Stephen W. Ammerman had already made it. He was a doctor, a person who saved lives in emergency rooms, an inventor, a business owner. But he wanted something else and he would risk his life to get it.
If his dreams had come true, he would have become a successful Hollywood filmmaker--powerful, respected, earning millions. Instead, Steve Ammerman's life and long quest for success as a movie maker came to an abrupt end two months ago in the pool house shower at prominent film producer Don Simpson's Bel-Air home. An assistant to Simpson found Ammerman dead of a drug overdose on the morning of Aug. 15.
Ammerman, who had been a frequent guest at Simpson's home during the last month of his life, had hoped that Simpson, who produced "Top Gun" and "Crimson Tide" among other films, would give him his big break. Ammerman's medical degree became his calling card at the home of the producer. While Simpson advised him about scripts, he gave Simpson medical advice.
Throughout its history Hollywood has intoxicated its pilgrims. A few make it, most don't, and some, like Ammerman, die trying. Even so, the 44-year-old Ammerman stood out among the fallen and the failed.
A doctor and businessman who once ran the emergency room at the Beverly Hills Medical Center among other places, Ammerman was energetic, obsessed and indefatigably ambitious. He took acting classes and screenwriting classes, wrote two scripts and spent thousands of dollars filming parts of the one closest to his heart.
In that movie, which he and his co-writer had tentatively titled "The Legend of Kodiak," the great Kodiak bear is reborn in a man. It somehow brought everything together for Ammerman--his love of the wilderness from his Idaho upbringing, his grand sense of his new vocation, even his own bear-like gregariousness.
As he struggled for recognition, Ammerman brought along his demons--an addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol that dogged him for years. He checked into rehabilitation facilities twice and stayed clean for five years. Confident of his ability to fight his own battle, he even fashioned himself into something of an expert on drugs, friends say.
But in the months before his death, he had begun to slip again. In April, Santa Monica police arrested Ammerman after finding him in a drug-induced trance, standing naked on the ninth-floor ledge of an oceanfront apartment building.
Ammerman's closest friend worried that his drive to succeed in Hollywood would be too much for a man wrestling with drug demons.
"I said, 'This is not a good situation, you're too weak for this,' " Dr. Randy Capri, a dermatologist and medical school classmate of Ammerman's, warned his friend. "He just said, '. . . It's going to work.' "
What happened at Simpson's house in the hours leading up to Ammerman's death remains a mystery. The autopsy found a medicine cabinet of drugs in Ammerman's system--cocaine, morphine, Valium and the antidepressant drug Venlafaxine. Ammerman died of multiple drug intoxication, according to toxicology reports.
The homicide detective who went to the scene determined it wasn't a murder and investigated no further. None of the people at the house the night before Ammerman's body was found--including Simpson, his assistants, another doctor and Ammerman's girlfriend--will talk about what happened in the hours before his death.
Simpson has yet to make any public comment on the man he described to police as his "friend and doctor." Neither did he attend Ammerman's small, private memorial service on a Hidden Valley ranch.
"Mr. Simpson's official statement about Mr. Ammerman's death was that it was a tragedy and he's not going to comment further," Simpson's attorney, Robert Chapman, said. "I wish you would just leave it alone."
Steve Ammerman was adept at reinventing himself. At Washington State, when a knee injury sidelined the former high school football star from Sandpoint, Ida., Ammerman said goodby to football dreams and lackluster grades. He transferred to the University of Oregon, turned himself into a high achiever and was admitted to medical school at the Oregon Health Sciences University.
A marriage came and went by the time he graduated from medical school in 1978. His son, John, now 19, lived with his mother in Idaho but sometimes visited his father in Los Angeles.
Ammerman pursued a residency in orthopedics in Washington, but tired of that and moved to Los Angeles 12 years ago to practice emergency medicine. "He liked the challenge of all the different cases," Capri recalled. "He was very good at trauma."
And he was good at business. He started a company that contracted doctors out to emergency rooms and he created a billing service for hospital emergency rooms. Operating out of an office in Paramount, Ammerman's firm provided emergency room services to the Beverly Hills Medical Center, the Santa Ana-based Coastal Community Hospital and the El Monte Community Hospital, among others.
But the lure of Hollywood was irresistible. If he saw a location shooting as he and Capri drove around, he would often stop the car and strike up a conversation with crew members. He set out to make himself into a filmmaker--even as he maintained his prosperous medical career.
And he struggled to look the part. Always interested in bodybuilding and health food diets, he continued his search for self-perfection with liposuction and, less than two weeks before his death, a hair transplant.
He had a natural ease that he used to ingratiate himself. "He sought out certain people he thought would help him," Capri said.
Simpson was one of those people. Ammerman met the producer at a Santa Monica gym more than five years ago.
At the time of his death, Ammerman had two scripts that he had been working on. "Playing God" was a drama about a young doctor set in a hospital. But it was the other one, "The Legend of Kodiak" that obsessed him.
"It's Bambi meets Rambo," said Jan Fulin, a square-jawed, Czech-born actor and karate champion who became Ammerman's co-writer as well as his star. When a Kodiak bear is killed by poachers, his spirit is reborn in a man. Fulin would play that part.
Ammerman didn't just write it, he hired an entire crew--from cinematographer to makeup artist--to go out and begin filming it more than a year ago. Ammerman set aside his medical work to concentrate on that film, traversing the Northwest from Alaska to Utah to Montana last year to capture footage he wanted.
