration of the business at the time,” Simpson says. “It’s so different now than when we made our deal at Disney and so different from when we made our deal at Paramount.”

Columbia chairman Mark Canton agrees. “The ‘90s are different from the ‘80s and I don’t know if it would be fiscally prudent to have them. We’d only be in business with them if they could fit into an existing company that already has powerhouse producers.”

But shed no tears for the bad boys, says the obdurate Simpson. “We’re not going to run out of money, and we’re not going to ever need a job. If people are waiting for us to fall down and beg, it ain’t going to happen. Sorry, folks.”

Simpson and Bruckheimer will produce again, says Towne, because, despite all his money, Simpson is still hungry for respect. With his insatiable drive and ambition, Simpson will finally get what he wants, Towne says--but only “if he makes a good movie and gets good press and keeps his mouth closed long enough for someone else to call it a good movie instead of him.”