Fulin remembers a shoot on Kodiak Island in which Ammerman directed his star to dive into the cold ocean water with a live salmon in his mouth, surface and shake his head--just like a bear. The actor hesitated--"I hate fish"--so Ammerman, in a bravura turn worthy of the director he wanted to become, did it himself.
"He grabbed the fish, put it in his mouth, dove in in his jeans, and came up and shook his head," Fulin recalled. "I thought if he can do it, I can do it."
The Kodiak bear film would be Ammerman's signature epic and his money machine. He had formulated ways to make tie-ins with videos, vitamins and a soundtrack.
"It was going to make a billion dollars," said Ammerman's assistant Robert Kyncl, a friend of Fulin from Prague whom Ammerman hired this spring.
Friends watched as Ammerman's mind spun out ideas the way a kaleidoscope creates images--whether they were screenplays or multiple medical inventions ranging from spinal injury stabilization devices to one-handed syringes. His inventions have been analyzed in medical journals and sparked interest from several firms, including Johnson & Johnson and Zimmer Inc. Although none have been manufactured yet, Anaheim-based Medical Systems International is pursuing the development of the Ammerman Halo, a device that stabilizes the spine.
"Steve was a real shooting star," said Louis Pontarelli, who hired Ammerman to run the emergency room at the Beverly Hills Medical Center and called him "an innovative inventor and brilliant creative problem solver in the trauma unit."
But he couldn't solve his own drug problem. His tools of abuse were prescription drugs--"amphetamines and anxiety drugs like Xanax," said Capri, who watched Ammerman's problem grow from seemingly casual use in medical school to problematic use in the mid-'80s.
"1984 or '85 was when we first faced the problem," said Ammerman's father, Dick, a retired banker who lives on the road in a 38-foot trailer. "I've asked him: 'Why do you do this?' He said he didn't know. I said, 'Well, call me.' He never did. I said that for years. I said, 'If you feel the itch, call me.' "
To those who watched him in periods of drug-fueled disintegration, he was "a super-charged engine that doesn't go anywhere," as physician assistant Chuck Nemejc put it.
Nemejc said he never saw Ammerman under the influence of drugs while working as a physician, but he was appalled by the way Ammerman stumbled through the rest of his life. Nemejc describes him as disorganized, inefficient and paranoid about the people around him.
Ammerman went into rehabilitation twice and even enrolled in a state-run drug diversion program geared to helping medical doctors with substance abuse problems stay drug-free and keep their licenses.
But in recent months, he had begun to slip.
In April, Ammerman was arrested by the Santa Monica police when he crawled naked onto the ninth-floor ledge of the apartment building where he was renting. Neighbors told police that Ammerman was jumping up and down and yelling, and leaped onto their balcony, pounding on the walls and screen door of their apartment.
Capri noticed other changes. "I heard him on the phone once when he sounded like he had been on Xanax and he admitted he was using it . . . which was a violation of his diversion program," Capri said.
But Ammerman ducked Capri's admonishments and persevered with his Hollywood dream. Running low on money, he went back to working part time as an emergency room doctor.
Simpson politely backed away from Ammerman's Kodiak bear script. "He told Steve the script is good, it needs this and that, and once you make these changes, send it out to Disney, it's their kind of movie," Kyncl said.
But Ammerman told his friends that Simpson was interested in "Playing God" and wanted to see the script.
Ammerman was at Simpson's house almost daily during the last three weeks of his life. Ammerman told friends he was acting as Simpson's doctor. His screenwriting collaborators say that Simpson, meanwhile, was advising the fledgling filmmaker.
A registered nurse and other medical technicians were also seen regularly at Simpson's house, sources said. Those sources also observed Dr. Nomi Fredrick, a West Los Angeles physician and psycho-pharmacologist. Neither Fredrick nor any of the others would speak with The Times.
According to government sources, records indicate that Ammerman prescribed dextroamphetamine in 1990 and morphine in 1993 for Simpson.
Anthony Pellicano, a private investigator who has worked for the film producer since 1989, acknowledged that Ammerman was often at Simpson's house during July and August, but denied that Ammerman ever treated Simpson.
"Ammerman was never Don's doctor," Pellicano said. "There was no medical treatment going on for drugs or for anything else . . . Ammerman was a hanger-on, one of many who just wouldn't leave Don alone. It's unfortunate that this guy committed suicide, but honestly, we wish it would've happened at someone else's house."
Simpson's personal life has been awash in stories of partying in the Hollywood fast lane. His lifestyle is believed to have caused friction over the years with his longtime business partner, Jerry Bruckheimer. The duo have ranked among Hollywood's top producers with three hit movies this year alone--"Bad Boys," "Crimson Tide" and "Dangerous Minds."
Ammerman's father was stunned when he learned that his son's body was found Aug. 15 in the shower of Simpson's pool house.
"He had been working real hard for the past three or four months to get clean," said his father, who last saw Ammerman at John's graduation from high school in Boise in June. "He'd been doing a lot of running and going to AA and he'd found a new girl he truly liked."
He said Ammerman had fallen in love with a 35-year-old flight attendant he met at a Starbucks in Pacific Palisades. According to friends, they were inseparable until the night Ammerman died.
"I wouldn't get tangled with Hollywood for all the tea in China," his father said. "I think that's the screwiest place in the world. I could never understand his infatuation with all that stuff."